Tornadoes in Wisconsin, Montana spur early warning system
The VORTEX-2 tornado research project completed last week aims to increase warning times and reduce false alarms.
With the 2010 US tornado season in full swing, scientists are diving into a treasure trove of data gathered during VORTEX 2 – the largest tornado research project ever undertaken.Skip to next paragraph
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The ultimate goal of the project, which ended last week, is to increase warning times while reducing the false-alarm rate, says Joshua Wurman, president of the non-profit Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., and one of the project's lead scientists.
"Right now, we have an average 13-minute warning with a 70 percent false-alarm rate," Dr. Wurman says. "If VORTEX 2 can get us up to 15 or 18 minutes, that's still a substantial improvement. That's a lot of extra time for people to seek shelter. And if you can get the false alarm rate down to 60 percent or 50 percent, people will have a lot more confidence that when a warning is issued, it really means business."
At a cursory level, it might seem as though the main beneficiaries of advanced warnings are people who live in "tornado alley," a broad swath of the Great Plains that runs north from central Texas into eastern South Dakota and western Iowa.
Data on tornado locations gathered between 1953 and 2004 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climate Data Center in Asheville, N.C., however, show that every state and territory save for Alaska and Puerto Rico has experienced twisters.
On Sunday, for instance, Billings, Mont., took a direct hit from a tornado that destroyed a vacant arena that the day before held 7,000 people watching an Indoor Football League game, according to press reports. Several commercial buildings were flattened. For all the damage, estimated in the millions of dollars, no casualties have been reported.
The tornado appeared so suddenly that the local National Weather Service reportedly issued its warning shortly after local storm spotters called in the twister. On average, the state experiences seven tornadoes a year.