Storm chasing research helps predict southern tornadoes

(WSPA) – Just like in the movie “Twister”, storm-chasing exists…although it’s a little different than in the movies.

Due to the unique topography of the Southeast, combined with many curvy roads that don’t provide a straight-line to or away from storms, storm-chasing is a little less chase.

Researchers who are trying to get equipment in place to intercept storms are doing it for a very important reason: to get a better handle on how weather in the Southeast can behave differently than in the Plains.  To date, all major, in-the-field tornado research has been done in the Plains where these storms are more common.

On March 31, researchers were set up across northwestern Alabama as an EF-2 tornado, packing winds up to 115 miles per hour, touched down near Hartselle and rolled into Priceville, reaching John and Kelly Johnson’s house a little after 9 pm.  We spoke with John the following morning as they were cleaning up damage to their property.

“You could hear it…it sounded like rumbling like a beehive or something…ears were popping…you could hear things hitting the house, but we didn’t know it was this bad until we opened the front door.”

“That patio cover right there…we don’t even know where it’s at.  We haven’t found it yet…it’s probably out in the woods.”

Thankfully for them, house damage was relatively minor, although numerous trees came down on their property.

They were within a damage path measured by the Huntsville, AL National Weather Service office at eight and a half miles long.

The good news: no one was hurt.

Possibly better news longer-term: researchers were in place watching that very storm…hoping to gain further understanding of tornado formation that should help us all.

These meteorologists began their day at 9 AM with a planning meeting to determine where the tools to watch any afternoon/evening storms should be set up.

From late morning through the afternoon, equipment was strategically scattered across northwestern Alabama…in locations close to where storms were expected to develop later in the day.

Weather balloons were released, taking measurements as they climbed through the sky.  Getting accurate readings of what’s happening at cloud level is very important in determining when and if storms will develop…and how strong they could become.

Also included in the researchers’ arsenal: two mobile, Doppler radars.  They are capable of seeing how winds within individual storms were behaving.   While these radars were spinning around scanning the sky, other special equipment was aimed straight up, measuring winds speeds both outside of and inside any storms that wandered through.

While the basics of tornado formation are the same in the Southeast as in any other part of the country, Dr. Kevin Knupp of the University of Alabama-Huntsville believes the key to better predictions of which storms may produce tornadoes lies with the land we live on.

“Our surface is much different in the Southeast.  We have rougher terrain…trees, hills.  So that surface roughness plays a role we think…and we’re trying to understand that better.”

That’s because these objects can act as obstacles for wind, or serve to push surface winds in different directions while also changing the wind speed.  These effects can be the extra ingredient that can cause a tornado to spin up…or they might be an influence that keeps a tornado from forming.

This research is aimed at solving this issue, hopefully providing an understanding that will give us better warnings down the road.

Over the next several months, meteorologists will go through the mountain of data from these storms.  The goal is to find relationships between these storms and our unique topography.  Relationships that, hopefully, will provide more accurate and timely warnings.  Ensuring that when storms hit, we’re armed with the information we need to stay safe.

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