Tracking Tornadoes

Now that we are about half way through the month of May, it is time to focus back on the type of weather that is more typical this time of the year, that being thunderstorms and tornadoes.  May is considered to be the prime month for twisters to form in the US, although when it comes to Wisconsin, June tends to be the more active month, with May a close second.  Nevertheless, Monday, May 10th was a day that was chockfull of severe weather in much of Kansas and Oklahoma.  A total of 42 tornadoes were spotted, which thus far have been found to have ranged in intensity from EF1 (86-110 mph)  to EF3 (136-165 mph).  Just to illustrate the number of tornadoes that occurred, storm surveys were still being done by the National Weather Service three days after the twisters touched down.  Below is the Storm Prediction Center's map of the severe weather from that day.  The red triangles are where tornadoes were spotted.

Wisconsin is literally on the fringe of Tornado Alley, which is the section of the country where tornadoes are most common year in and year out.  Geographically speaking, this is the prime area where warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico to the south combines with drier air from the desert southwest and cooler air swinging down from the northern Rockies.  Nevertheless, Wisconsin does average 21 tornadoes per year, while Minnesota and Iowa in an average year experience 24 and 48 tornadoes.  To get the breakdown of Tornado Alley, check out the map below.

So what would you think is going on if you happen to pass one of these vehicles on the highway?

Certainly, if you spot one of these traveling through town, the risk of tornadic storms may be at an elevated level.  This tank is known as a tornado intercept vehicle (TIV) that you may have seen on tv shows such as Tornado Chasers and is one of the many types of vehicles being used by scientists taking part in the second year of a tornado study known as Vortex 2. In addition, they also have some "teched out" vans and mobile doppler radars to track storms in real time.

Last year, Mother Nature was not very cooperative in providing severe weather during their experiment period in May, so this year they not only expanded the time frame of their tornado chasing into June, but also have already had more tornadoes to study out in the field.  This group of 100 scientists from over a dozen universities in the U.S. and from other parts of the world are on a mission to answer some meteorological questions. 

First off is how, when and why do tornadoes form and what causes some to be long lasting and violent, while others are short  lived and weak?  Next is how can we better understanding the structure of tornadoes, including how strong the winds are at the surface and how they truly do damage?  Last but not least is how we can all learn to better forecast tornadoes and allow for more lead time before they occur?

There is a wealth of information being collected by these folks and you can follow their journey through various websites.  These include the Vortex 2 home page,Vortex 2 blog, The Great Tornado Hunt from The Weather Channel, and of course following them on facebook.  Not everyday will be one with widespread severe storms, but the odds are good that this year's edition will provide them with a good number of opportunities to learn more about the most destructive forms of weather in the U.S.

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