Schizophrenic Spring

E-mail Melanie Martella

I don't know what's happening with the weather where you are, but up here in the woods of Southern NH, Spring has been…quirky, shall we say. On Saturday we had enough snow to make driving exciting in all kinds of bad ways and then on Wednesday we had temperatures in the 70s. But I can't really complain because, for all the wackiness we get up here, as far as severe weather goes, we tend to deal more with serious snowstorms and flooding than with tornadoes and hurricanes. Not so the southeast of the U.S., which has experienced some 300 tornadoes from a single storm.

The spring weather has been odd for much of the country, as Emily Sohn's article, "Strange Spring: Explaining This Year's Wild Weather" over at Discover News makes clear, so things are weird all over. But weird weather makes for chaos on the roads and, depending on the flavor of weirdness, sometimes it comes with a death toll.

To get an idea of the prevalence and severity of tornadoes in the U.S., take a look at NOAA's National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center, have a quiet boggle, and then look closer at the graph of the daily count of tornadoes so far this year. That is, quite simply, a huge number of tornadoes in the month of April. But this raises the question (to me, at least), of what kind of sensors are used to research the things? Sure, satellite-based sensors will give moisture and temperature readings, and radar is used for precipitation and its motion, and that's ignoring the other ground-based weather sensors, but are there tornado-specific sensors?

Not exactly. Consider VORTEX2, an epic attempt to understand tornadoes that finished its field season in June, 2010. It mobilized a battery of mobile radar of various types; Sticknets AKA rapid-deployment meteorological observing stations, each with a sonic anemometer, acoustic precipitation sensor, hail counter, temperature sensor, relative humidity sensor, and barometric pressure sensor; Tornado-Pods AKA hardened weather stations designed to survive when run over by a tornado; disdrometers that can distinguish between, and measure the drop size of, rain hail, and funky ice-covered snow called graupel; unmanned aircraft; mesonets (automated networks of weather stations); GPS loggers; and high-resolution cameras; a lot of dedicated people; and a raft of vehicles. Lots of your typical weather-measuring sensors, albeit hardened and mobile, but used to take a range and quantity of in-situ measurements not otherwise possible.

This doesn't help the people who are currently sorting through the debris and coming to grips with having a tornado come knocking, but if we are trending toward more storms, and more severe storms, any ammunition against them, in terms of improved forecasting and better early warning can only help.

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