VORTEX 2: Inside A Tornado

Tuesday, April 21st 2009, 3:19 pm
By: News On 6

By Chief Meteorologist Travis Meyer, News On 6

NORMAN, OK -- An elite team of investigators is getting ready to track a killer. They don't wear badges or carry guns and you won't see them in an episode of CSI. In fact, you're more likely to see them on the Discovery Channel.

They're meteorologists and scientists and the killer they're hunting - tornadoes. The detective work they're planning this spring might one day save your life.

May 10, 2008: An EF4 tornado ripped apart what was left of the tiny town of Picher. Despite the warnings, six people died and 150 others were injured.

February 10, 2009: Another EF4 twister ravaged Lone Grove in southern Oklahoma. Eight people were killed and more than 100 homes destroyed.

These are disturbing stories of devastation and death. Forecasters can't stop tornadoes, but they hope better science can save lives.

"How do storms form a tornado? How long do they last? Why do they last that long? And then, what makes them dissipate," asked Mike Biggerstaff of the National Weather Center.

University of Oklahoma meteorologist Mike Biggerstaff hopes he and other scientists can answer those questions with Operation VORTEX 2.

Extended Interview: Mike Biggerstaff explains VORTEX 2.

"It's going to be the largest experiment to study tornadoes that's ever been conducted in the United States," said Biggerstaff.

Researchers are prepping for the project now at the National Weather Center in Norman. Meteorologists believe if they can understand tornado genesis, how a tornado is born, lives and dies, they'll be able to issue earlier warnings to people in the path of destruction.

"We can't tell you yet, with certainty, exactly where that tornado is going to form. And even then, if we could, wouldn't you like to know the difference between an F0 tornado that blows down your fence and an F5 tornado that takes down your house," asked Biggerstaff.

That's why beginning next month, nearly 100 meteorologists, scientists and student researchers from 16 universities will set out on a five-week long road trip to swarm super-cell thunderstorms with an arsenal of weather weapons.

The goal of VORTEX 2 is to take special equipment into the field, surround a tornado, get all the information and data and then the team will take it back home, decipher the information and try to figure out what makes a tornado form.

They'll get as close to tornadoes as they dare with mobile radars and cutting edge technology that can examine a twister from all angles, measuring everything from wind speed and air pressure to the size of rain drops.

Extended Interview: Mike Biggerstaff explains VORTEX 2 equipment.

VORTEX 2 may seem like something right out of a movie. You've probably seen the 1996 film "Twister."

Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt lead a ragtag team of storm chasers across Oklahoma trying to release a probe into the funnel of a tornado, all while dodging the dangers of disaster.

The risk can be just as real to the VORTEX 2 team, but Biggerstaff says the greatest obstacle will be coordination.

"It's hard to get 50 or 60 people, as you know, to do the same things at the same time, so this is a very challenging program," said Biggerstaff.

Extended Interview: Mike Biggerstaff explains VORTEX 2 challenges.

They'll crisscross the flatlands of the Midwest in an area that stretches from basically South Dakota down to the Texas panhandle, as far west as Colorado and as far east as Iowa.

"Tulsa is not included in the plans for VORTEX 2 simply because of the terrain and the vegetation," said Biggerstaff.

It would be a logistic nightmare to swarm a storm in the hills and valleys of Green Country, Biggerstaff said. But he said if Tulsa was under the gun, the team couldn't pass up the opportunity.

Extended Interview:  Mike Biggerstaff explains why Tulsa's not included.

"We need to save lives and we need to try to mitigate damage to property," said Biggerstaff. "This is a challenging problem that probably won't be solved even with this tremendous data set, but we're going to make a big advance toward that direction."

For the first time, scientists were able to document the entire life cycle of a tornado during the original VORTEX program of the mid 90's. That research is credited for improving severe weather warnings.

The goal now is to build on that success.

VORTEX 2 deploys May 10th and runs through June 13th. It will deploy again next Spring.

The federal government, the National Science Foundation, 10 universities and three non-profit organizations are picking up the tab for the almost $12 million program.