Students Take On Tornadoes


He may have lacked the status of Superman or Batman, but the DC Comics superhero Red Tornado was an unbeatable weather man. Introduced in the late 1960s, this lesser-known member of the Justice League was a sentient crime-fighting android with masterful control over violent wind forces.

Fifty years later, capabilities that blew away Red Tornado’s fans in the comics are adding a new twist to the prediction of real-life killer tornadoes. Government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are partnering with university engineering departments in tornado-prone states to develop tougher and smarter storm probes that save lives by improving the timeliness and accuracy of tornado warnings.

The latest effort to outsmart twisters is Project TORUS (Targeted Observation by Radars and Unmanned Aircraft Systems of Supercells), which launched in May 2019. University of Nebraska-Lincoln is leading the project, in partnership with University of Oklahoma, Texas Tech, University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies.

More than 50 researchers and engineering students will spend the next two storm seasons following severe thunderstorms across the Great Plains. Their mission is to study wind speed, temperature, humidity, and pressure, thus learning how small-scale structures within a supercell storm can evolve into tornadoes.

One of TORUS’s novel approaches to atmospheric measurement uses swarms of radiosondes (battery-powered telemetry devices carried into the atmosphere on miniature weather balloons) to gather and transmit readings from up to 100 different points in a storm. This data works together to form a multi-dimensional view of each storm system.

Most of the tornado formation events that forecasters want to study occur in a sweet spot between the ground and 1,000 feet—an altitute too low for Doppler radar and yet too high to be caught on stationary weather towers. Through the NSF’s multi-university Cloud-Map project, engineers are working to send a variety of remote sensing technologies into that specific region to act as the meteorologists’ eyes and ears.

Cloud-Map (Collaboration Leading Operational UAS Development for Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics) is a four-year project involving Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, University of Kentucky, and University of Nebraska. Low-flying drones, top-down measurement systems aboard fixed-wing UAVs, and remote infrasound listening systems are under development to reveal what makes tornadoes tick.

A Cloud-Map team led by Oklahoma State mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Jamey D. Jacob—the director of OSU’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute—is working toward a new class of highly durable UAVs using lightweight composite materials that retain flight stability and data transmission, even under extreme weather conditions and winds up to 120-mph.

Another project calls on a steerable, fixed-wing unmanned aircraft system—named MARIA (Mesocyclone Analysis Research and Investigation Aircraft)—to measure the vertical profile of a storm by flying above it. Once in position, MARIA drops expendable parachute-like sensor packets called dropsondes; they collect and transmit data from the storm’s path as they fall to Earth.

These aerial approaches go with a ground-based infrasound monitoring system based on measuring the low-frequency sounds occurring within a storm, up to two hours before it evolves into a tornado. Created by characteristic fluid mechanisms, these sounds are inaudible to the human ear but can be picked up by a trio of specialized, low-frequency microphones positioned on the OSU campus. Audio data is collected and analyzed to predict tornadoes and estimate their size and location.

OSU professor Brian Elbing explains the ability to monitor tornadoes from hundreds of miles away will help shed light on how they form, all while increasing confidence in issuing tornado warnings. “By monitoring tornadoes from hundreds of miles away, we’ll be able to decrease false alarm rates and, possibly, even increase warning times,” Elbing said.

Michael MacRae is a technology writer based in New Mexico.

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