Penn State scientists use new technology to intercept tornadoes

May 26, 2009

University Park, Pa. -- For Penn State scientists Yvette Richardson and Paul Markowski, spending part of their summer vacation in Tornado Alley, seeking out destructive vortices, is a rare and exciting opportunity.

The two associate professors of meteorology at Penn State and seven of their undergraduate and graduate students will be part of a large team of researchers crossing through nine states in the middle of the United States to study tornadoes using radars, instrumented automobiles, weather balloons and other high-tech gadgets.

"We're intercepting the storms, not chasing them," said Markowski. "Half the time we don't even see the tornadoes (with our own eyes) because we're looking at the radars."

Richardson explained that the goal of the research is to get a better understanding of why tornadoes form from some thunderstorms, while seemingly similar storms do not produce these columns of remarkably fast, spinning air filled with debris and dirt. Richardson and Markowski will be leading a fleet of instrumented automobiles, called “mobile mesonets,” which will allow the researchers to measure temperature and humidity levels that create conditions perfect for tornadoes. State-of-the-art supercomputers also will aid the analysis of their data. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation are funding an estimated $9 million study, called Vortex2. It is the largest effort ever made to understand tornadoes.

"Some vehicles will be very close to the storm but we'll be able to keep everyone safe," explained Richardson. "Using real-time displays of vehicle locations, we'll be able to see everyone's position and know where everyone should be going. We're doing this as safely as possible."

Richardson and Markowski said this is a rare opportunity for themselves and their students. For Markowski, who has had a fascination with weather and tornadoes since his childhood, studying meteorology and focusing his post-graduate work on the study of tornadoes was only natural. Richardson studied physics as an undergraduate, but credits her participation at a summer weather institute at NASA as an undergraduate as influencing her career decision, rather than the tornado encounters she had as a child growing up in Wisconsin.

Though the actual fieldwork for the study is taking place from May 10 to June 15, the two professors say it will take years to sort through the research and publish the findings.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010