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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 06/15/2009

VORTEX2 Turns Heads in Tornado Alley

By Andrew Freedman

* Chance of showers, then drier & cool: Full Forecast *

One of the Mobile radar units, an X-Band Mobile Radar, scanning a storm on June 4. By Andrew Freedman.

During the five weeks ending this past weekend, the scientists of VORTEX2, which is the largest tornado research project in history, were constantly on the move in search of potentially tornadic thunderstorms to study. For example, Thursday alone they crisscrossed parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado and collected data on a supercell thunderstorm that, despite signs that it might do so, did not in the end produce a tornado. That data set could prove valuable to the researchers, who are trying to unlock the secrets of why some supercells produce tornadoes while other similar storms do not.

Wherever the scientific "armada" of radar-mounted vehicles passed through, be it heavily populated Wichita, Kansas, or tiny Kearney, Nebraska, the reaction it evoked from the locals -- ranging from amazement to fear to outright panic -- was almost as interesting as the severe weather itself (well, not quite as interesting, but still...).

Keep reading for more on the public reaction to the armada of storm chasers...

While traveling with VORTEX2 for one week, I saw the excitement created by approximately three-dozen highly specialized research platforms speeding through small and large towns often turn into fears centered on whether the armada's appearance signaled a coming apocalypse. "Are we going to get hit?" was the common question asked by local residents. It was a particularly terrifying prospect that was evident on the faces of citizens of Greensburg, Kansas, which was flattened by an EF-5 tornado two years ago, and was threatened by a severe storm last week that brought VORTEX2 nearby.

The record suggests that the VORTEX2 armada, which ended operations for this year on Saturday, may actually have been more of a tornado inhibitor than a harbinger of calamity, considering that the team only collected data on a single confirmed tornado. Regardless of the odds of a tornado touchdown, however, vehicles as strange looking as mobile weather radars, and the tank-like "Tornado Intercept Vehicle" that sometimes joined the VORTEX2 motorcade, were sufficient to strike fear in the hearts of tornado alley residents.

In fact, at times riding along with the VORTEX2 armada felt like being in a presidential motorcade -- except the scientists were much geekier than the Secret Service and they didn't have police motorcycle escorts (except for the amateur chasers who were all too eager to tag along in the hopes that the team of experts would lead them to a tornado).

There were a whopping 10 mobile radar units that traveled in the armada, each with a different design and look. Every one of the radars turned heads, from the large truck-mounted C-Band mobile radars designed to scan a storm from 500 meters above the ground up to the top of the storms, to the more nimble W-Band radar that scans tornadoes at a resolution so high that it can detect the cloud droplets of a tornado in addition to any embedded debris and precipitation.

There was also a field command vehicle, officially known as the "FC," that is a converted ambulance with the imposing lettering of "National Severe Storms Laboratory" painted across it, with a large satellite dish on the roof. When the FC pulled into a Pizza Hut parking lot in a small town in eastern Kansas last week, patrons rushed outside to take pictures with their cell phone cameras, and then used those same cell phones to warn their loved ones of the impending doom signaled by the truck's presence.

Business owners, however, saw dollar signs in the armada. Hotels, such as the Holiday Inn and Suites in Wichita, offered us special "Tornado Twister" drink specials. And last week, after a long day of chasing storms along the Cheyenne Ridge in northeast Colorado, word went out over the armada's radio network that a Pizza Hut near the evening's hotels would stay open late, specifically for the tornado team.

In addition to any restaurants that serve food between 11 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., which is when the armada tended to get to its overnight location after a chase day, gas stations and rest stops along the chase route make out extremely well too. The owner of one gas station in northeastern Colorado (I lost track of exact gas station locations after a while) was so grateful that the team stopped in his station to gas up and pig out on candy bars while waiting for storms to fire, that he handed out free Snickers bars as a thank you gesture.

"This is once in a lifetime that you people stop here," he told me, which suggests that he either had been following VORTEX2's progress on The Weather Channel or he thought we were visitors from another galaxy who had chosen him as our point of contact.

According to Glen Romine, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, someone even tried to sell watches to members of the armada when they rolled into town.

Following the end of VORTEX2's field operations next year (May 1-June 15), it would be interesting to see an economic analysis of how much the project boosted the economy of parts of the Great Plains. In addition, someone may wish to look into how to make mobile Doppler radars, command vehicles and other specialized equipment look more innocuous.

The author spent a week in the Midwest riding along with VORTEX2 team.

More VORTEX2 coverage

By Andrew Freedman  | June 15, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Freedman, Humor, News & Notes, Science, VORTEX2  
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I'm officially jealous.

Posted by: Brian-CapitalWeatherGang | June 15, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Wonder what would happen if a VORTEX2 vehicle got too close to a tornado...has this ever happened to any amateur storm chasers???

Posted by: Bombo47jea | June 15, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I used to drive the Mount Washington Observatory's Weathermobile around when I worked there - a Subaru with a roof rack weather station and colorful decals of mountains and severe weather along the sides. Based on a few funny and interesting reactions I observed while traveling in it (e.g., the toll booth worker who exclaimed "I love you!" when I rolled up to the booth and the cop that pulled me over to ask, "what is that paraphernalia on top of your car?"), I can only imagine the reactions people had to the VORTEX2 vehicles. It would be interesting to have one of these on display at a science or weather museum in the mid-West to help residents understand tornado research. Of course, there's always the educational benefit of the The Weather Channel coverage too.

I also visited Greensburg last fall and can only imagine the fear the townspeople had when the tornado team rolled up in their fleet.

Like Brian, I am jealous. So glad you got to witness the only confirmed tornado of the project so far!

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | June 15, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Andrew, thank you for the detailed write-up! I am, um....amateurishly jealous.

Posted by: --sg | June 15, 2009 10:02 PM | Report abuse

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