Texas Tech University

Researchers Complete Study of Southeastern Tornado Development

Cara Vandergriff

June 24, 2016


Three atmospheric science researchers participated in the VORTEX-SE project earlier this year to learn more about tornado development in the Southeast.

Chris Weiss

In order to improve our understanding of how tornadoes develop, travel and intensify in the southeastern United States, three Texas Tech University researchers participated this spring in the Verification of the Origin of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment-Southeast (VORTEX-SE), a two-month study investigating tornado activity in the Central and Southern Plains regions.

Chris Weiss, a Texas Tech associate professor of atmospheric science specializing in severe storm dynamics and tornadogenesis, said the intention of the VORTEX-SE study was to explore how landscape and the near-storm environment in the southeastern region contribute to tornado development.

“The project was a success all around in terms of our Texas Tech component,” Weiss said. “We had two or three big storm events occur that we were able to gather some useful samples from, so I think we were definitely able to meet the criteria for the project in a number of ways.”


The VORTEX-SE investigation was mandated by the U.S. Congress after several significant tornado events occurred in the Southeast, prompting an interest in how specific types of tornado systems develop in the region's unique terrain. In addition to Weiss, Eric Bruning, associate professor of atmospheric sciences specializing in storm electrification, and Johannes Dahl, assistant professor of atmospheric science specializing in convective storm dynamics and supercells and tornadoes, also were involved in the study, along with doctoral students Vanna Chmielewski and Aaron Hill.

Eric Bruning

Because factors such as temperature, humidity, wind and lightning can contribute to tornado development, the VORTEX-SE researchers set out to identify which specific features serve as precursors to tornadoes as well as to better understand how downdrafts from southeastern thunderstorms differ from those in other locations.

By using observational platforms developed at Texas Tech, such as StickNet probes, lightning mapping array stations and weather balloon vehicles, the researchers measured a number of factors important in determining the development of tornadoes.

“We were able to deploy quite a few observation facilities spanning out over 100 miles, which we used to capture events we couldn't normally measure with targeted observations,” Weiss said. “We were able to gather a significant pre-tornadic sample ahead of one large event, as well as gathering some data from another group of rotating storms a few weeks later.” 

Johannes Dahl

The project, which was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and organized by the National Severe Storms Laboratory, aims to use its results to further explore a number of tornado-related issues, including how to improve the accuracy of tornado warnings.

“We learned quite a bit, especially considering this project marked the first time anyone has carried out a coordinated field project on tornadoes in this part of the country,” Weiss said. “What we've gathered does seem to suggest the terrain of this area has an impact on storm development, but we need a much more robust sample to make confident conclusions. We have a much better feel for the lay of the land now, so if we're lucky enough to continue our research next year we hope to be able to incorporate many new aspects we learned this year.”

Weiss said the group has been recommended for funding to continue its research in 2017, saying the experience gained in this year's study laid a strong foundation for more specific research in the future.

“We will take the knowledge we gained this year and use it to learn even more next year,” Weiss said. “We want to explore specific environmental features that we've found could potentially interact with developing storm systems to produce tornadoes.”

In terms of experience, Weiss said, the Texas Tech team began the VORTEX-SE project with next to none in the southeastern area. However, after directly observing and measuring three major storm events throughout the duration of the study, the researchers are hopeful they'll have even greater success next year.

“This was a foundation-building year for us,” Weiss said, “and we have a lot of new knowledge now that will help us make next season even better.”