News & Announcements

December 7, 2020

New Technology Will Help Detect Tornadoes Earlier

More than 1200 tornadoes were responsible for $3.1 billion in economic damage across the country in 2019, and they typically hit with less than 15 minutes warning. Many Virginians remember the 2019 tornado outbreak on May 14th that included two EF4 tornadoes and one powerful EF5, the first in the state’s recorded history. Injuries from these storms totaled 3,565 people across Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Scientists are now looking for a better way of predicting when and how a tornado forms and when one has landed.

How Weather Radar Came To Be

Weather Surveillance Radars (WSR) were first used in Washington, DC in March of 1947, following the end of WWII, when the National Weather Service received 25 radars used by Navy aircraft during the war. In 1949, an installation in Wichita, Kansas, was used for the first time to help a plane land safely during a thunderstorm. Weather radar as we know it today, commonly referred to as Doppler, developed out of these initial iterations and was first deployed in 1978.

While Doppler radar has come a long way in helping meteorologists track dangerous storms and warn people to seek shelter, there has always been a degree of uncertainty in determining when a tornado will form and if it will touch down. Eyewitness accounts and radar interpretation are how forecasts are made currently, but scientists are looking to change that.

Why Isn’t Radar Enough?

In issuing a tornado warning, meteorologists use Doppler radar to look for wind rotation at different atmosphere levels and for “debris balls,” which typically mean a tornado is on the ground and debris is flying through the air. Confirming that a tornado has hit the ground is tricky because radar aims at an angle above the horizon and is often placed more than 50 miles from the storm, elevating its “field of vision” by several meters.  Since it cannot read actual ground level activity for most storms, it isn’t until these “debris balls” reach an elevation where they can be detected by radar that meteorologists know the tornado has landed.

Tornadoes can spawn out of several types of storms such as thunderstorms, supercells, and squall lines. Knowing which storms will produce a tornado and in what conditions remains a mystery.

New Storm Prediction Technology

Infrasonic technology uses strategically placed microphones to pick up sounds 20MZ and below, which are not detectable by human ears. It was first deployed in the 1970s to detect illegal nuclear testing around the globe. This DOD-oriented program slowly morphed into evaluating different geophysical possibilities for hazard mitigation, starting with avalanches in 2003.

In more recent years, scientists at the Environmental Research Lab in Boulder, Colorado, have started studying the low-frequency sounds that emanate from storms. Anyone who has experienced a tornado knows one thing — they are loud. By filtering out wind noise, the microphones can pick up unique sounds related to tornado formation. As research continues, experts believe they will add 20-30 minutes additional warning time to the average 15-minute

average currently available for a tornado strike. The goal is to eliminate the need for eyewitness accounts and sole radar interpretation, saving more lives.

Other Infrasonic Technology Benefits

Infrasonic technology can be used to detect other natural hazards that affect Virginians. For example, by detecting the sounds ocean waves make when they collide with each other during a hurricane, scientists believe they can more accurately predict its intensity. Researches are testing the technology for earthquake prediction and storm development.

While this technology will not help prevent property damage, saving lives and preventing injury is at the heart of the research. When seconds count.