Project using drones to gain better understanding of what triggers tornadoes

Published: May. 3, 2019 at 10:26 AM CDT
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In what's called "the most ambitious drone-based investigation of severe storms ever," more than 50 scientists and students are preparing for a project that aims to use drones to gain a better understanding of how tornadoes start.

The group launching the program includes participants from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and three partner institutions: Texas Tech University, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory.

In a news release on the project, the University of Nebraska says final preparations are underway for the May 15 start.

"Fieldwork for the project will continue until June 16 and will cover a 367,000-mile area of the Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas, Iowa to Wyoming and Colorado," the university says.

“If there’s a supercell thunderstorm anywhere in the region, we hope to be there,” said Adam Houston, associate professor of atmospheric science at Nebraska and lead investigator.

Ahead of the launch, the research group is holding a media day May 14 at the Salina Regional Airport to explain the project and answer questions.

The project is called TORUS, which stands for Targeted Observation by by Radars and UAS of Supercells.

“To understand how tornadoes are formed, we need to study their ‘parent’ storms, called supercells,” said Chungu Lu, a program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which is funding the project. “In TORUS, scientists will deploy a suite of radars and drones to observe these supercells. The results will increase our ability to forecast tornadoes.”

The project involves using four drones among equipment used to gather more data from different parts of a storm and answer "a more extensive set of questions," the University of Nebraska says.

Researchers say they hope to expose how small-scale structures within the storm contribute to tornado formation and improve supercell and tornado forecasts.

Ultimately, the University of Nebraska says, "scientists want to reduce the number of false-alarm tornado warnings and improve detection of the potentially-lethal storms."

There's a lot to learn by flying the drones into storms, says Colorado-Boulder professor Eric Few.

"What we're hoping for is that there's a strong signature where storms that create tornadoes have this type of front, and storms that don't have that type of front," he says.

Houston says the Central Plains, or "Tornado Alley" "serves as a great laboratory to better understand severe storms," but a study last year suggests tornadoes are happening more frequently in the southeast United States and Midwest.

“Every place in the United States is vulnerable to supercell thunderstorms,” Houston says. “What we learn in this laboratory called the Central Plains is applicable everywhere. Tornadoes are geographically agnostic.”