May
02
2010

Twister!: The Vortex2 project will study the causes, structure, and evolution of tornadoes.
Twister!: The Vortex2 project will study the causes, structure, and evolution of tornadoes.Courtesy 3aodia
The largest study ever of tornadoes is now underway in the central plains of the United States. Named Vortex2, the study will involve over 100 storm chasers from several countries and a fleet of movable weather equipment, including mobile weather stations, radar, and balloon launch platforms. Forty well-equipped vehicles will be crisscrossing the back roads of the Midwest throughout Tornado Alley, the area stretching between West Texas and southwestern Minnesota. Their mission is to closely track developing storms and find and gather information about tornadoes, one of Nature’s most destructive weather forces. (Last week’s devastating tornado in Yazoo City, Mississippi tore a path 1.75 mile wide and stayed on the ground for nearly 150 miles).

This is actually phase two of the study. Phase one began in the spring of 2009 which, unfortunately for the researchers, was an historically low period for tornadoes. There was one bright spot last year in Wyoming, where the storm chasers were well prepared and made what was probably the most thorough study of a tornado in history.

Vortex2 is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The original Vortex project took place in 1994-95 with a follow-up four years later called Vortex-99. But Roger Wakimoto, director of the Earth Observing Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said those studies raised more questioned than they answered.

"We are still struggling to find out what actually triggers tornado generation," he said. "It's very difficult to get detailed data. These things are very transient."

Maybe this year things will be different, and questions about the how, why, when, and where of tornadoes will get answered. One interesting hypothesis the Vortex2 team hopes to settle is the one that claims tornadoes may actually start on the ground and reach up to the clouds, countering the popular notion that twisters descend from the sky. Support for this theory includes eyewitness reports of ground damage occurring prior to a funnel cloud’s arrival, and the fact that similar but less destructive phenomenon like dust devils and waterspout do just that, start on the ground and rise up into the sky.

Of course, there are plenty of other questions about the nature of tornadoes to answer, and the storm chasers hope to do so. But I have a feeling - with the Vortex2 team - the fun is all in the chase anyway.

LINKS

Vortex story at Forbes.com
More about Vortex2 on the Weather Channel website
Videos about Vortex2 at Worldnews.com (The tornado in a soap bubble video is great!)
Brief overview of tornadoes by George Pararas-Carayannis

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