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The average warning for a tornado comes about 15 minutes to the event, but more time isn't necessarily the answer to avoid damage and death.

Tornado warnings: Three new efforts to save lives

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    Friday, May 5, 2017, 3:51 PM - Right now, you have approximately 15 minutes to prepare for the potential of a tornado touching down in your area.

    But forecasting isn't a simple process and a tornado on the ground requires a "perfect storm" of ingredients to come together in just the right order. Currently, Environment Canada and its American counterpart, the National Weather Service, are able to warn people of an incoming tornado 10 to 15 minutes in advance. There is also some interesting science being conducted by a group known as The Sirens Project, a crowd-funded research project using drones and GoPro cameras to better understand tornadoes and the science behind outbreaks.

    As more data becomes available and technology improves, that warning time could be extended. But is that always a good thing? Not everyone thinks so.


    Here in Canada, tornado season brings an average of 62 verified tornadoes every year. To inform residents that bad weather could be headed in their direction, Environment Canada uses a watch/warning system.

    "The watch usually has a lead time of a few hours. Sometimes three to six hours before significant weather happens," Geoff Coulson, Warning Preparedness Meteorologist at Environment Canada, told The Weather Network. "Watches cover broad areas where the ingredients could come together. We're taking about potential."

    If those ingredients come together, Environment Canada takes the next step: issuing a tornado warning.

    "Warnings have a much higher confidence level and the area is smaller," Coulson said. If a tornado warning has been issued, the tornado is imminent or happening.

    On June 17, 2014 an EF2 tornado ripped through Angus, Ontario. A tornado watch was issued three hours ahead of the tornado.

    On June 17, 2014 an EF2 tornado ripped through Angus, Ontario. A tornado watch was issued three hours ahead of the tornado.

    Tornado forecasting is a product of years of research and developing a better understanding of how these displays of nature come to exist. To improve times and accuracy, more information is necessary.


    To that extent Warren Causey turned his passion into The Sirens Project—a program that involves drones flying into tornadoes to gather valuable information. 

    Causey started storm chasing out of high school and into his University years. While he's close to completing a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Southern Polytechnic State University, his future is closely tied to tornado prediction. After the death of storm chaser Tim Samaras, a hero for a generation of people like Causey, he decided to use his love of tornadoes as the fuel to make a major difference in the field. 

    Funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Sirens Project will head out in May 2015 to send three altered wing drones into the field in the hopes of gathering information as they fly into tornadoes. The custom unmanned aerial vehicles will record data and send it back to Causey via radio signal.

    "Basically we’re looking at it in two ways: We want the meteorological data like the pressure, temperature and humidity from inside the tornado and engineering data measured through the gyroscope and accelerometer,” Causey said. "The meteorological data will provide enhancements to tornado forecasting and tornado simulation. So you can plug in this real data set that we sampled during a live event instead of a theoretical data plugged into a computer.”

    Their project is one that many experts are keeping a close eye on but it's not without some major risks.

    "Forecasting when tornadoes will occur is a finicky science. You win some and you lose some. The only way to ensure that we get our UAVs into a tornado is to be ready to deploy on every severe weather event we can," Causey said on his Kickstarter page. "This type of project has never been done before. There is a learning curve in being the first to do something."

    Challenges aside, a success from The Sirens Project could give forecaster new factors and parameters to consider when it comes to forecasting. 

    The WoF

    Studying tornadoes is what raised warnings from five minutes in the past to 15 minutes we see today. In the U.S., a team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working on a system called Warn-on Forecast (WoF). The intent is to double the warning time available when tornadoes form.

    "Over the years, both the new radar network that can detect the flow of the direction combined with our improved understanding why severe weather can [create a tornado] have improved our warnings But we noticed that we peaked and we can't sort of get over those 15 minutes." said Dr. Louis Wicker, the project director for the Warn-on Forecast research done at the NOAA's National Severe Storm Laboratories.

    To extend the 15 minute peak, WoF was started five years ago. It combines high-resolution surface, satellite and radar data to create models that are capable of predicting weather hazards like tornadoes 30 to 60 minutes before they form.

    "We try to assess intensity, but that's very far from where we are right now," Wicker said. "Most importantly we focus on getting the warnings out earlier and get it to the right people."

    Emergency managers can go with a less accurate forecast and allow them to make key decisions such as removing emergency vehicles from the city, protecting them and allowing them to return if and when the tornado has hit the area. The WoF project will continue for another five years at which point, it will be up to the government to decide if making WoF the standard is feasible or not. The warnings require powerful computer systems that come at a major cost.

    As tornado forecasting improves, some scientists in the field want to make sure that the main message isn't lost. More time does not equal more lives saved.

    Kim Klockow, a meteorologist and behavioral scientist at University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, has found through surveys and studies that additional time doesn't result in the right decision being mad. Instead of preparing for a disaster or seeking shelter, people can't seem to fight their innate desire to flee.

    To illustrate her findings, Klockow talks about the tornado outbreak of 2013. On May 20, 2013 a powerful tornado touched down near Oklahoma city destroying homes and even a school. A little over 10 days later, the general area was threatened by a new storm. With the destruction fresh on their minds, many residents took to the roads to leave the city before the tornado hit. It wasn't long before the roads were jammed and traffic forced the cars to a standstill. Fortunately, the storm changed direction and the city avoided what could have been one of the greatest natural disasters in tornado history. The amount of deaths could have exceeded even Hurricane Katrina.

    "Some of the gaps [that lead to this poor decision] include people not knowing how safe their homes really are. People see the destruction and they don't know that 99 per cent of people survive in well built home, even in the worst tornadoes," Klockow said. "If you're trapped in a car, even a small tornado could kill you."

    What's most worrisome to people like Klockow is that Oklahoma is no stranger when it comes to tornadoes.

    "Keep in mind, that this region is one of the most tornado-savvy in the U.S.," Klockow explains. "They deal with [tornadoes] every year.

    Klockow think that weather and science organizations need to come together to inform the general public about tornado safety.

    "We need to work with national weather services to communicate the same message. Not just communicate about the hazards but communicate about safety," Klockow said. "Be prepared. What would you do if a storm was coming? It's really important to have a plan. People with a plan do so much better in these events."

    It's a sentiment that is echoed by Environment Canada, here at home.

    [Independent of the time available for warnings,] what's important is paying attention. It can increase your level of personal preparedness," Coulson said.

    If knowledge is power, than this knowledge could have the power to save your life one day.

    MUST-SEE: The REAL story behind Oklahoma's 'tiger-nado'.

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