Studying the Storm


By Bill Tressler

Photo courtesy of Lane Pearman.

Imagine being out in the Great Plains, observing a giant wall of menacingly gray and black clouds forming into a supercell. The clouds begin boiling and churning upwards in unison. As the storm builds, a curving tendril of wind and debris reaches out towards the ground and makes contact; a tornado touches down. This tendril has enough power to throw cars like playthings and uproot houses from foundations.

Now, imagine driving toward the scene.

That’s the life of a storm chaser. While forces of nature boggle the mind and test the constitution of most, a select few actually become enraptured with such power. For the vast majority, storm chasing is simply a hobby, undertaken by those who are fascinated with these acts of nature, and who wish to observe and photograph the events out of curiosity.

However, scientists pursue these storms not (entirely) for pleasure, but as a career. Joshua Wurman, the current president of the Center for Severe Weather Research, is one such scientific researcher. BTR reached out to Wurman to learn about the technology and resources that go into mapping and analyzing severe weather systems.

Wurman is quick to point out the distinction between a chaser and a researcher.

“I really don’t consider myself a storm chaser,” affirms Wurman. “I am a storm researcher who happens to chase storms as one component of this research.”

The main differences between a chaser and a researcher, he says, are objectives and equipment. Storm chasers might only carry some high-quality cameras and perhaps a radar device (via laptop, smartphone, etc.) for tracking purposes. Their main objective is to observe and photograph the storm, either for personal use or to sell to weather enthusiasts or media outlets.

Storm researchers, however, intend to make scientific observations–plus they’re loaded to the gills with gear.

“I chase with major exotic equipment,” Wurman confirms. That includes, but isn’t limited to, “a fleet of state-of-the-art Doppler radars… mobile mesonets, and deployable weather instrumentation” which cost several million dollars and collect “dozens of terabytes of data every tornado season.”

Photo courtesy of NSSL NOAA.

While the human element of storm research is essential, very little headway would be made without advanced technology that allows researchers to study how tornados evolve and form in the first place. Tornadoes are notorious among those in the meteorology community for being one of the least understood weather phenomena. The ability to digitally map and forecast tornado formations is paramount.

Wurman played a huge role in making that happen. The researcher invented the DOW, or Doppler on Wheels, a high-power, truck-mounted mobile radar that allows researchers to map the genesis, structure, and evolution of these tornadoes.

To elucidate advancements in weather technology, BTR spoke with David Chan, a research analyst at Gro Intelligence, an agricultural software company that provides enterprises access to relevant data and analysis.

According to Chan, advances in the past few years have greatly increased the accuracy of forecast models and of radar mapping.

“The field is enjoying a period of rapid technological development and innovation,” he says.

He points to advancements such as dual-polarization radar, which allows researchers to gather data from both vertical and horizontal directions, and numerical prediction models which allow for greatly improved forecasts. The EURO numerical prediction model, for example, was able to identify Hurricane Sandy, and its atypical path, over a week before it made landfall.

Additionally, researchers and chasers alike utilize widely available, consumer-level technologies like smartphones, cellular internet, GPS, and digital imaging technology.

In fact, smartphones and cellular internet make storm chasing a much more accessible pastime in recent years because of their instant information and ease of use.

“Recreational chasers have a very level informational playing field,” Wurman explains. “Everyone has near-real-time information concerning the latest SPC (Storm Prediction Center) forecasts, the latest model runs, the location of the most promising supercell, etc.” Once privileged information is now easily available to anyone who downloads an app.

Photo courtesy of j. lindsay.

Our culture’s popularized image of a storm chaser/researcher is that of Bill Paxton hurriedly pushing a TOTO-like device (Totable Tornado Observatory) off the back of a truck as a tornado barrels towards him. It’s an exhilarating image that does not accurately depict storm researching or chasing. While Wurman spends ample time observing storms in the field from a mile or two away, most of his work involves analyzing the data that his instruments collect after the event.

According to Wurman, actual scientific storm chasers take few risks; deaths in the field are exceedingly rare.

“My team has been ‘chasing’ tornadoes for 20 years. We have mapped over 200 tornadoes, along with other severe weather events, and we have never had an injury or a major loss of equipment.”

While Wurman maintains that there will always be a human element to his studies (his DOWs are driven by fellow researchers on public highways), it does seem that unmanned technology is making waves in the field. Wurman himself uses an array of unmanned “pods” that he deploys in the paths of tornadoes. Storms pick up the pods, which then monitor the interior conditions. Wurman also notes that a group is starting to use unmanned drones as tools.

With the topic of climate change as a near constant focus in today’s culture, there are many lay people who believe that the changing climate will lead to more severe weather events like thunderstorms. However, some suggest otherwise.

According to Chan, the general consensus is that climate change will lead to an increase in both the severity and frequency of droughts and flash floods, along with a weakening of the jet stream. While some severe weather events may become more common, tornadoes may actually decrease over time “as the combination of wind shear and instability favorable for tornadoes could occur less frequently over tornado alley.”

Wurman affirms that “warmer conditions may be associated with a weak jet stream and less vertical wind shear, and thus fewer rotating, potentially tornadic thunderstorms.”

So while climate change may lead to less dramatic and tantalizing weather events like tornadoes, it will seemingly also lead to an increase in droughts in some parts of the country, and floods in others. Ideally, advancing weather observation technology will allow us to better understand these severe events and their underlying causes.

As long as there are storms and weather events, humans will take to chasing and studying them. It is the work of these individuals that may very well end up saving countless lives in the future. Now that’s something to chase after.