By Wally Kennedy
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Don Burgess, with the Vortex 2 storm-chasing team, on Thursday told some seventh-graders at Joplin’s East Middle School that putting on a bicycle helmet could protect their heads during a tornado, Evan Burden’s arm shot into the air.
Burden, 12, knew of someone who did just that when Joplin was struck by the tornado on May 22, 2011.
“He was a student at Kelsey Norman School,’’ Burden said. “He put his bicycle helmet on and got into the tub. He was hit in the head by stuff, but he was OK.’’
When Burgess told the students that the kind of tornado that struck Joplin is so rare that it represents only 1 percent of all tornadoes, Arin Camp, 13, said, “I was kind of relieved to hear that. It didn’t happen to me, but it could happen to any of us. My brother went through it.’’
Would she still pay attention to tornado warnings knowing that it’s highly unlikely she will ever experience in her lifetime a tornado like the one that struck Joplin?
“Oh, yeah,’’ she said. “Yes, yes, yes! I would not take that chance.’’
To underscore his comment, Burgess said that across an entire century in Missouri there would be only 20 days of EF-2 tornado activity within an area of 25 miles. For EF-4 tornadic activity, it would only be two days in a century.
Said Burden: “I knew he was right when he said the chances of that ever happening again were not that high. But global warming, I think, is changing things. It could be making it happen (more).’’
Burden and Camp were among dozens of students to get an up-close look Thursday at the science involved in storm chasing from Burgess, who is retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory at Norman, Okla., and Karen Kosiba, with the Center for Severe Weather Research at Boulder, Colo. They also heard from Sean Casey, a filmmaker who chases storms in a steel-reinforced vehicle that he calls TIV.
Students got to view that vehicle and another that carried a mobile-radar unit.
Burgess and Kosiba used the Vortex 2 research as examples of careers in science for both men and women. Burgess noted that when he went to meteorology school, only men were enrolled. Now, 50 percent of the students are women.
Burgess said it is likely that “your generation, with the Internet and smartphones, will have a better chance of being warned’’ of an approaching tornado than any previous generation. He said when a tornado struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., in April 2011, research showed that half the people got their warnings from social media.
Burgess said the Vortex 2 research examined tornado genesis, near-ground wind fields and the relationship of supercell storms to their environment, and created numerical models of the process that leads to tornado formation.
The challenge with Vortex 2 is the choreography that is needed to safely put up to 50 scientists and up to 75 students near a storm that could produce a tornado. Hail, lightning and flying debris are among the dangers associated with the chase.
“We replaced a lot of windshields,’’ Burgess said.
When asked by a student if there is a degree of danger to what they do, Burgess said, “There is a degree of danger, but we minimize the hazards as much as possible. There is more risk from auto accidents than anything else.’’
Another student asked why storm chasing appears to take place on the Great Plains more than anywhere else. Burgess said the Plains are flat and open, and divided by section line roads.
“In Missouri, where you have hills and trees, you can’t drive and see the storms,’’ he said. “We need new and different ways of tracking storms in Missouri, like stationary sensors and drone aircraft.’’
Casey told the students he learned how to weld to create his tornado-intercept vehicle that uses a one-ton diesel truck that was donated to the research project by Dodge. Creating the vehicle cost about $80,000.
The vehicle has an air-suspension system that can lower the height of the vehicle by six inches to make it have a lower profile in a storm. It has panels that can descend on its sides to reduce the possibility of wind getting underneath the vehicle. It also has hydraulic spikes that dig into the ground to hold the vehicle in place. An IMAX camera is mounted in a turret at the top of the vehicle. In addition to Casey, it is manned by a driver and a navigator. It can do 95 mph.
Students laughed when a teacher said the vehicle could have an alternative use in a zombie apocalypse.
Kosiba told the students that the weather influences most everything, and that students who learn about meteorology do not necessarily have to have careers as weather forecasters. She said oil platforms, airlines and energy companies are examples of companies that need people with knowledge about the weather.
The Vortex 2 storm-chasing team completed its fieldwork in 2010, covering 25,000 miles over 82 days. In that time, the team observed 15 tornadic supercells. Fuel costs totaled more than $750,000.