Tim Samaras: Since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in storms. As an engineer I try to understand how things work. So, I actually built and designed a device to measure the weather, basically, on the inside of a tornado.
The United States gets on average about 1200 tornadoes per year. And the reason is because of its unique geographic location. You have the Gulf Of Mexico off to the South, and these storm systems as they pass through draw this Gulf moisture as water vapor; it comes right up through the Midwest.
And spring time generally reflects a very, what we call a very active jet stream and it brings us very powerful winds that just comes right across the Midwest. That in combination allows these big storm systems to develop and of course wind shear is a very powerful ingredient for a tornado.
The ingredients for a tornado obviously are quite complex but some of the basics are, you have to have moisture, you have to have lift and then the other most important ingredient is what they call wind shear. And shear creates these big horizontal rolls in the atmosphere. And then when a thunderstorm forms underneath it, actually tips these horizontal rolls in a vertical position to where a thunderstorm forms over them, you can have the whole thunderstorm rotating.
Those final processes are what we are trying to study. What is bringing the rotation finally all the way to the ground and that’s really one of the biggest mysteries of tornado formation.
You know it is very difficult to forecast where a tornado is going to be. When we are actually in the field, waiting for thunderstorms to develop, we use what we call visible satellite imagery. This is basically a picture from space, showing the best areas, what we call instability, and that is s how and where are able to target these storms that are developing. Ground-based radar cannot even see these storms develop. Satellites can.
Satellites also detect what we call boundaries. These boundaries, left over from old thunderstorms, become the focus of new thunderstorms during the day and actually enhance the tornado potential.
Visible satellite technology allows us to identify this, which otherwise will be totally unnoticed and undetected.
One of the biggest things that I would like to see in future satellite technology, is the ability to actually see lightning within the cloud tops.
All the vertical motion so forth greatly enhances the ability to create lightning. This lightning mapping actually shows frequency. If the storm is becoming severe, the lightning frequency increases and thus being able to do an early detection of whether or not that storm is severe or not.
Text on screen: The lightning mapper on the next GOES satellite (GOES-R) will detect in-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning activity.
Tim Samaras: If we knew more about tornado genesis and structure and we are able to stretch that warning out to twenty five minutes, right now the average time is about fifteen minutes or so, that gives people more time to prepare and seek shelter.
Without the GOES satellite we’ll be back in the dark ages, the mid to early sixties. These GOES satellites are responsible, in my opinion, for saving many many thousands of lives.