Tracking Tornadoes Across the Great Plains With Dr. Karen Kosiba
It is well after 1 a.m. on May 11, 2010. Karen Kosiba, a post-doctoral scientist for the Center for Severe Weather Research (CSWR), takes a breather in her Doppler on Wheels weather research vehicle in Perry, Oklahoma, a rural town 60 miles north of Oklahoma City. She and her fellow CSWR scientists are bone-weary after spending previous hours in the region chasing a major outbreak of tornadoes- - a spate of wicked weather that ultimately spawned more than 60 tornadoes over a three-state area, claiming three lives in Oklahoma and causing more than $595 million in damage in the state alone.
Even though exhausted after a day of tracking storms, Karen takes the time in her Doppler vehicle (since bad weather in Perry has knocked out all electricity in the hotel where she and her colleagues are staying) to post a blog on the CSWR website which will to update the center's avid readers across the country on the day's events.
But before entering her detailed account, she begins the blog with a heart-felt message: "I would first like to extend my deepest sympathy to everyone impacted by today's severe weather outbreak. At best it is scary, at worst it is absolutely devastating..."
From early May through mid-June of last year, Karen and other tornado hunter scientists from the Center for Sever Weather Research based in Boulder, Colorado, studied not only this severe tornado event but also others across the Great Plains as part of a major undertaking called VORTEX2, the largest-ever research project aimed at finding out more about what causes devastating tornadoes — and how to give people earlier and more accurate warnings.
"Currently, tornado warnings average 13 minutes of lead time, and those come with a 70% false alarm rate, according to our estimates," says Karen, a senior research meteorologist with CSWR. "We want to know whether warning times can be more accurate and whether warnings could be issued a half-hour or more before the storm strikes."
VORTEX is an acronym that stands for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment. The original VORTEX, in the mid-1990s, inspired the film Twister.
During VORTEX2, more than 100 scientists conducted field experiments on severe weather outbreaks across the Great Plains, traveling in a convoy of more than 40 cars and high-tech weather research vehicles. Karen operated a Doppler on Wheels (DOW) unit and coordinated CSWR teams.
"Our group had three mobile radars, four instrumented vehicles and 16 tornado pods," she says. "They're instrumented weather stations used for deployment in the path of the tornado to collect valuable data. What we're trying to do here is gather low-level information inside the tornado, like the wind speeds and temperature one-meter off the ground."
Because this project is so unique, it received a wide range of news coverage, including coverage by IMAX, USA Today and the television documentary production Storm Chasers.
Says Karen: "Better understanding how tornadoes form, how they are maintained, and what their winds are like at building height, will not only help us make better forecasts, but also provide engineers with the information necessary to design better buildings to withstand tornadoes."
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