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Tornado hunter featured at USA Science and Engineering Festival

By — Moira E. McLaughlin,

Picture this: Hail the size of baseballs is raining down, denting your car. Winds are blowing around you at hundreds of miles an hour. You shout to your friend to close the car door, but then you realize he can’t because the door has been blown off. You yell to the driver to go! But the driver yells back that the winds are so strong that the car won’t move.

If you ever thought weather was boring, think again.

“We found the door a couple days later,” says Josh Wurman, 51, who is a meteorologist. (That means he studies weather.)

Chasing storms

Understanding what is going on with such dangerous storms, called supercell storms, is part of Wurman’s goal. They are the storms that give birth to tornadoes. If Wurman can figure out why some of them become tornadoes and some don’t, then maybe he can help give people more time to get to safety. Now, people get at most a 13-minute warning. And then often the tornado doesn’t form.

This weekend, you can meet Wurman and other meteorologists when he will be at the second USA Science and Engineering Festival, which will have hundreds of cool exhibits and thousands of hands-on activities. Pretend to fly a fighter jet plane. Meet a robot that can see, hear, feel and communicate. Or climb onto one of Wurman’s weather trucks and pretend like you’re the one chasing the storm.

After the festival, though, it’s back to work. For six weeks starting May 5, Wurman and his team of 28 people will chase supercell storms around the Midwest. They actually want to find tornadoes. About 1 to 5 minutes before a tornado passes, the team will drop small, heavy weather instruments called pods in front of the twisters.

The instruments will measure things like wind speed and temperature. The team will be driving in big weather trucks. Some of the trucks have computers and monitors in them showing satellite images and weather data, kind of like what you see on TV when the weather forecaster is talking.

“We want a slice of all the different pieces of the tornado,” Wurman says. “We’re trying to peel back the mystery of what is going on in the tornado.”

The team can find as many as 30 tornadoes a season.

Calm in the storm

You might think that Wurman is someone who likes danger and living on the edge. Really, he’s just a guy who has always loved science, nature and the weather. In elementary school, he liked to cut out weather maps.

“When a tornado is going on . . . I’m calm, talking calmly, trying to keep the team focused. . . . I’m not screaming.”

“The exciting thing about weather is that we live it every day,” Wurman says. “I can see it. It affects me today.”

— Moira E. McLaughlin

© The Washington Post Company