Thursday, May 14, 2009

Scientists chasing killer tornadoes across Midwest

(I accompanied the original "Vortex" tornado chasers - most of them professional Phd scientists based mostly in Oklahoma - on two separate expeditions, in 1985 and again in 1995, while working at WBBM-TV in Chicago. In '85, after 2 long, boring weeks of hail and rainbows, we finally encountered a tornado near Ardmore, Oklahoma. I videotaped a special series for KARE-TV, and in a stroke of pure luck, was on the only chase where the portable weather instrument [nicknamed "Toto"] was brushed by an F-2 twister, knocking it into a nearby ditch, winds clocked at 80-90 mph along with a sharp pressure spike as the tornado passed overhead. The footage of that particular chase was sent to Kathleen Kennedy, a producer for the movie "Twister" as part of her research. To this day I have no idea if the video inspired some of the story line of the movie, but there are some amazing parallels and coincidences. In 1995 I went chasing again, tagging along with the professionals in storm vans. In northern Texas a small, fast-moving tornado passed between the lead chase van and our rental vehicle, almost hitting the scientists in front of us. The twister had to be moving at close to 50 mph, pointing out the inherent dangers of chasing in a fast-moving storm pattern. In these conditions it's almost impossible to surround a tornadic storm, launch weather balloons and successfully intercept a "supercell" thunderstorm capable of spawning a tornado).

(CNN) -- It sounds like something from the movie "Twister" -- teams of scientists in vans, armed with high-tech measuring equipment, barreling across the Oklahoma plains in search of tornadoes. But these scientists are colleagues, not rivals, and these storms aren't Hollywood digital wizardry but the real thing.

Welcome to VORTEX2, or V2 for short, the largest and most ambitious field experiment ever devoted to studying tornadoes. Now under way through June 13 in Oklahoma and surrounding states, the project brings together almost 100 scientists and students from 16 universities and research institutes.

VORTEX2 kicked off Sunday, and its teams didn't have to wait long to find the targets of their research. Violent storms tore through four Midwestern states Wednesday, killing three people in northern Missouri, according to Kansas City affiliate KMBC. The storms damaged dozens of homes and left thousands without power.

(To learn more about VORTEX2 and the current round of chasing going on over the Plains click here. BTW, they are trying to keep their exact location a secret, to avoid weather paparazzi and and traffic jams, literally in the middle of nowhere. On a big chase day hundreds, perhaps THOUSANDS of amatuer chasers converge on the Plains, hoping to see a tornado, trying desparately to get the "money shot" of a tornado touching down. I'm convinced that the biggest sport in Oklahoma, second only to Sooner college football, is tornado chasing!)

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