The calm before the storm: Weather chasers gear up for the next tornado

By Puja Bhattacharjee

Sean Waugh is building two mobile mesonets from scratch In the Research Vehicle Equipment Bay of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Okla.  These mobile weather stations measure temperature, pressure, humidity  and wind in any  conditions.  But old vehicles with low floors make it difficult to chase tornados and other severe storms across dirt roads and uneven terrain.

So, NSSL rented two pickup trucks from the federal government.  NSSL is the weather research lab under the federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization (NOAA).

Waugh builds a metal frame around each rental car, one red and one black. The frames hold the instruments to track the intensity of tornadoes and other severe weather. They also shield the cars from hail  by adding wire meshing to the tops of the frames.

Spring is a busy time for meteorologists – chasing tornadoes and taking atmospheric measurements to study and analyze during the rest of the year.  The season has been quiet so far, this year and for a few years now in the Oklahoma area. Single tornadoes touch down in a day but not the multiples that are so dangerous for communities but offer ideal conditions to study storms.  Storm chasers are watching beyond Oklahoma, of course, and Canton, Texas, was hard hit in April. But NSSL did not have an active watch there. So, until the storms show up, lab meteorologists are busy preparing for when it does.

Another team is developing an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle systems to take temperature and relative humidity measurements in the lowest part of the atmosphere where weather systems break. It is a quadcopter, the size of a small drone with four rotating blades on it.

Elsewhere in the building, multiple teams are working on perfecting the existing weather forecast systems. Weather is fickle and can change at a moment’s notice. It is the source of both frustration and exhilaration for meteorologists. For now, at NSSL in Norman, it is the quiet before the storm.

The red car shows a completed mobile mesonet system.  Meteorologists build another mobile mesonet. (Puja Bhattacharjee/Medill)
Meteorologists test a prototype device for remote sensing of flash floods at Falls Creek, Okla. (Puja Bhattacharjee/Medill)
Three groups of forecasters from different parts of the country tested a new software for severe weather monitoring that will provide earlier warning times. They pursued the test at the Hazardous Weather Testbed in Norman, Okla. (Puja Bhattacharjee/Medill)
The instrument rack contains sensors for recording temperature, pressure, wind speed, dew point and other factors. When mounted and attached to a vehicle, it becomes a mobile mesonet. (Puja Bhattacharjee/Medill)
The Norman Forecast Office of the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. provides weather forecasts up to seven days in advance for 56 counties in central and western Oklahoma and Northwestern Texas. (Puja Bhattacharjee/Medill)
Matt Friedlein, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Chicago, joins forecasters from other parts of the country in Norma, Okla., to test a new software that will provide longer lead times for severe weather warning systems. (Puja Bhatacharjee/Medill)
Storm clouds appear over Norman, Okla., a day after severe tornadoes hit Canton, Texas, on April 29, 2017. (Puja Bhattacharjee/Medill)
Working with severe weather is hazardous. The windshield of meteorologist and hobbyist storm chaser Sean Waugh’s personal vehicle shows the scars of hail. (Puja Bhattacharjee/Medill)
Geographer and hydrologist Pierre-Alain Ayral takes measurements on the banks of a stream at Falls Creek, Okla., with a  total station, which is an electromagnetic distance measuring instrument. The data collected with the total station will then be matched to remote sensing of flash floods using LIDAR, or laser scanning, to determine if the light pulse sensor is working properly. (Puja Bhattacherjee/Medill)
Photo at top: Three groups of forecasters from different parts of the country tested a new software for severe weather monitoring that will provide earlier warning times. They pursued the test at the Hazardous Weather Testbed in Norman, Okla. (Puja Bhattacharjee/MEDILL)