See the companion gallery on tornado research.


Unfortunately, we’ve had an early introduction to tornado season in 2009. While some people chase storms for the thrill, others pursue them with science, namely researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), and the University of Oklahoma.

One major project team, VORTEX (Verification of the Origin of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment) — led by Erik Rasmussen of NSSL — conducted ground-breaking research on tornadoes in 1994-1995. The basic question: why do some storms form tornadoes, while others don’t? One subject was the Dimmitt, TX tornado, still regarded as the most comprehensively studied tornado ever; researchers are still analyzing the data collected then. VORTEX depended on a whole spectrum of equipment: “turtles,” which are small, aerodynamic instrument packages designed to withstand tornado wind speeds while measuring temperature, pressure and humidity at ground level; radar-equipped aircraft, and mobile Dopplers or Dopplers on Wheels (DOWs). DOWs are portable Doppler radars mounted on flatbed trucks that can be deployed in storm areas to measure eyes and inflow jets, along with wind speeds. The highest wind speed ever detected this way was 302 mph in 1999.

This year, Rasmussen and team are back as VORTEX-2, set to kick off in May 2009. You can keep up with the project’s progress by visiting its Web site, where there is a ton of information in PDF documents. VORTEX-2 seeks to answer these questions (from the project homepage):

  • The genesis of tornadoes: how, when, and why they form
  • Why some thunderstorms produce them and others do not
  • The structure of tornadoes, and the relationship of tornadic winds to damage
  • How to better forecast tornadoes

I’ve put together a gallery of images from the NSSL’s Photo Library, including the Dimmitt tornado, and some other historic images of past tornadoes. In general, these monsters scare the pants off me, and even the images are enough to creep me out (like the one below). Still, they are fascinating weather events, and any information that can lead to more accurate predictions of their behavior is a worthwhile effort.