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by Hummer Storm Chaser

What is HUMMER doing in the Land of Oz?

Every year in the United States, about 700 or so tornadoes touch down. A handful of these are strong enough to wipe out entire towns. Before the advent of radar, every tornado was a surprise, some killing hundreds as they wiped out small towns. The majority of these killer twisters take place in the unique environment of the U.S. Great Plains, where warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico meets cold air cascading down the Rockies at the beginning of every summer. Nowhere else in the world is there the volume of tornados as in this 900-square-mile area. Since the National Weather Service implemented its latest Nexrad radar in 1988, the warning time for predicting tornados increased measurably. When the entire town of Greensburg, Kansas, was demolished two years ago, just nine residents were killed, plus a police officer rushing toward the town to offer aid.

Tornado forecasting has saved lives, yet the average warning time today is only about 13 minutes, and the false alarm rate is about 70 percent, according to government, university and private scientists, who still don’t know exactly why some tornados are large, and others small, and why some do more damage.

This year is historic, says tornado researcher Tim Marshall, who has been studying the phenomenon for more than 30 years. “No where else in the world has there ever been this many people gathered from so many places and disciplines with the goal of learning about tornados,” says Marshall, a damage assessment expert, civil engineer, and expert meteorologist.

Marshall and 32 other scientists have created the VORTEX2 project, which stands for Verification Of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment 2, that begins Monday. Another 60 or so scientists will also assist the project, and will utilize 40 vehicles, all specially designed for researching tornados. The Hummer H3T was selected this year as a severe-duty “probe” vehicle, responsible for deploying measurement instruments during high-risk thunderstorms in places where previous probe vehicles have not been able to do so safely.

The organization of the project and most of its funding have been contributed by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Many of the scientists are from universities worldwide. The researchers will be continuously mobile, riding in an armada of research vehicles, including ten radar-equipped trucks from the Center for Severe Weather Research, the University of Oklahoma, the National Severe Storms Laboratory, the University of Massachusetts, the Office of Naval Research, and Texas Tech University.

Ten instrumented four-wheel vehicles will also carry 38 deployable instrument packs, such as 120-pound “pods” from the CSWR, “Sticknets” from Texas Tech, four disdrometers from the universities of Colorado and Illinois, and weather balloons from the NSSL, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the State University of New York-Oswego, and unmanned aircraft from Colorado University, as well as photogrammetry and damage survey teams. Another 15 vehicles will serve scout and support functions for the project, which begins May 10 and runs through mid-June.

The largest group within this organization is the CSWR, run by Dr. Joshua Wurman, who has selected the HUMMER H3T as one of his team’s five “probe” vehicles, which carry mobile instruments into the paths of tornados, deploy the instruments and then move to safety. Because of the H3T’s unique attributes, it will enable the team to position instruments more precisely than is possible with normal passenger vehicles, giving the researchers options of using poor roads and deploying in poor conditions. The probe vehicles also carry mounted instruments and can be placed in different parts of the anatomy of a thunderstorm to get a more complete data picture of a storm.

Wurman’s team has three trucks called DOWs, meaning Doppler On Wheels, a concept he created a decade ago to get detailed images of tornadic storms. His staff consists of 24 engineers, meteorologists, students and recent PhD’s. All of the VORTEX2 teams will assemble at the National Severe Storms Lab in Norman, Oklahoma May 8 for a press conference to announce everyone’s duties and the expected results of the six-week field project—stay tuned for the Hummer H3T’s adventures.

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