Somewhere in the 100- to 200-square-mile swirling mass of atmosphere that forms a supercell storm are cantankerous streams of air that scientists believe could cause a storm spins out a tornado.
Scientists believe what they are looking for could be “small” for a low mileage of the storm’s 10- to 15-mile height – the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Those regions of the storm may be sharp or barely colder than the air around it, or may be where the wind shifts abruptly. (Keep in mind that storm systems are chaotic, with winds spinning vertically and horizontally, and temperature and moisture content vary widely.)
Scientists aren’t sure why one storm generates a tornado and another doesn’t. The only way to get out is to carry a storm with as much weather-sensing equipment as possible – a costly, time-consuming effort that involves a small degree of luck.
That has been the catalyst for a $ 3.2 million federally funded field study led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dubbed TORUS, for Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS (drones) of Supercells, the study includes about 50 researchers from the federal government and academia.
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Their nomadic work takes them wherever the storms are breaking across the 367,000 square miles of the Great Plains, from North Dakota to Texas and from Iowa to Wyoming and Colorado.
Recently, weather researchers chased super cell storms across Nebraska.
“The main objective of TORUS is to understand super cell thunderstorms, the ones that produce the greatest hail, the strongest tornadoes,” said Adam Houston, the lead investigator and a professor of atmospheric sciences at UNL. “To better predict tornadoes, we need to understand them. Hopefully, this will protect the lives and accuracy of the property.
The effort utilizes the array of equipment, including eight trucks equipped with weather-sensing equipment, with some deploying radar and others, LIDAR (pulses of light), drones, and NOAA hurricane airplane and weather balloons.
In spring 2019, the field study deployed drones and was the most ambitious drone-based study of storms affected to date, according to UNL. Teams traveled 9,000 miles across five states this summer during that field study, according to UNL.
This year, in place of drones, it is using party-sized helium balloons that send aloft Styrofoam cups containing small weather sensors.
Funding comes from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Mike Coniglio, meteorologist with the NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory can see.
“The features we are looking for are difficult to observe,” he said.
Once scientists learn what triggers a tornado, they will hunt for proxies in the larger environment of the storm that will enable them to make forecasts. Proxies are needed, he said, because meteorologists can’t chase and monitor every single storm in such a fine detail.
The Great Plains are the ideal place to study tornadoes because the open horizon allows scientists to see greater distances, which means they are safer while storm chasing. Data collected from these studies is run through supercomputers for analysis.
Findings from the 2019 field surveys are expected soon, while results from this research will be released in a couple of years.
The general science of understanding has moved beyond its infancy, “but we certainly have a lot more detail to learn about what happens inside these stories.”