OKLAHOMA CITY – A lot can happen in twenty years.
The May 3rd F5 tornado sparked a new era of tornado research.
Scientists have been passionately pursuing the common goal of increasing lead time and saving lives.
There’s a reason scientists from all over the world come to Oklahoma to study tornadoes.
Every spring the heat rises, humidity climbs, and in a snap a sunny day can morph into a dark and deadly sky.
Twenty years ago one tornado set a benchmark Oklahomans never wanted to claim.
May 3, 1999, a mile-wide tornado ravaged bridge creek and doppler on wheels recorded peak winds to 318 mph, the fastest wind speed recorded on earth.
David Bodine is a research scientist at the University of Oklahoma and says this was the first time this kind of measurement had been taken with a violent tornado.
“You had radars on trucks for the first time that could be brought close to tornadoes to make observations that you have a pretty low chance of getting if you have a radar that just sits in one spot,” said Bodine.
The notoriety sparked a radar renaissance.
Twenty years ago, mobile radars scanned every five minutes.
Researches quickly realized after May 3rd that they weren’t scanning fast enough.
Bodine points out, “Some tornadoes don’t even last for five minutes. So, to understand how they form, what happens while they exist and how they dissipate, you need to be able to make observations about every 10 to 30 seconds.”
Fast forward to present day and radars are able to scan at unprecedented speeds.
Bodine says dishes can now spin as fast as 360 degrees in one second!
He says the newest technology is called phased array radar and is the radar of the future.
A mobile version of this kind of radar will be deployed this storm season and scientists have goal in mind, to understand tornadogenesis and compare it to storms that don’t produce tornadoes.
On the other side of the state, a different type of research is underway at Oklahoma State University using infrasound waves.
Brian Elbing is an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and is spearheading this unique type of research.
“We have special microphones designed to listen just like regular microphones just at frequencies below what humans hear,” explains Elbing.
The OSU team has been collecting data for the past two years, which both happened to be slower than normal storm seasons, but they did get a hit a few years ago on May 11, 2017.
Elbing says there was a small tornado in Perkins, Oklahoma and their equipment was able to pick up a very weak signal about ten minutes beforehand.
Elbing says the microphones can pick up a tornado signature up to an hour before it touches down and up to 100 miles away. It can also indicate the size and strength.
For the Perkins tornado example, the model said that the diameter of the tornado was about 50 meters and that was very close to what the damage width path was for this tornado.
Elbing says this signal is only picked up on storms that produce a tornado. He said their biggest challenge is figuring out what in the storm is emitting the sound.
Elbing says, “Once we know what makes it, we can then reverse it and just listen and know what the tornado or the storm making the tornado is doing.”
He says this is valuable information will greatly increase the confidence in tornado warnings and hopefully get the false alarm rates down without shortening lead times.
This technology can also help other tornado research teams by giving drones time to fly to the location that they think the tornado is forming.
Meteorologists across the country may be using this sooner than you think.
The OSU research team is currently working on feeding data to the National Weather Service in Tulsa.
Elbing says we may be only five years away from using this lifesaving technology every storm season.
Infrasound research can also be applied to lightning, hail and more cost-efficient ways of profiling the atmosphere.
This storm season, researchers will be deploying mobile units for the first time.