The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 29, 2010

Vortex 2 team chases tornadoes for research

By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer

GOODLAND, Kan. — When Vortex 2 vans and trucks roll into this western Kansas town, people stop what they are doing to watch the strange-looking vehicles. The next thing they do is look up at the sky.

Armed with an array of mobile Doppler radar units, the caravan of 40 vehicles is traveling from Ogallala, Neb., to Sharon Springs, Kan., when the decision is made to break for lunch in Goodland. About 100 weather scientists and graduate students chow down in advance of that day’s target storm.

Click here to listen to Wally Kennedy talk about his Vortex 2 adventure.

Click here to watch video from Wally Kennedy's trip.

Dylan Hageman is working the drive-through window at the McDonald’s when he gets the feeling that a bad day is imminent.

“Hey guys, come over here,’’ he tells co-workers.

Pointing to the mobile radar units parked nearby, he says, “Look, there’s one over there, one over there and two over there.’’

With a look and in a voice that underscored the gravity of the moment, he turns to his co-workers and says: “Something is goin’ down.’’

About two hours later and 70 miles down the road, the Vortex 2 team stops at the Kwik Korner convenience store in Cheyenne Wells, Colo., where a Japanese film crew has just arrived to get footage for a tornado documentary. The students take a moment to toss a football in the parking lot while others go inside for snacks and bottled water. The moment of deployment is getting near.

Stacy Sponsel is working the counter.

“I wish these people would leave,” she told co-workers. “They’re making me nervous.’’

Vortex 2

Wherever the Vortex 2 team goes, they generate high anxiety — especially among people who live in the heart of Tornado Alley. Because of where they live, residents here know a thing or two about tornadoes. They have seen the images from Greensburg, Kan.

And they know the main object of the Vortex 2 project is a tornado. They don’t mind that the team is in their neighborhood. They just don’t want to see them in their backyard.

That anxiety issue is not lost on Susan Cobb, a meteorologist who recently spent two weeks in the field with the Vortex 2 project, which started on May 10. The research — Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment (Vortex) — continues until June 15.

“Believe me, we don’t want to be in their backyard. We really hope to find these tornadoes in places where there are no homes, no structures and no people,’’ she said. “We know we make quite an impression when we roll into town.

“In some towns, we have given out handouts to tell the people what we are doing is making our tornado warnings better for them.’’ 

Vortex 2 is the largest, most ambitious tornado-research project ever. The National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have pooled $11.9 million to support the project, which will study how tornadoes form and dissipate.

They are hoping to build on the legacy of the first Vortex program, which collected unprecedented data on tornadoes that occurred in the central Great Plains in 1994 and 1995. That effort documented for the first time the entire life cycle of a tornado.

 Vortex 2 is a field experiment on an even grander scale in which potentially tornadic storms are targeted with an armada of instruments, including Doppler on Wheels, SMART Radars and NOXP radar. Each of the radars produce different datasets by looking at the storm from different angles. Data is digested and synthesized by an array of Lenovo computers.

In addition, several minivans have been equipped with mobile weather instruments. Weather balloons and unmanned aircraft are part of the mix, too. And when rubber hits the road, deployable instruments called Sticknets and Podnets are positioned in the tornado’s path to gather even more data.

Principle investigators hope to take advantage of technology that was not available 15 years ago to pull back the curtain that has concealed the mystery of how tornadoes form. They know there is a crucial zone in a storm where tornadoes form, and they know that rapidly changing contrasts in wind and temperature in that zone can produce a twister within a matter of minutes. If Vortex 2 is successful, meteorologists will know why some thunderstorms produce tornadoes and most do not.

Ultimately, the information should lead to increased warning times that are more accurate. Because meteorologists would rather be safe than sorry, most tornado warnings today don’t result in tornadoes. The false-alarm rate is about 70 percent.

‘Not much time’

“Right now, the average warning is about 13 to 14 minutes. That means half of those warnings are less than 13 to 14 minutes,’’ said Cobb. “That’s not very much time.

“We want to increase that warning time and have fewer false alarms. When you’re talking about evacuating a hospital or a stadium, you definitely want more time and more accuracy.’’

The decision to head for Sharon Springs occurred Tuesday morning in the lobby of the Best Western in Ogallala. A white sheet is taped to a wall to provide a backdrop for computer-generated images of the jet stream, moisture content, winds and temperatures. After examining the information, a consensus on Sharon Springs is reached.

The group also looks at the forecast for the next three days. They want to go to Sharon Springs, but they also want to put the team in a position to respond to even more favorable tornadic conditions three days into the future in South Dakota.

Attending the briefing is Eric Robinson, a student from Purdue University in Indiana, who is studying to be a meteorologist. For him, Vortex 2 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It’s great to see the stuff we’ve seen in our textbooks actually in the field,’’ he said. “I’m getting invaluable information and face time with people who have been doing this for 20 to 30 years.

“But we do travel a lot. It’s at least four to five hours a day. It’s definitely a lot of miles.’’

 As soon as the decision is made, researchers gather their laptops, find their hail-dimpled vehicles and move out. Traveling in packs, they pass through Chase County, Neb., and Bird City, Kan.

“These are places I would never see otherwise. Trust me, I’m a city girl,’’ said Amy Buchanan, with the University of Oklahoma. She has been with the Vortex 2 team two weeks.

“Here are some things you need to know. We don’t operate after daylight. It’s just too dangerous,’’ she said. “We operate on central time all of the time even when we are in the mountain time zone. It’s too confusing not to do so.


“We focus on one storm at a time because it’s hard to reposition all of this equipment. Once you have pinpointed an area, you are committed,’’ she said. “What we are looking for is a slow-moving supercell that we can position ourselves out ahead of.

“We all have predetermined areas that we go to that are chosen by the radar coordinator, who is working in the field command vehicle. It’s a converted ambulance,’’ she said. “The radar coordinator can communicate with each team in the field and can track everyone’s position on a computer.’’

As Buchanan is talking, a man approaches and says: “They’ve got something.’’

Within seconds, the deployment is in motion. Vehicles head east on U.S. Highway 40 from Cheyenne Wells to Sharon Springs. The area they identified eight hours earlier in another state was producing a supercell, but would it produce a tornado?

They soon turn off the highway onto a rugged dirt road and head south. They position themselves in the path of the supercell and wait for it to come to them. Radars are fully operational. It’s all eyes on the sky.

Said Cobb: “The goal is to start collecting data 30 minutes before the tornado forms. They have to be in the right position long before the tornado arrives. It’s really quite a dance that they do.’’

So far, the Vortex 2 team has had only marginal luck with observing a tornado. But Tuesday would be different. The supercell produced three tornadoes that were all short-lived and weak, but data was collected on them.

Even storms that do not produce tornadoes can produce meaningful data about why a tornado did not form.

Said Cobb: “Those no-show cases are hugely important to the project. But Tuesday was hard for the Vortex team because the tornadoes were short-lived and rain-wrapped. You know, there is an element of satisfaction in actually seeing what you are measuring.

“They have been on four or five supercell cases that looked tornadic, but they have not hit the mother lode yet. You do need some luck to have everything come together as you expect. The weather is one thing you cannot control.’’

Tri-State killer

Perhaps the single worst tornado on record was the “Tri-State Tornado’’ of March 1925. The tornado formed in Southeast Missouri and tore a path of destruction across Illinois before dissipating in western Indiana. The tornado covered a distance of 219 miles. With no way to warn people of the tornado’s approach, it killed 689 people and injured more than 2,000 people.