By land and air, weather researchers track tornadic storms
SALINA, Kan. — For the first time in almost a decade, meteorologists from across the Midwest will track and intercept tornado birthing grounds as part of a large-scale collaborative research project.
The TORUS Project, or Targeted Observation by Radars and Unmanned Aerial Systems, will deploy at a moment's notice over the next month and again during the 2020 storm season. It includes a research teams with professors, students and equipment from the University of Oklahoma.
More than 50 researchers will use mobile radar and mesonet systems, with highly sensitive drones launched from trucks. Above them will be a P-3 Orion aircraft known for its regular job flying through hurricanes. This time, however, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "Hurricane Hunter" will fly ahead of supercells providing detailed radar scans.
The goal is to understand how tornadoes form.
"To do that, we're bringing to bear these very sophisticated instruments in a coordinated way," said lead investigator Adam Houston, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "We're not just putting a couple of instruments in the path of the storm and hoping we get good data. We are doing a very deliberate and coordinated effort to get observations at the same time in different parts of the storm."
TORUS teams will stage from Salina, Kansas, to more easily reach all corners of Tornado Alley. The last project of this size was VORTEX2 in 2009.
The project officially begins Friday. It might be a busy day then, too, with enhanced risk of severe thunderstorms in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.
One of the most novel components of TORUS is the use of drones. Anders Olsen with the University of Colorado's Integrated Remote and In-Situ Sensing project said expanded use of drones is less hazardous to storm chasers. Operators will maintain line of sight with the drones, and file airspace notices warning of their presence.
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"There's always a chance when you're going near severe storms you're going to be endangering the lives of people. Whereas with a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), you're able to get ideally similar data without risking lives," he said.
The drones take just five minutes to deploy. They launch with a compressed-air catapult mounted on a truck. Each drone — three can be airborne at once — is fitted with gauges to measure relative humidity, temperature and pressure. Instruments on the nose measure wind speed and direction.
"It allows us to get wind data even though the plane is flying," Olsen said.
Researchers from Texas Tech University are bringing two high-powered Doppler radars mounted on trucks. The mobile radars can provide a more detailed picture of local conditions than the more well-known Doppler radars shown on TV.
Chris Weiss, a professor at Texas Tech's National Wind Institute, said his radars are sensitive enough to pick up details about the movement of rain droplets, insects and dust, then show how wind moves through and around the storm.
"We think those boundaries have a lot to do with how tornadoes develop," Weiss said. "TORUS is specifically designed to make measurements of those boundaries between the cold and warm air, and try to better associate those with the development of tornadoes."