The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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MIRSL Studying Tornadoes in Alabama During March and April

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The UMass Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory (MIRSL) is participating in the 2016 Verification of the Origin of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment (VORTEX), specifically in the Southeast (VORTEX-SE) region, sponsored by NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL). During March and April 2016, MIRSL is deploying two mobile radar systems to northern Alabama to study the environment leading up to tornadoes and the severe weather outbreaks that can directly produce tornadoes. MIRSL is partnering with the Purdue University Department of Earth Atmosphere and Planetary Sciences in this project. 

According to the website of the NSSL, “The Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment-Southeast (VORTEX-SE) is a research program to understand how environmental factors characteristic of the southeastern United States affect the formation, intensity, structure, and path of tornadoes in this region. VORTEX-SE will also determine the best methods for communicating forecast uncertainty related to these events to the public, and evaluate public response. In many ways, VORTEX-SE represents a new approach to tornado research in general.”

MIRSL says that its two mobile radars include a polarimetric Doppler weather radar that volumetrically samples storms that pass within 60 km of its deployment site and a continuous frequency-modulated radar that collects vertical profiles of the atmospheric boundary layer throughout the experiment period. Further details on the radar instrumentation are available here. Current and past radar observations for VORTEX-SE are available here.

The NSSL explains that the number of killer tornadoes in the southeastern U.S. is disproportionately large when compared to the overall number of tornadoes throughout the country. Researchers believe this is caused by a series of physical and sociological factors, including tornadoes at night, in rugged terrain, as well as tornadoes occurring before the perceived peak of “tornado season,” during a time of year when storms typically move quickly. Other variables include the lack of visibility, inadequate shelter, and larger population density that increases the vulnerability of residents in this area.

In 2014, The United States Senate made way for the current research in the Southeast by declaring that “The southeastern United States commonly experiences devastating tornadoes under variables and conditions that differ considerably from the Midwest where conditions for tornado research have historically been focused. Within funds provided for Weather and Air Chemistry Research Programs, OAR shall collaborate with the National Science Foundation's VORTEX-SE to better understand how environmental factors that are characteristic of the southeast United States affect the formation, intensity, and storm path of tornadoes for this region.”

NSSL adds that VORTEX-SE is the first such experiment to have a focus on all of the processes ranging from the conditions and storms that produce the tornadoes and the way NOAA National Weather Service forecasters anticipate, detect, and warn for the tornadoes, to the way the end users receive and respond to that information. As such, it integrates meteorology, National Weather Service operations, and a broad range of social sciences.

Because of the rate at which technology and scientific knowledge evolve, VORTEX-SE aims to be an experiment that is flexible and can adapt quickly to new ways of making observations, and to new ideas in the atmospheric and social sciences.

“This is an exciting opportunity to learn more about tornadoes—still poorly understood in any region—and how people become aware of their threat and respond in ways that can protect their lives and property,” explains the NSSL.

NSSL is the executing partner and lead organization in developing the research program to meet the VORTEX-SE objectives because of its experience during the past 20 years in the previous VORTEX experiments. NSSL has brought together a number of tornado researchers and social scientists, including many from the southeastern U.S., to identify the most important and urgent areas of research. (April 2016)