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Research on Killer Tornadoes in U.S. Southeast Enters 2nd Year

Thunderstorms in the Great Plains, such as this supercell that produced a tornado near Burwell, Nebraska, June 16, 2014, are different from storms in the southeastern United States. That's why this spring (2017), NOAA scientists and partners are deploying instruments near Huntsville, Alabama, as part of the VORTEX-SE research project.

Tornadoes, some of the most violent storms on the planet, kill more people in the southeastern United States than anywhere else in the country.

This month, NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory kicked-off the second year of VORTEX-SE, a research program designed to understand how environmental factors and terrain in the southeastern U.S. affect tornadoes in that region. VORTEX-SE, shorthand for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment-Southeast, will also look at how people learn of the threats posed by these storms and how they respond to protect their lives and property.

This study, which runs March 8 through May 8, brings together 40 physical and social science researchers from 20 research organizations. Scientists will deploy NOAA’s P-3 aircraft, 13 vehicles, five mobile radars, one fixed radar and other instruments in northern Alabama.

So what is VORTEX-SE and the NSSL? 

The Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment-Southeast (VORTEX-SE) brings together meteorologists, researchers and social scientists to collaborate on a research program looking at the storms and conditions that produce tornadoes in the U.S. Southeast. This research experiment, taking place in 2016 and 2017, will not only take a comprehensive look at tornadic conditions, but will also study the way NOAA National Weather Service forecasters anticipate, detect, and warn for the tornadoes, and how end users receive and respond to forecast information.

VORTEX-SE is an effort to understand how environmental factors characteristic of the southeastern United States affect the formation, intensity, structure, and path of tornadoes in this region. The experiment will also determine the best methods for communicating the forecast uncertainty related to these events to the public, and evaluate public response. In many ways, VORTEX-SE represents a new approach to tornado research in general.

The number of killer tornadoes in the southeastern U.S. is disproportionately large when compared to the overall number of tornadoes throughout the country. Researchers believe this is caused by a series of physical and sociological factors, including tornadoes at night, in rugged terrain, as well as tornadoes occurring before the perceived peak of “tornado season,” during a time of year when storms typically move quickly. Other variables include the lack of visibility, inadequate shelter, and larger population density that increases the vulnerability of residents in this area.

Because of the rate at which technology and scientific knowledge evolve, VORTEX-SE aims to be an experiment that is flexible and can adapt quickly to new ways of making observations, and to new ideas in the atmospheric and social sciences.

This is an exciting opportunity to learn more about tornadoes—still poorly understood in any region—and how people become aware of their threat and respond in ways that can protect their lives and property.

NSSL is the executing partner and lead organization in developing the research program to meet the VORTEX-SE objectives because of our experience during the past 20 years in the previous VORTEX experiments. We have brought together a number of tornado researchers and social scientists, including many from the southeastern U.S., to focus on the most important and urgent areas of research.

VORTEX-SE began in the fall of 2015, when NSSL helped organize a workshop in Huntsville, Alabama, to organize the VORTEX-SE research with an eye toward identifying ways to most effectively build on findings from one year to the next. In spring 2016, NSSL participated in the first field observing campaign in the southeast U.S. focused on understanding how the atmosphere can become locally favorable for tornadoes and how these changes can be better anticipated in the tornado forecast process. In fall 2016, researchers met again to discuss progress and determine priorities for a second field observing campaign to take place in spring 2017 around Huntsville, Alabama.

Check out this video for an easy-to-watch description and walk through of the project:

For WeatherNation: Meteorologist Andy Stein

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