How exactly do tornadoes wreak havoc on homes, businesses, and the natural landscape? That's the question tornado scientist and National Geographic explorer Anton Seimon is trying to answer, with the help of some new technology.
Seimon and his experienced team of storm chasers recently took their tools into the field in Carpenter, Wyoming. A violent storm developed near there on June 12, producing a powerful series of tornadoes that Seimon and his team were able to capture on camera.
“We’re trying to see what tornadoes are doing at the surface, because that’s where the biggest impacts on humanity are—but it’s also the hardest place to measure,” Seimon said.
Although mobile research radars are useful, they can only scan tornadoes some distance above the surface and can’t clearly see what happens where damage occurs. Seimon said that high resolution video, on the other hand, “allows us to peer right into the troublesome zone of the tornado”—which is exactly what he and his team are hoping to accomplish during their chases.
“You need really clear views, and that’s what we’re trying to do so we can document a tornado’s interaction with the surface in the most visual way possible,” he said. (Learn more about the science of tornadoes.)
Seimon’s team is currently looking for ways to apply the tools and techniques they used during a previous project—the El Reno Survey—to learn more about how tornadoes register their lasting impacts on the surface.
The survey, which crowdsourced storm footage of the tornadic thunderstorm in El Reno, Oklahoma on May 31, 2013, allowed Seimon and other researchers to create 3-dimensional mapping of features of the major tornado at any particular time or location. That tornado, one of the most powerful ever recorded, was responsible for eight deaths, including that of long-time National Geographic storm chaser Tim Samaras and his research team.
Seimon said they’re now in the process of selecting new cases to use for similar data analyses and reconstructions. The Carpenter tornado is a possible candidate for new research—it was a strong and highly visual tornado, with many storm chasers in the vicinity.
“The great thing is that we can compare [footage from other chasers] with our own footage and gain more and different perspectives, which will help us map the wind field of that particular tornado during its progression across the landscape,” Seimon said.
Follow-up documentation in the path of tornadoes is also an important focus for Seimon and his team. By speaking with residents whose properties were in or around the paths of twisters, Seimon said they are able to collect valuable data that helps researchers document more details associated with wind speeds that led to the damages: “We can talk to residents and record exactly what, when, and where the damages exactly happened.”
Moving forward with his work, Seimon said he’s also considering the opportunities that drone footage can offer. Drones come with privacy concerns, however, and their use over homesteads is still in the works.
“If [a tornado] was going through a field, a drone could fly over the damage path of the tornado to look for indicators that can be paired up with the other things we’re identifying,” he said.
Although the traditional tornado season is over, Seimon said he’s still on standby, with significant tornadic activity still a possibility later in the year.
“It’s really, really interesting and amazing to be out there seeing nature do its thing,” Seimon said. “Whatever we can do to position ourselves around the storm for great imagery—while being safe—that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
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