- August 16, 2011
- 1:43 pm
- Anastasia Busiek
Ahead of the storm
In April and May of this year, tornadoes tore through the United States. Almost 300 people were killed in a late-April barrage of tornadoes in the South. In May, storms tore through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas, and on May 22, a massive tornado swept through Joplin, Missouri, becoming the deadliest tornado since 1953. Although weather forecasting and warning systems have certainly improved in the last half-century, one reason tornadoes are still so destructive is that scientists have much to learn about them. Karen Kosiba (BS ’99), PhD, a research meteorologist and severe weather expert, is one of those scientists hoping to learn more.
“With the knowledge we have right now, on average, we have a 13-minute lead time on a tornado warning,” she says. “That isn’t a huge amount of time for people to plan and get to safety. The ultimate goal is to improve forecast models and warning systems, and to do that, there is still much to be learned about how tornadoes form and do damage.”
A physics major at Loyola, Kosiba earned a master’s in physics and in teacher education at Miami University and a PhD in atmospheric science at Purdue. She now works at the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colorado. A large part of her research is conducted in the field, which means driving up close to tornadoes in 25,000-pound trucks with radars on them—they’re called Doppler on Wheels (DOWs)—and collecting data on their wind structure and circumstances of formation.
“We become mobile during peak tornado season, usually May and most of June, in order to maximize our chances of collecting tornado data,” Kosiba says. “On a typical day, we forecast regions that likely will have favorable conditions for tornadoes, and then drive close to that region the night before. Once storms develop, we drive up close to phenomena and collect data.”
Unlike hurricanes, which are huge and can be tracked by satellite, tornadoes form and disappear relatively quickly. “The supercell storms that produce tornadoes look similar to the ones that don’t on the radar,” Kosiba explains. “That is one of the reasons we have a 75 percent false alarm rate.”
Kosiba and her fellow researchers hope to gather and analyze enough information about tornadoes to better determine when and where they’ll form.
Kosiba did not travel to Joplin to study the tornado that wreaked havoc on the town because the hilly and tree-filled landscape isn’t ideal for scientific instrumentation. Nevertheless, the research Kosiba and her colleagues are conducting may one day help to prevent the loss of life and property that characterized the Joplin disaster. The better tornadoes are understood, the more accurate and timely warning systems will become, enabling people to get safely out of harm’s way.