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Posted on July 3rd, 2012

Outside the Box – Tornadoes

Researchers at the University of Alabama-Huntsville received $150,000 dollars from the National Science Foundation to analyze tornado data in the hopes of better understanding how they come into being, and what are the best methods to help keep people alive who fall in their paths’. Numerous instruments are involved in the collection of the data used to address these core questions: wind and pressure measuring instruments; aerial imagery; and damage surveys are the most common items employed by the research team. UAH is home to the ARMOR (Advanced Radar for Meteorological and Operational Research) Doppler weather radar, a state of the art weather monitoring system originally constructed in 1977 for the National Weather Service. It has been updated numerous times over the years to improve its capabilities analyzing phenomena such as wind retrieval, pollution dispersion and lightning studies.

One year ago, Alabama was ravaged by tornadoes (as were many states who reside in “tornado alley”), and the researchers are analyzing the data they have collected from those storms. From this analysis, they hope to gain better insight into:

  1. Why 90% of the afternoon supercells (thunderstorms characterized by a persistent rotating updraft) on April 27, 2011 created tornadoes.
  2. The ability of changes in terrain to strengthen tornadoes as many people wrongly assume there is shelter in a valley.
  3. And how thermal boundaries affect the aggressiveness of tornadoes – cooler air from the north meets warmer air from the south at one of the most pivotal points in structuring a deadly tornado.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama was ravaged by the tornado season in 2011. Even though football divides the state between the Tide and War Eagle at Auburn in the south, the communities came together in a show of solidarity in the aftermath. Taken not too long after the devastation, this 50-cm natural color image was captured by WorldView-2 on May 5th, 2011 and comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Image Photo Enhanced by Apollo Mapping.


And what can be learned from these tornadoes that will be beneficial to the future of alternative energy? Louis Michaud, a retired engineer from Canada, believes that the structure of a tornado can be applied to a design that will have the ability to power a small city. By artificially creating a tornado in a 100-meter high cylinder through the highly-pressurized pumping of hot air into its base, the rise of the hot air will form a vacuum that continuously sucks in more hot air, leading to the funnel clouds many of us are familiar with. He estimates that his Atmospheric Vortex Engines could produce 200 megawatts of energy, enough to power a small city. While his design has been criticized because of cross-wind disruptions affecting the vortex, Michaud’s claims his prototype is able to do just what he says.

So perhaps the researchers at UAH can better understand how a tornado works to help better predict and prevent damage and death. And hopefully this will also lead to a better understanding of tornadoes for researchers like Michaud who are trying to apply ideas found in nature to find new sources of energy.

Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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