Scientists Convert Drones Into Tornado-Predicting Machines

Justin1569, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Justin1569, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The storm chasers of the future are lifting off today. Researchers at Oklahoma State University are developing a fleet of data-collecting drones that may help forecasters—and residents of tornado-prone regions—get ahead of dangerous weather events.

Not all storms are the same when it comes to predictability. Hurricanes and blizzards are pretty easy to spot. Meteorologists can typically call them days ahead of time. But tornadoes are wild, and they can whip up suddenly. Right now, our instruments can only spot a tornado 10 to 15 minutes before it happens. That’s simply not enough time for those in danger to get out of the way.

And while weather balloons are useful, their success depends on being in the right place at the right time. "Once dropped, they can’t move and thus are subject to the unpredictable nature of a storm," mechanical engineer Jamey Jacob told Popular Science. The ideal monitoring vehicle will be steerable, durable, and loaded with sensors.

Enter the drones.

Jacob and his colleagues hope to integrate the drones into normal forecasting instrument arrays within the next four years.

"Eventually what we want is to get to a point where you're watching the weather channel," says Jacob, "and they're reporting data that they're getting from the drones, and nobody cares—it's just the data that's coming in."

Once everything is up and running, Jacob told PBS NewsHour, the drones will ideally be able to extend storm warnings from 10 or 15 minutes to as much as an hour—which could give local residents enough time to prepare, batten down the hatches, or evacuate. “And you know that’s really going to save lives in the end.”

What is Lake-Effect Snow?

Tainar/iStock via Getty Images
Tainar/iStock via Getty Images

As you probably guessed, you need a lake to experience lake-effect snow. The primary factor in creating lake-effect snow is a temperature difference between the lake and the air above it. Because water has a high specific heat, it warms and cools much more slowly than the air around it. All summer, the sun heats the lake, which stays warm deep into autumn. When air temperatures dip, we get the necessary temperature difference for lake-effect snow.

As the cool air passes over the lake, moisture from the water evaporates and the air directly above the surface heats up. This warm, wet air rises and condenses, quickly forming heavy clouds. The rate of change in temperature as you move up through the air is known as the "lapse rate"; the greater the lapse rate, the more unstable a system is—and the more prone it is to create weather events.

Encountering the shore only exacerbates the situation. Increased friction causes the wind to slow down and clouds to "pile up" while hills and variable topography push air up even more dramatically, causing more cooling and more condensation.

The other major factors that determine the particulars of a lake-effect snowstorm are the orientation of the wind and the specific lake. Winds blowing along the length of a lake create greater "fetch," the area of water over which the wind blows, and thus more extreme storms like the one currently pummeling the Buffalo area. The constraints of the lake itself create stark boundaries between heavy snow and just a few flurries and literal walls of snow that advance onto the shore. The southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes are considered "snow belts" because, with winds prevailing from the northwest, these areas tend to get hit the hardest.

The One-Day Record Snowfalls In Each State

Greenseas/iStock via Getty Images
Greenseas/iStock via Getty Images

Long after you’ve grown out of believing in magic, every thick, whirling snowstorm still seems to have been cast upon your town by a winter warlock (or Frozen’s resident ice queen, Elsa).

It’s also pretty magical when those inches of stacked snowflakes add up to a message from your manager telling you not to come into the office. In southern states like Georgia or Florida, sometimes all it takes is a light dusting.

But even those characteristically balmy places have hosted some serious snowstorms over the years, and David Cusick for House Method crunched the numbers to find out which ones made the record books. Using data from the National Centers for Environmental Information, Cusick created a map showing the one-day record snowfall for each state.

Florida finished in last place with a scant total of 4 inches, which occurred in Santa Rosa County on March 6, 1954. About two years before that, on January 14, 1952, Colorado had a staggering 76 inches—that’s more than 3 inches per hour—a national record that’s remained unchallenged for nearly 70 years.

Made with Flourish

But other states have come close. The snowstorm that hit Colorado in 1952 wreaked almost as much havoc in California, whose record from the same day was 75 inches. And Washington saw 70 inches of snow in November 1955, beating its 52-inch record from 1935 by a full 18 inches.

Though Midwestern states have gained a reputation for harsh, snowy winters, their one-day record snowfalls are surprisingly moderate. The Illinois and Indiana records are 24 and 26 inches, respectively, both slightly lower than Ohio’s 30-inch snow day from 1901. In 1993, North Carolina bested Ohio’s record by 6 inches.

Wondering how your individual county’s record compares to the overall state one? Cusick created a map for that, too, which you can explore below.

Made with Flourish

[h/t House Method]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER