Gravity Waves Make Tornados

Mar 19, 2008
Gravity Waves Make Tornados

Did you know that there's a new breakfast food that helps meteorologists predict severe storms? Down South they call it "GrITs."

GrITs stands for Gravity wave Interactions with Tornadoes. "It's a computer model I developed to study how atmospheric gravity waves interact with severe storms," says research meteorologist Tim Coleman of the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

According to Coleman, wave-storm interactions are very important. If a gravity wave hits a rotating thunderstorm, it can sometimes spin that storm up into a tornado.

What is an atmospheric gravity wave? Coleman explains: "They are similar to waves on the surface of the ocean, but they roll through the air instead of the water. Gravity is what keeps them going. If you push water up and then it plops back down, it creates waves. It's the same with air."

Coleman left his job as a TV weather anchor in Birmingham to work on his Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. "I'm having fun," he says, but his smile and enthusiasm already gave that away.

"You can see gravity waves everywhere," he continues. "When I drove in to work this morning, I saw some waves in the clouds. I even think about wave dynamics on the water when I go fishing now."

Gravity waves get started when an impulse disturbs the atmosphere. An impulse could be, for instance, a wind shear, a thunderstorm updraft, or a sudden change in the jet stream. Gravity waves go billowing out from these disturbances like ripples around a rock thrown in a pond.

When a gravity wave bears down on a rotating thunderstorm, it compresses the storm. This, in turn, causes the storm to spin faster. To understand why, Coleman describes an ice skater spinning with her arms held straight out. "Her spin increases when she pulls her arms inward." Ditto for spinning storms: When they are compressed by gravity waves, they spin faster to conserve angular momentum.

"There is also wind shear in a gravity wave, and the storm can take that wind shear and tilt it and make even more spin. All of these factors may increase storm rotation, making it more powerful and more likely to produce a tornado."

"We've also seen at least one case of a tornado already on the ground (in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 8, 1998) which may have become more intense as it interacted with a gravity wave."

Coleman also points out that gravity waves sometimes come in sets, and with each passing wave, sometimes the tornado or rotating storm will grow stronger.

Tim and his boss, Dr. Kevin Knupp, are beginning the process of training National Weather Service and TV meteorologists to look for gravity waves in real-time, and to use the theories behind the GrITs model to modify forecasts accordingly.

Who would have thought grits could predict bad weather? "Just us meteorologists in Alabama," laughs Coleman. Seriously, though, Gravity wave Interactions with Tornadoes could be the next big thing in severe storm forecasting.

Note: The gravity waves of this story should not be confused with the gravitational waves of astrophysics. One is an ordinary wave of water or air; the other is a ripple in the fabric of spacetime itself.

Source: by Dauna Coulter, Science@NASA

Explore further: NASA balloons begin flying in Antarctica for 2014 campaign

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The RV Investigator's role in marine science

Dec 12, 2014

We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our deepest oceans, and only 12% of the ocean floor within Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone has so far been mapped.

Two spiral galaxies in the process of merging

Dec 12, 2014

At this time of year, there are lots of gatherings often decorated with festive lights. When galaxies get together, there is the chance of a spectacular light show as is the case with NGC 2207 and IC 2163

UW team explores large, restless volcanic field in Chile

Dec 01, 2014

If Brad Singer knew for sure what was happening three miles under an odd-shaped lake in the Andes, he might be less eager to spend a good part of his career investigating a volcanic field that has erupted ...

Recommended for you

Scientists make strides in tsunami warning since 2004

Dec 19, 2014

The 2004 tsunami led to greater global cooperation and improved techniques for detecting waves that could reach faraway shores, even though scientists still cannot predict when an earthquake will strike.

Trade winds ventilate the tropical oceans

Dec 19, 2014

Long-term observations indicate that the oxygen minimum zones in the tropical oceans have expanded in recent decades. The reason is still unknown. Now scientists at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

earls
4 / 5 (1) Mar 19, 2008
"Gravity Driven Waves" I feel would be a more appropriate label for the phenomenon.

This sort of thing seems rather Universal and should fit a single equation. Something along the lines of frequency and amplitude that translates into rate of rotation. All of the variables need to be identified however.

I'm sure a mathematical description already exists, I wish I had an education.
THEY
5 / 5 (1) Mar 19, 2008
I agree with you, considering gravity propagates at the speed of light........ "Gravity waves" is misleading as a name for this weather occurance.
Sophos
not rated yet Mar 20, 2008
Gravity wave huh?
Well he was a TV weather man so I guess accuracy is not such a priority to him!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.