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Chasing the storm chasers: On the way to meet the VORTEX2 team

Editor’s note: For the next three days, Scientific American contributing editor Christie Nicholson will be traveling with nearly 80 scientists conducting the largest tornado study ever completed. Check out her progress and learn about twisters on SciAm’s Twitter feed.

DENVER—I’ve just landed at Denver International Airport, and I’m traveling to Kansas to meet up with the largest entourage of storm chasers in history. So at the risk of being insensitive to those who live in Tornado Alley—the area between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains—I’m happy that there are a few severe storms on the horizon.

For the next three days, I’m joining the great tornado hunt, called VORTEX2, a veritable army of 80 scientists and support crew driving 35 trucks across the central Great Plains in tight formation. Imagine the logistics: Pulling up to a gas station for a pit stop becomes a major undertaking.

I’ll be here for the waning days of twister season, which lasts from April through mid-June. So far, this year has been remarkably quiet, with only 221 tornadoes in May, while May 2008 saw 461. Maybe the big ones are coming in June.

Over the last three weeks the VORTEX2 team -- that stands for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment -- has traversed hundreds of miles daily, closing in on and literally surrounding storms, to gather the largest amount of tornado data ever recorded. Today I flew from New York City to Denver, and I’m about to begin a five-hour drive to Colby, Kan., where I’ll meet up with the teams of VORTEX2. I’ll be riding with Josh Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., and his team.

Funded primarily by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the $11.9-million project drew an international group of researchers from 17 universities and nonprofits. And they brought along every known weather-watching tool, including 10 mobile radar trucks, four weather-balloon launchers, unmanned aircraft, and “Tornado pods”—instruments secured to the ground at the edge of tornado paths that measure wind, pressure and humidity.

Despite our fascination with forces of nature, scientists know very little about tornadoes. Formal tornado studies started relatively recently, in the 1950s, and storm chasing or “storm spotting” did not begin until the early 1970s. Knowledge of how and why they form, and why they are so varied, remains surprisingly thin.

VORTEX2, which is a two-year project, intends to find patterns in tornado behavior, if patterns exist at all. It appears to be quite random. One supercell thunderstorm may produce a twister, but a similar storm, under similar conditions, might not. Some tornadoes span a mere seven feet, lasting a few minutes, while others, called wedges, move like a wall two miles wide for hours. The VORTEX2 researchers want to understand this sort of variability in order to improve prediction accuracy. Today, the longest warning time meteorologists can provide is a nerve-racking 13 minutes, coupled with a 70 percent false alarm rate.

The U.S. endures the most tornadoes in the world—four times as many as Europe, according to NOAA. In an average year more than 1,200 tornadoes rip through the plains, killing 90 people and causing millions of dollars of damage.

To follow the action with me as I ride along with the VORTEX2 team, check out ScientificAmerican.com’s Twitter feed here (note: you do not need to join Twitter to access the site). I’ll be updating regularly. And check back next week to see videos from the field. I plan to capture on tape: supercell storms, rock-size hail, the Doppler-on-Wheels mobile radar trucks, and interviews with the experts.

If the storm hunt turns up short, at the very least I’ll show how 80 researchers mob a gas station for snacks. That should be interesting.

Photo of Indianapolis just before a tornado touched down in 2003 by greenbroke via Flickr

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