Tornado research close to the Carolinas

Tornado researchers are coming to the southeast this spring. The “Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes”, known as VORTEX, made huge strides in our understanding of tornadoes in 1994, then again in 2009. A third chapter of this historic research project is currently underway, and this time it is of great interest to those of us who live in the Carolinas.

Our tornadoes may not be as big, or as numerous as those in tornado alley, but they can be just as dangerous, and VORTEX-Southeast will help us better understand tornadoes in the Carolinas.

The first two VORTEX projects took place on the Great Plains, in Tornado Alley. The perfect place to study and observe tornadoes. The landscape is flat without many trees. The air is usually clearer with less haze, and thunderstorms grow tall and are often stand alone storms.

This time around the research is closer to home. VORTEX-Southeast will have a home base in Huntsville, Alabama.

Chris Darden, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Huntsville says “’ VORTEX-Southeast is a severe weather project that is looking specifically at our area of the country, and ways we get information to the public.”

Tornadoes in the Southeast are harder to see, harder to detect, and harder to forecast than great plains storms. The researchers will use a fleet of mobile weather stations, doppler radars and weather balloons to study the small differences that make tornadoes here different from those in the plains.

Chris Darden says “our challenges are similar to the plains — I mean, tornadoes form generally the same way. But there are differences. For instance, the terrain here, it’s not flat. We have hills. We have valleys. We have a lot more trees…you can’t storm chase here.”

Here in the Southeast, we have more tornadoes that form in squall lines, which tend to be smaller, faster, and weaker than the Great Plains twisters that form in supercells. VORTEX-Southeast will target these types of storms.

Chris Weiss, an associate professor at Texas Tech University says “’There’s a unique mode of storms here in the Southeast called the quasi-linear convective system, like a squall line. we would deploy our equipment in a fixed location ahead of the event, because we assume that the storm is relatively the same along the long-line direction, but we know that the subtle nuances in the environment ahead of that QLCS that we can measure with these probes might help explain why one area is producing a tornado and why another is not.”

VORTEX-Southeast has a 5 million dollar budget and is expected to last three years. This research will give us a better understanding of the type of tornadoes that form in the Carolinas, and will lead to longer warning time before tornadoes strike.

During the past two VORTEX projects that took place on the great plains, researchers would follow storms for hundreds of miles. VORTEX-Southeast is going to focus on only on northern Alabama and southern Tennessee, getting lots of data from a small area.

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