8.3.10 Reflections

Similar to spacecraft launching on missions and ships setting sail on voyages, an armada of land-based research vehicles embarked on a historic expedition to study tornadoes in the Great Plains during the past two years.

The project was called the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2009-2010 (VORTEX2). More than a hundred researchers and students were attempting to cast a net of weather instruments around and under a supercell thunderstorm with the hope of catching a tornado as it formed.

Like space and the sea, much of the atmosphere remains a mystery. A thunderstorm is a massive monster climbing miles into the sky and stretching hundreds of miles across the land. How does such a thing begin to rotate? What causes the beast to concentrate its energy into a spinning funnel? What then draws it to the ground to destroy? When will it shrink back into the depths of the sky?

If we could find clues to the answers to these questions, could we make our tornado warnings more accurate? Could we be more specific in our alerts? Could we find something that would enable forecasters to generate warnings 30 minutes or more in advance? These questions are what drive researchers to solve the mystery of tornadoes.

The nomadic fleet included 10 mobile radars, a remote control aircraft, weather balloons, instrumented vehicles, and vehicles equipped to drop instruments in the path of the storm. VORTEX2 roamed across nine states during five weeks of spring 2009 and six weeks of 2010. The pace was grueling as teams drove an average of 500 miles a day in search of tornadoes. Over the two-year project, most vehicles logged over 25,000 miles.

But VORTEX2 did have to sleep.

It was a challenge to find a town with enough empty hotel rooms to host the crowd of up to 150 researchers and students that would stumble in late at night. “We usually got in to the rooms so late that we barely had time to eat before we needed to get some sleep,” recalls Sean Waugh, a student from the University of Oklahoma who works at NSSL. Waugh drove a minivan with instruments on the roof measuring the storm. He was also one of the ‘go-to’ fix-it guys and was adept at using duct tape. “I was constantly fixing various vehicles, so after a hard-days drive there was still more work to be done. We kept going though, knowing how important our mission was to the success of the project.”

VORTEX2 rarely spent more than one night in a town, relieving the strain on small hotels to position for the next day’s target storm. The crews would depart after the morning weather briefing to be ready to deploy at the honk of a mobile radar horn.

Being on alert at all times made eating a challenge. Fast food was often the only meal of the day as the chance for a “sit-down” meal was rare. It was estimated over 5,000 Subway sandwiches were consumed during the two-year project, while the numbers of tacos, burgers and ice cream cones remain unknown.

VORTEX2 teams have been home for over a month now, catching up on bills and yard work. Finally, there is time to reflect on the data collection phase of the project.

“Last year, we only got one, but the one we got was a very good one – a significant tornado,” said Don Burgess, a retired NOAA research meteorologist who works part-time with the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies in Norman, Okla.

“We encountered quite a number of smaller, short-lived tornadoes this year,” continued Burgess, also a VORTEX2 Steering Committee member.

“These are the most prevalent type of tornadic activity,” explained Lou Wicker, NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory researcher and VORTEX2 Steering Committee member along with Burgess. “And they are the most difficult to forecast, detect and warn for by the National Weather Service.”

VORTEX2 researchers gathered data on at least 30 rotating thunderstorms (supercells), and 20 weak or short-lived tornadoes in 2010.

Analysis of the vast amounts of data now begins. “We’ll be looking at this data for five to 10 years,” Wicker said. “Two years from now we’re going to have a much better feel for what we’re going to learn out of this.”