Alabama to be hub of scientific study of Southern tornadoes

February 29, 2016 by Jeff Martin

About 40 scientists from around the nation are expected to participate in "VORTEX Southeast," an upcoming study of the unique characteristics of tornadoes that develop in the South, weather researchers say.

Like earlier studies in the Midwest, the research based in Huntsville, Alabama, will include mobile radars, drones and other equipment that can measure tornado intensity. It is set to run through March and April.

VORTEX, an acronym for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment, began in the mid-1990s with a large tornado study that helped inspired the Hollywood film "Twister."

Another large study, VORTEX 2, took place from 2009-2010.

This spring, researchers hope to learn more about the mysteries of Southern tornadoes, such as whether the landscape in the South gives them added power, and how to warn people at night, when many tornadoes strike in the South.

The research aims to find ways of better forecasting tornadoes, communicating warnings more effectively and finding out how the public responds to those warnings, according to documents from the National Severe Storms Laboratory, which is involved in the planning. The Norman, Oklahoma-based lab is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Unlike the original experiment, the latest iteration of the study will include several social scientists, who seek to learn more about how people respond to tornado threats in Southern states. They say they plan to conduct interviews with residents to probe the psychology behind tornado warnings and figure out ways to persuade people to take action when tornadoes are forecast.

It's human nature to seek "secondary confirmation" when tornado warnings are issued, but the nature of Southern tornadoes often prevents people from getting that, researchers say.

On the wide open plains in the Midwest, "people can just look out their window and see it coming from miles away and still have time to take action," said one of the researchers, Laura Myers, executive director of the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama.

That confirms the threat for them, prompting them to take cover.

But in the South, "we can't see them coming because of the terrain, the trees and they're often rain-wrapped," Myers said.

"We can't rely on that secondary confirmation," she said. "By the time we see it, it could be right on top of us."

So the question of how to satisfy people's psychological need for secondary confirmation is one focus of the research. Another is how to warn people at night, when many of the South's tornadoes tend to strike.

Michael Egnoto, an assistant clinical professor and researcher at the University of Maryland, has held focus groups in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Lexington, Kentucky; and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

"We've been working with meteorologists and they've been very, very open to the social science perspective," Egnoto said. "They're really excited about trying to understand the human factors and how that can positively impact outcomes: saving lives, reducing injuries and lowering the human and capital costs of storms."

Explore further: New research links tornado strength, frequency to climate change

Related Stories

NWS: New tool confirmed Miss. tornado

February 16, 2013

(AP)—Officials say new technology allowed forecasters in Mississippi to quickly confirm the tornado that tore through Hattiesburg this week and alert the public.

Florida more vulnerable to twisters than Midwest

June 13, 2014

(AP)—Oklahoma and Kansas may have the reputation as tornado hot spots, but a new analysis shows that Florida and the rest of the Southeast are far more vulnerable to killer twisters.

Recommended for you

How the Elwha dam removals changed the river's mouth

January 19, 2018

For decades, resource managers agreed that removing the two dams on the Elwha River would be a big win for the watershed as a whole and, in particular, for its anadromous trout and salmon. The dams sat on the river for more ...

Glacial moulin formation triggered by rapid lake drainage

January 18, 2018

Scientists are uncovering the mystery of how, where and when important glacial features called moulins form on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Moulins, vertical conduits that penetrate through the half-mile-deep ice, efficiently ...


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.