Computer Versus Tornado, Who Wins?

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Computer Simulated Tornado
Computer Simulation Showing The Vorticity (Spin) In A Tornado | Image by Leigh Orf

Summertime across much of the United States means the threat of severe thunderstorms and even tornadoes. The recent landfall of Hurricane Laura produced storm surge, heavy rain, flooding, high winds, and even tornadoes. Twisters don’t occur in Oregon very often, but they can cause serious damage and threaten lives.

Leigh Orf
Leigh Orf | Photo by news.wisc.edu

I recently read an article on the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) website (nsf.gov) that described a new research technique to study the mechanisms involved in tornado formation. The article titled “Scientists create world’s most detailed tornado simulations” was published August 24, 2020. Scientists know a lot about how tornadoes form. The physics of tornadic development have been known for quite a while now. The article quoted Leigh Orf who is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose work is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation saying “For about two out of three times when there’s a tornado warning issued, there’s no tornado. We need to better for people to head these warnings. We don’t have remote sensing technology that can capture the dynamics and physics of full storms with the needed resolution to get to the bottom of their mysteries.”

Computer Simulated Tornado
Computer Simulation Showing The Vorticity (Spin) In A Tornado | Image by Leigh Orf

Orf developed the software he has been using on the most powerful supercomputers to produce virtual tornadoes using the atmospheric data available. Some of the simulations are with real-time data while others are after-the-fact simulations using data from previously occurring tornadoes.

Chungu Lu
Chungu Lu (Upper Left) | Image by twitter.com

The article also quoted Chungu Lu who is a program director at NFS’s Division of Geospace and Atmospheric Sciences saying: “Computer modeling has become a powerful tool in aiding scientists to understand how tornadoes are generated from their parent storms. It’s critical that computer simulations be conducted at ultra-high resolution, resolving every detail of the process during which a simulated tornado happens. Orf’s team is leading the way in this endeavor.”

Thunderstorm Simulation
Simulation And Visualization Of A Thunderstorm | Image by orf.media

This breakthrough work using computers to simulate the actual tornado development from a thunderstorm and activity could not have been even conceptualized without the early research developed by the man who has been known as the “Father of Tornado Research.”

His name is Tetsuya Theodore Fujita, also known as Ted Fujita or T. Theodore Fujita. It is, to say the least, interesting to research his background.

Close-up Fujita
T. Theodore Fujita With His F-Scale | Image by slideplayer.com

Britannica.com explains that Fujita was born in 1920 in Kitakyushu, Japan. This is only a snippet of his biography. He earned a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering from Meiji College of Technology in Tokyo. In 1944 he was an assistant physics professor in the college’s physics department. After completing his doctoral degree in 1953 he emigrated to the United States to work at the University of Chicago in their meteorology department. In 1968 he became a U.S. citizen and continued working at the University of Chicago until his death on November 19,1998.

Man-made Tornado
T. Ted Fujita Developed First Laboratory-made Tornado | Image by slideplayer.com

His research brought to the scientific community a better understanding of how tornadoes form and the power they contain. Fujita was the first to develop a way to make a tornado in a lab to study it up close. He was the first to put forth the theory and then prove that tornadoes can form in a “family” meaning multiple tornadoes developing from the same wall cloud and later research showed that, as an example, three tornadoes could form from one parent twister then separate and cause damage, then rejoin as one funnel and continue on its path.

Palm Sunday Outbreak
1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak | Image by sahs.us

Dr. Fujita studied the aftermath of a large-scale tornado outbreak, called the Palm Sunday Outbreak, that occurred on April 11th & 12th in 1965. The series of tornadoes ripped through 6 states including Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The outbreak resulted in 270 deaths with at least 5,000 persons injured and an estimated $250 million in damage. He was, here it comes again, the first to use extensive airborne photos of the damage and debris field to analyze the tornado paths and developed his “Fujita Scale” or F-Scale based on his interpretation of the angles of twisted debris to estimate the actual speed of the rotating vortex winds.

Quoting the Britannica.com “The capstone of Fujita’s work with tornadoes is considered by many to be his work with the super outbreak of April 3-4, 1974, a national-scale outbreak of 148 tornadoes (4 of the tornadoes were later reclassified as downbursts by Fujita). His maps of complex damage patterns aided his identification of previously undiscovered phenomena, the downburst and the microburst. These sudden, severe downdrafts can result in 250-km (150 mile-) per-hour winds on or near the ground that often uproot trees in discernible starburst patterns.” His theory was met with skepticism by the scientific community until he showed that a 1975 airliner crash at Kennedy Airport in New York City was  caused my microbursts.

Thunderstorm Downburst
Thunderstrorm Downburst Explained | Image by NOAA.gov through slideserve

When there has been damage that could have been caused by either a tornado or a downburst the National Weather Service sends an expert to discern which was the culprit. The tornado’s winds rotate around forming the spinning vortex while the downburst can come straight down from the cloud base or plummet at an angle to the ground. The tornado debris lays out in twisted formations while the downburst debris is either flattened vertically forming a starburst pattern or spread laterally striking trees, buildings, etc. flattening them in a straight line. They also look for drag marks on the ground which would be made by a tornado not a downburst. Aerial photographs are also used, as previously mentioned, and can make these patterns show up even more prominently.

Fujita EF Scale
Fujita Scale – Enhanced EF Scale | Image by smokeys-trail.com

Fujita’s F-Scale was revised in by a team of meteorologists and became known as The Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF-Scale). The National Weather Service adopted the EF-Scale in 2007 and Environment Canada (the Canadian National Weather Service) started using it in 2013.

Believe it or not, Fujita did most of his research and made most of his discoveries without having even seen a tornado up close. To remedy that he decided to go with the Storm Chasers in the field ( I believe in the 1970s) so he could witness the power of the tornado first hand.

Oregon Tornado Damage
Aumsville, OR EF-2 Tornado 12/14/2010 | Photo by The National Weather Service

We average only one tornado a year in the whole state of Oregon, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared to protect yourself if one drops down near you.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].

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