MAY 22

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by Hummer Storm Chaser

Moving North Toward Targets

DOW truck at storm
Bow Echo
Deployment strategy

Everywhere the armada of VORTEX2 scientists goes this May, local residents flag down the instrumented “Mobile Mesonet” vehicles and ask if they are expecting their town to get smashed by a tornado. The accurate answer to alarmed townsfolk is that the researchers and analysts and meteorological experts are positioning the mobile crews in proximity of driving distance to any weather event. Driving distance is generally about the five hours between when the steering committee of principal investigators decides where the most unstable weather is likely to occur by that evening, and about four or five p.m., when classic supercells like to form themselves into towers more massive than Mount Everest.

The scientists study four things: First, the National Weather Service makes public daily its atmospheric data from at least two weather balloons that each NWS office launches. When severe weather is predicted by sophisticated computer models, the NWS launches more balloons. The data is combined with fixed Doppler radar images of wind movement and atmospheric density, as well as from ground-based observation centers that are generally located at every big airport in North America. Then the data is analyzed by scientists at each NWS bureau to see if there is a threat of potential harm, and if there is, a warning is sent out. Private analysis firms also supply this data to media meteorologists, who then alert the public.

This system can predict where a storm may develop and impact lives during the course of five or six hours, but five or six days is still anyone’s guess, according to the scientists. The best predictions for these extended time periods come from computer models, very refined and data-rich versions of The Farmer’s Almanac, which still cannot determine with certainty if a storm will produce damage, and if that damage will be the most severe kind, which is that left in the wake of a tornado.

Given these variables, the VORTEX2 mission leaders have positioned the team in the land of Mount Rushmore, where giant mammoth fossils were discovered, just south of the largest gathering each year of motorcycles, and where geologic anomalies have produced stunning Black Hills landscapes.

The challenges to the data-gatherers is that the network of wireless connectivity is at its weakest in these places. Cell phone networks are spotty, and the ability of individual vehicles to transmit their locations to the Field Coordinator vehicle are often not working. Backup VHF radio tracking systems take over in these conditions, but they rely on antenna efficiency and their weakness is range.

The storms are predicted to fall either west or east of this historic American region, and in the next day or two. So positioned for this period, the various teams of precipitation measurement experts, wind measurement experts, photogrametry experts, and analysts are waiting for the storms, poised like lions in the grass waiting for prey.

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