WALNUT, Iowa — A multiyear project in the Great Plains rolled out Monday with hopes of better understanding supercell thunderstorms and the tornadoes they spawn.
Led by officials at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, the TORUS project — Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) of Supercells — is deployed until June 16, with a second deployment planned in 2020. Dozens of researchers from multiple academic institutions and the federal government are participating.
Researchers said they hope the project will help to improve forecasts for supercells, which are thunderstorms that spin, and the hazards they can produce.
“TORUS aims to use the data collected to improve the conceptual model of supercell thunderstorms (the parent storms of the most destructive tornadoes) by exposing how small-scale structures within these storms might lead to tornado formation,” according to the Earth Observing Laboratory at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
Officials at the University of Colorado-Boulder, a partner in the project, said this is “one of the largest and most ambitious drone-based investigations of meteorological phenomena ever,” adding it is “the largest study of its kind based on the geographical area covered,” with nearly all of the Plains in the target region.
Projects studying thunderstorms with an armada of storm-chasing scientists are not new, with PECAN in 2015 and the ongoing VORTEX-SE in the Deep South, which was based on the original VORTEX projects in the Plains.
Still, the use of four flying drones to study a storm is a first at this scale. Past projects have used one, at most. With additional drones, multiple parts of the storm and its environment can be sampled at once, bringing new insights to researchers.
The project will include more than a dozen mobile radars and networks of weather instruments capable of monitoring atmospheric conditions. Researchers will also use weather balloons to launch swarms of radiosondes, that obtain measurements of temperature, pressure, moisture and winds at different levels of the atmosphere. A manned Hurricane Hunter aircraft is also involved.
While the project rolled out under sunny skies and high pressure Monday, the pattern is expected to evolve into one that will support widespread severe weather in the Plains by the end of this week. It could be the start of a lengthy run of storminess.
Computer models have continued to suggest one of the stronger jet streams of the spring will flow out over the central U.S. during the second half of May. If such instability develops, outbreaks of severe weather and tornadoes are likely.
Although these storms can be dangerous, the timing of this volatile pattern seems favorable for the project.