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Weather researchers crisscross Nebraska, Great Plains, studying storms

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OMAHA -- Somewhere in the 100- to 200-square-mile swirling mass of atmosphere that forms a supercell storm are cantankerous streams of air that scientists believe could be the reason a storm spins out a tornado.

Scientists believe what they are seeking could be as "small" as a milelong stream of air in the lowest half-mile of the storm's 10- to 15-mile height — the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Those regions of the storm may be sharply colder or barely colder than the air around it, or may be where the wind shifts abruptly. (Keep in mind that storm systems are chaotic, with winds spinning vertically and horizontally, and temperature and moisture content varying widely.)

Scientists aren't certain why one storm generates a tornado and another doesn't. The only way to find out is to blanket a given storm with as much weather-sensing equipment as possible — a costly, time-consuming effort that involves no small degree of luck.

That has been the catalyst for a $3.2 million federally funded field study led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dubbed TORUS, for Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS (drones) of Supercells, the study includes about 50 researchers from the federal government and academia.

Their nomadic work takes them wherever the storms are breaking across 367,000 square miles of the Great Plains, from North Dakota to Texas and from Iowa to Wyoming and Colorado.

Recently, weather researchers chased super cell storms across Nebraska.

"The main objective of TORUS is to better understand super cell thunderstorms, the ones that produce the biggest hail, the strongest tornadoes," said Adam Houston, the lead investigator and a professor of atmospheric sciences at UNL. "To better predict tornadoes, we need to understand them. Hopefully, this will lead to forecasts with enough lead time and accuracy that we can protect lives and to some extent property."

The effort utilizes an array of equipment, including eight trucks equipped with weather-sensing equipment, with some deploying radar and others, LIDAR (pulses of light), drones, a NOAA hurricane airplane and weather balloons.

In spring 2019, the field study deployed drones and it was the most ambitious drone-based study of storms undertaken to date, according to UNL. Teams traveled 9,000 miles across five states this summer during that field study, according to UNL.

This year, in place of drones, it is using party-sized helium balloons that send aloft Styrofoam cups containing small weather sensors.

Funding comes from the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Mike Coniglio, research meteorologist with the NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory, said these types of sophisticated field studies are essential to dissecting storms because traditional weather sensors, such as stationary National Weather Service radars, are limited in how often they can take measurements and what they can see.

"The features we are looking for are difficult to observe," he said.

Once scientists learn what triggers a tornado, they will hunt for proxies in the larger environment of the storm that will enable them to make forecasts. Proxies are needed, he said, because meteorologists can't chase and monitor every single storm in such fine detail. 

The Great Plains are an ideal place to study tornadoes because the open horizon allows scientists to see at greater distances, which means they are safer while storm chasing. Data gathered from these studies is run through supercomputers for analysis.

Findings from the 2019 field surveys are expected soon, while results from this year's research will be released in a couple of years.

Coniglio said the overall science of understanding storms has moved beyond its infancy, "but we certainly have a lot more detail to learn about what is happening inside these storms."

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