Storm-hunting scientists unravel the sky’s greatest mystery

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In the United States, nothing is more mesmerizing and scary than a tornado.
Mythologized in Hollywood movies and increasingly on social media, the funnel-shaped “whirlwinds” helped spawn several generations of meteorologists and storm chasers.
But this natural phenomenon remains a mystery that scientists have yet to fully explain.

Although tornadoes are known to develop due to a special type of thunderstorm called a supercell storm, the exact causes of tornadoes are still not fully understood.

A man shows the crowd how to use a wind probe.

Research scientist Sean Waugh instructs the TORUS team on how to use wind probes.

Now a team of scientists looking for tornadoes must uncover the secrets of the sky’s greatest mystery by getting closer to the storms that cause them.

“What we hope to do is better understand the supercell (storm), understand this cascade of processes that lead to the emergence of a tornado, and then use this understanding and apply it in the forecasting process,” Dr. Adam Houston, one of the lead researchers on the project, told SBS Dateline.
“Right now, we might have a sequence of supercells lined up in a certain area and we don’t know which one will become a tornado.”

“We want to know in 30 minutes or in an hour which of these storms will become a hurricane, because that’s the time it takes for people to take shelter.”

More than a thousand tornadoes hit the United States each year, causing over a billion dollars in damage. As such, the US government invested heavily in the team’s research.
More than 50 weather researchers working at the forefront of tornado climatology are participating in the project, including teams from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Severe Storms Laboratory, meteorologists from several universities, and their students.
Under tow is a state-of-the-art fleet of over 20 vehicles, including mobile radars, a P3 aircraft called the Hurricane Hunter, and eight mobile weather stations known as maisonettes.

Together, the team must spend a month chasing storms in the US Central Great Plains. It is an area spanning almost a million square kilometers, and they can travel anywhere from North Dakota to Texas and Wyoming to Iowa, sometimes crossing several states in a single day.

A young man stands at the front of the car.

Member of the TORUS team on assignment.

Once in a storm, the TORUS team (TORUS stands for Targeted Observation by Radar and UAS – unmanned aerial systems – supercells) must get as close as possible.

All of them must work together in a well-chosen dance in deadly conditions to collect data from multiple points in the storm, such as wind speed, barometric pressure and temperature, as well as radar observations.
“So [the teams] move, and they work independently of each other, so they can use their information together to form a kind of holistic picture of what is happening in the storm environment and how it changes as we continue to influence the storm,” says Sean Waugh, one of the group’s research scientists, has been studying tornadoes for 12 years.

“So, for example, the radar track will stay a little farther. This gives us a larger picture of what is happening. But [mesonets]their job is to get a little closer and, you know, more personal with the storm.”

The tornado can be seen from inside the car.

The TORUS team in action watching a tornado-supercell storm.

By operating the mobile mesonet, his job is to measure the area near the tornado’s origin.

“We definitely get up close and personal to things. Many times this means driving in and out of the hail core, heavy rain. So you have to constantly stay on the road, in traffic, in weather conditions and that kind of thing. It’s a very complex moving picture and my job is to keep the car and passengers safe.”
Further complicating the work of the TORUS team is the fact that the behavior of tornadoes in the United States is changing.

March to June each year is usually tornado season. They occur most often in the Central Plains states, giving it the nickname “Tornado Alley”, and are most common between 4:00 pm and 9:00 pm.

We want to know in 30 minutes or in an hour which of these storms will become a hurricane, because that’s the time it takes people to take shelter.

Dr. Adam Houston

But in recent years, the intensity and location of tornadoes have become increasingly unusual and increasingly difficult to predict.
“The biggest thing we’ve seen is an increase in occurrence variability,” says Dr. Harold Brooks, senior scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma.
“The number of days with 30 or more (tornadoes) has decreased from one day every two years to about two and a half to three days a year.”

Tornadoes originating east of the Central Plains, in more densely populated areas such as Kentucky, have also increased by about 10 percent, Dr. Brooks said.

A gas station with a thundercloud gathering over it.

Tornadoes occur most frequently in the Central Plains states, giving it the nickname “Tornado Alley”.

“The biggest reason we care about growth in the southeastern United States is because it has to do with population,” he says.

“The population density, especially in the rural areas of the southeast, is much higher than in the Great Plains.
“As a result, you launch a tornado through the southeast, it is almost guaranteed to hit houses and people, whereas in the plains you can have a tornado on the ground for a long time and it just won’t hit people. ”
Last December, the city of Mayfield, Kentucky, was devastated by an almost mile-wide EF4 tornado.
He lay on the ground for more than 300 kilometers. Passing through five states, it destroyed more than 15,000 buildings and claimed the lives of 88 people, more than the average annual death toll in just one day.

The strength, path, and duration of the tornado that hit Mayfield was unusual. Even more unusual is that it happened at night, in the middle of winter.

An aerial view of the city of Mayfield showing the destruction of homes and structures.

The city of Mayfield in Kentucky was destroyed by a tornado in December 2021.

While the exact role of climate change in this behavior is not yet known, it is the devastation left by a tornado like the one that hit Mayfield that helps fuel the work of the TORUS team.

Currently, the average tornado warning time is only 9-15 minutes.
By uncovering the powerful storm’s hidden makeup and potential causes of tornadoes, the TORUS team hopes to improve tornado forecasts and ultimately save lives.
Dr. Houston says a multifaceted approach will be taken.

“You must attack him with a better understanding. You must attack him from the best observation. You have to attack it with a better numerical weather forecast, and all of these things fit into this broader forecasting process to try and improve that lead time.”