Study Hopes To Buy You Time During Tornado

By: Keller Russell Email
By: Keller Russell Email

Ingredients for the perfect storm --lightning, hail and strong winds - generally send people in search of shelter.

Not Casey Letkewicz.

The North Carolina State University graduate student seeks the storm.

She's one of more than 100 scientists and students from universities across the country working on VORTEX 2 - The Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment. According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, or NSSL, it's the largest and most ambitious field study of tornadoes in history.

"The goal of VORTEX 2 is to figure out more about what separates an environment that produces tornadoes and environments that don't produce tornadoes," said Letkewicz.

The group made their way across parts of Nebraska Monday, stopping to study a storm front just outside of Hebron.

The group says figuring out how and why tornadoes form would allow for better tornadic forecasting and increased warning time before the storms hit, which could ultimately save lives.

"There was an original project in 1994-1995 - VORTEX 1 and we found out a lot about tornadoes then but we still have a lot of unanswered questions," said Letkewicz.

This time around, Letkewicz said the team is equipped with an increased number of, and improved, instruments and better technology, which will allow the them to better isolate the storms and gather data.

The weather, however, has not been cooperative.

"This year has been a drought for VORTEX 2 in terms of finding tornadic storms. We actually have not intercepted a tornadic system yet," said Letkewicz. " The whole season has been really bad because one of the key ingredients you need for tornadic storms is strong flow in the upper atmosphere and we have not had any of that."

Despite the drought of supercells, the team, which is roaming the southern and central plains from May 10 through June 13, is still finding valuable information in the storms they're studying.

"It is also important to get date on storms that don't produce tornadoes because you can learn just as much from those that don't produce tornadoes. It can produce a really interesting contrast," said Letkewitz.

The graduate student is on the mobile sounding team. Their mission - to launch balloons connected to GPS trackers, around a storm, to gather data about the cells.

According to the NSSL, results from the previous VORTEX field study were shown to have improved National Weather Service warnings during the late 1990s.

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