How Do We Study Tornadoes?

Plus: Do You Need a Tornado Safe Shed?

May 29, 2019
By Matt Schoch

As May’s remarkable string of devastating weather continued this week, scientists continue to attempt to understand tornadoes in order to better predict them. With an average of 27.5 tornadoes occurring each day during this most recent outbreak of severe weather, the 2019 season is off to a frantic start, just a year after an unusually mild season. Since record-keeping began in 1950, 2018 was the first year that there were no “violent” tornadoes measured in the U.S.

(PBS NewsHour has coverage of the destructive tornadoes (and subsequent flooding) in Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio and Indiana.)

While these tornadoes may have you thinking of dramatic Hollywood movies and amateur storm-chasers, in reality scientists are using a number of inventive methods to safely study weather patterns. Let's take a look at a few interesting ones:

The Tornado-Proof Armored Car

Just look at that thing. If any car is gonna survive a tornado, its that Batmobile-esque tank. In this clip from Wild Weather, you can see the car in action as it fires a flying probe into the heart of a tornado for the first time.


The Tornado Simulator

Entering a real tornado is one (very dangerous) way to conduct research, but sophisticated computer programs are allowing scientists to gain data and knowledge in a simulated environment. In this PBS NewsHour segment from 2017, see how supercomputers are changing the game for scientists.

The Link Between Climate Change and Tornadoes

Climate Change and Tornadoes
Last March, a series of destructive tornadoes struck the Southeast. Tornadoes have historically been associated with the Great Plains, not the Southeast. But what was once an uncommon event in the region has become increasingly common. In this article from PBS NewsHour, see how scientists are trying to understand if climate change is affecting not just the frequency and severity of tornadic events, but also if a new “Dixie Alley” is forming.

The Safe Shed

While scientists and meteorologists continue to understand and improve their predictions of tornadoes, preparedness is just as crucial. In this video from WSIU InFocus, our Southern Illinois station looks at these concrete storm shelters that sit above, not below, the ground and provide protection that exceeds the FEMA guidelines.

The Safe Room

Back in 2013, Ask This Old House’s Richard Trethewey visited Oklahoma to tour a special tornado-proof safe room. He also meets Tiffany, a homeowner that has ridden out several tornadoes in her own home, which provides a look at the mindset of many Oklahoma residents.

Everyday Preparedness

Tornadoes actually strike all 50 states, so while a safe room may not be practical in your state, it is important to understand what to do during a serious storm. This video from WKPO in Tennessee may be directed at residents of the Volunteer State, but it has tips and advice that are important for everyone.

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