If an armada of scientists in weird vehicles rolls into your town this weekend, you might want to take cover.
A University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor is leading a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles carrying nearly 60 researchers — including 13 UNL students — on a multistate hunt for supercell thunderstorms.
Their search kicked off this week in Salina, Kansas. The convoy was headed for west-central Nebraska on Friday afternoon. Portions of that area were under a tornado watch. Nebraska is bracing for several days of stormy weather.
Team members will deploy drones, radar trucks, sensor-laden SUVs, sensor-carrying balloons and an airplane to simultaneously surround a storm and collect data.
They hope to learn more about how tornadoes form, improve forecasting and ultimately save lives by helping meteorologists make earlier and more accurate tornado warnings.
Adam Houston, UNL professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, said the team he leads is looking for tornado “fingerprints.”
“We’re forensic meteorologists, in a way,” Houston said.
The TORUS project, or Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells, will be a two-year effort covering 367,000 square miles of America’s Great Plains. The scientists will hunt storms in an area that runs from North Dakota to Texas, Wyoming to Iowa.
The project, funded by $2.4 million from the National Science Foundation and supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is one of the most ambitious storm surveillance projects ever to use drones, Houston said.
The team includes scientists from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Texas Tech University and the University of Oklahoma.
A supercell is an often-dangerous thunderstorm with a very organized internal structure, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, a partner in the project.
Supercells are capable of producing severe weather, high winds, large hail and strong tornadoes.
The cells have rotating updraft that allows them to keep going for several hours.
When the scientists in the armada locate a storm, they will attack it from multiple angles.
Three drones carrying sensors will take measurements from the air.
On the ground, the team has three mobile radars on trucks and eight mobile mesonets, which are basically trucks rigged with instruments that take surface observations of temperature, pressure, humidity, wind and solar radiation. UNL students helped to modify the vehicles.
A van with on-board helium tanks will allow researchers to launch sensor-carrying balloons within a few minutes of arriving at a location.
The team also has a laser radar.
And if that’s not enough, the team can call in a NOAA “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft.
The four-propeller, turboprop WP-3D Orion is equipped with scientific instruments, radars and recording systems for taking measurements.
Houston said each of the team’s instruments, by itself, can record only part of what’s going on in a storm. But the instruments collecting information simultaneously will provide a better picture of what’s going on, he said.
The team’s drones are nothing like the compact hobby drones that fly with spinning rotors on top, said Eric Frew, a professor in the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
His drones, formally called fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, have a 6-foot wingspan and look more like a conventional airplane, Frew said. They fly for 90 minutes to three hours.
Unlike the movie “Twister,” where storm-chasing scientists risked their lives to deploy sensors into the swirling tornado column itself, the team will be focusing on the edges of the storm, trying to figure out what feeds it, he said.
The drones, thrown into the sky from pneumatic car-top launchers, won’t be flying into the heart of the storm, but that doesn’t mean smooth sailing, he said.
“It’s just dangerous enough that you don’t want to risk a piloted aircraft,” he said.
Frew said the team fully expects all the drones to return safely to fly another day.
The researchers will not be disappointed if some storms don’t produce tornadoes, he said. The scientists need the data to compare with the tornado-producing storms and identify what’s different, he said.
“Most of the violent tornadoes come out of supercell thunderstorms,” he said. “But very few supercell thunderstorms actually create tornadoes.”
The primary goal, Frew said, is to gain a better understanding of how tornadoes form, with the idea of helping create better forecasting tools to give people more time to take cover.
“The weather community talks about the goal of a one-hour warning,” he said. “That’s the goal that we’re working towards.”
Every morning, the team will get a weather briefing on the day’s conditions plus how the weather’s shaping up for the next day.
The team could drive four to seven hours on a given day before they actually deploy.
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They prefer to stake out areas that have a good road network, he said.
While they are on the road, a designated person is figuring out where to find hotel rooms.
The team members usually are spread out in multiple hotels.
Most of the time, when they roll into a town, the locals are happy to have the business.
“It’s funny,” Frew said. “We either get that reaction or we get the other reaction, which is, ‘Oh my goodness, if you’re here that means bad weather’s coming, please go away.’ ”