It looks like a scene out of a movie — a looming, massive storm cloud hovering above a picture-perfect white barn and farmstead.
The astounding image, taken on May 27 near Imperial, Nebraska, captured a massive supercell that traveled into Nebraska from Yuma, Colorado. Often called a “mother ship,” it was an example of a supercell, which spawns the most powerful tornadoes.
Research meteorologist Mike Coniglio snapped the image, which went viral.
Volatile weather this year has proved a bonanza for storm-chasing researchers who hope to better understand how tornadoes form.
In mid-May, field research involving more than 50 scientists and students from four universities got underway in the Great Plains — just in time to catch one of the most active two weeks of tornadic weather on record.
Their field work, known as TORUS, concluded in mid-June, and it will take a year or more of data analysis to determine the value of the information gleaned.
“We won’t know until we look at the data, but we have some pretty incredible data,” said Adam Houston, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who is the lead investigator. “It exceeded my expectations.”
Coniglio and other scientists pursued storms like the May 27 system across the Plains and analyzed their formation via mobile radar, lasers, drones and other tools.
Coniglio, a principal investigator, is with the National Severe Storms Laboratory, which is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Imperial storm reached about 11 miles high into the sky, Coniglio said. The picture was taken from about 3 miles away.
“It was an impressive storm — even for someone who sees a lot of storms,” said Coniglio, who has been a storm researcher for 22 years. “We see a lot of that type in the High Plains, but it was an exaggerated example of one.”
Houston’s team flew drones into the storm to take measurements, and Coniglio’s team used lasers to send beams of light ahead of the storm to develop a three-dimensional image of wind patterns.
Understanding the behavior of wind in a storm is important because supercells feed off this infusion of air to gain strength and longevity. This particular storm came close to maxing out the laser team’s instruments, which measured winds being sucked into the storm at about 65 mph some 3,500 feet off the ground, Coniglio said.
“That’s one of the unique things about a supercell,” Coniglio said. “It can ingest air like that at such high speeds.”
With a storm like this, just about any kind of severe weather can happen, Coniglio said. This storm dropped baseball-sized hail and a tornado, but didn’t cause extensive damage.
This supercell was one of 17 that researchers intercepted during their four weeks on the road, Houston said. Of those, seven were tornadic, he said.
Severe weather studied in the prolific first two weeks of research astonished many in meteorology and left the heart of the country storm-weary.
Patrick Marsh, warning coordination meteorologist for the Storm Prediction Center, said there were 440 eyewitness reports of tornadoes across the U.S. during the last two weeks of May. The outbreak also set a record for consecutive days — 13 — with eight or more tornadoes, he said. The old record was 11 such days and ended June 7, 1980.
Officially, seven people died, although some reports indicate an eighth death. One of those who died was a 74-year-old woman in Adair, Iowa, which is about 80 miles east of Omaha.
Marsh said the data gleaned from these field studies is critical to better understanding how severe thunderstorms and tornadoes form. That’s because the only way to understand what’s happening in a storm is to be near enough to it in real time to deploy a variety of sensors that can analyze what’s occurring at many levels of the atmosphere.
“(It’s) absolutely invaluable.”