Researchers Launch Extensive Severe-Storm Study Using Drones

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A drone-based investigation of severe storms will soon be launched by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Texas Tech University, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Severe Storms Laboratory.

More than 50 scientists and students are making final preparations for the May 15 start. Fieldwork for the project will continue until June 16 and will cover a 367,000-square-mile area of the Great Plains.

“If there’s a supercell thunderstorm anywhere in the region, we hope to be there,” says Adam Houston, associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and lead investigator.

The project – Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells, or TORUS – will exceed $2.5 million, with the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarding a three-year, $2.4 million grant and NOAA providing additional financial support.

“To understand how tornadoes are formed, we need to study their ‘parent’ storms, called supercells,” explains Chungu Lu, a program director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which is funding the project. “In TORUS, scientists will deploy a suite of radars and drones to observe these supercells. The results will increase our ability to forecast tornadoes.”

Houston says it is the largest-ever study of its kind based on the geographical area covered and the number of drones to be deployed. It will involve four unmanned aircraft systems, a NOAA P3 manned aircraft, eight mesonet trucks equipped with meteorological instruments, three mobile radar systems, a mobile LIDAR system and three balloon-borne sensor launchers.

Past studies have involved only one drone, Houston says. By flying four, scientists will be able to gather more data from different parts of a storm, answering a more extensive set of questions.

The goal is to collect data to improve the conceptual model of supercell thunderstorms, the parent storms of the most destructive tornadoes. Scientists hope to expose how small-scale structures within the storm – believed to be nearly invisible to all but the most precise research-grade instruments – contribute to tornado formation. By revealing the hidden composition of severe storms and associating it to the regularly observed environment, the TORUS project could improve supercell and tornado forecasts, the researchers say.

In turn, scientists want to reduce the number of false-alarm tornado warnings and improve the detection of the potentially lethal storms.

In April, Houston and students in his Severe Storms Research Group will finish building a “Mobile Mesonet” SUV specially fitted with the instrumentation needed for the study. It will be one of three such vehicles supplied for the study by the University of Nebraska. The fixed-wing drones that will be used in the study will be supplied and operated by the University of Colorado and the University of Nebraska.

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