NSF News

Next-generation storm forecasting project aims to save lives

Severe storms have greatly impacted the Southeastern United States over the years. In the winter of 2022, there were more than 200 reported tornadoes and 14 fatalities. The human and economic impact of these severe storms cannot be overstated.

A key to dealing with storms and minimizing their severity is early forecasting and detection. The U.S. National Science Foundation, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, held a media day to demonstrate the dozens of instruments that will be deployed this month to measure the atmosphere near and inside storms, as part of the Propagation, Evolution, and Rotation in Linear Storms, or PERiLS campaign. The campaign is now in its second year.

"As recent tragic events have revealed, Southeastern tornadoes can be particularly violent and deadly.   PERiLS scientists hope to learn more about the complex ways in which these tornadoes form," said Karen Kosiba, NSF principal investigator and managing director of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's Flexible Array of Radars and Mesonets (FARM) facility. "If we can learn how, why, when and where they will form, then we can make better predictions, more precise and longer lead-time warnings and save lives."

PERILS Media Day
Credit: Cory Hancock
NSF PI Karen Kosiba interviewed by TV crew.

Storms in the Southeastern United States can pose a higher risk to people and property for two reasons. First, some storms and the tornadoes they produce can be challenging to predict in advance because they often develop and evolve quickly. Second, the Southeastern U.S. tends to be more vulnerable because of unique scientific and socioeconomic factors, which previous research has shown include the frequency of nighttime tornadoes, larger population density relative to other tornado-prone areas in the U.S., and the amount and distribution of mobile and manufactured homes that pose added risks for residents when tornadoes strike.

The project involves the coordination of about 30 teams in the field using a variety of equipment, including mobile radars, uncrewed aerial systems, trucks with instruments attached, and different kinds of portable devices designed to measure lightning and the atmosphere within and around storms.

"We are collecting an unprecedented data set to better understand tornadic storms in the Southeastern U.S., the environments in which they form, and the damage they leave behind," said Anthony Lyza, PERiLS coordinating scientist and postdoctoral research associate with NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations at the University of Oklahoma.

The researchers will have additional help from about 50 NOAA National Weather Service meteorologists who will join them in the field, and several weather service forecast offices will launch special weather balloons as needed to support the project. Additionally, NWS forecasters in the region will have access to the experimental data collected by the scientists to use in real time, aiding them in the quest for quicker prediction and more accuracy.

"PERiLS is yet another example of NSF investments benefiting every corner of this country. Working to find a solution to lessen the impact of severe storms is of paramount importance," said Sethuraman Panchanathan, NSF director. "We are grateful to Congress for their sustained support to this project.  This joint campaign between NSF and NOAA would not have been possible without their leadership and the resources to make it happen."