P!Nterview: Dr. Christopher Weiss, Texas Tech University

Dr. Christopher Charles Weiss, associate professor of Atmospheric Science Department of Geosciences at Texas Tech University, studies the science behind tornadoes, a common but not completely understood weather phenomena. Dr. Weiss’ research interests include severe storm dynamics and “tornadogenesis,” the initiation and sustenance of deep moist convection, particularly as related to High Plains dry lines and radar meteorology.

Where is the safest place to go when a tornado hits?

If a tornado is coming towards you, the safest place to go is your basement. Often, not many people have a basement so their best option is an interior room. Put as many walls as possible between you and the tornado and make sure to stay away from windows. Debris can travel between 100-200 mph and often causes fatalities.

What environmental impacts can tornadoes have? Can they damage the environment?

The environment is carrying out its own agenda through severe weather like tornadoes. Tornadoes are a release of energy from the atmosphere.

How do tornadoes gain their strength?

This is something scientists are still trying to understand. Just because a tornado is bigger does not necessarily mean it is more powerful. The updraft in a thunderstorm plays a role in the intensity of the tornado. The column of air constricts and spins faster, creating a stronger tornado. The strength of a tornado depends on the storm it grows from. A tornado can pick up lofty pieces of debris. Vehicles can be tossed and some smaller vehicles can even be picked up. The power of a tornado needs to be respected.

What can someone do to prepare in the case that a tornado does occur?

During tornado season the strongest advice is to prepare a plan of action. You want to be able to make critical decisions in what could take 5 minutes, which is valuable time. You can have items ready in your basement in the case that you must stay there for an extended period of time before people are able to come and help you. A battery-powered radio is your manner of knowing what is going on outside of the basement. There are many things you can do now to be prepared for a tornado.

What are scientists doing to advance the warning people are given before a tornado hits?

The current project in place is VORTEX2, the original project was in the mid-90s. VORTEX2 focuses on following storms for 12 weeks and trying to find cues for when a tornado will form. This will allow a 20-30 minute timeframe for a warning; right now we have about half that time. Many warnings are false alarms and some warnings are missed. The goal is to find efficient warnings.

How can someone recognize signs of a tornado?

To an untrained eye, one thing to look for is a wall cloud, the updraft of the thunderstorm and is where the tornado is likely to start. Sometimes wall clouds are seen but are not always associated with updraft and will not always result in a tornado. Another sign to look for is visible rotation. A loud sound is at times associated with tornadoes and can be described as a very loud windy sound or a river flowing quickly, some accounts even state it being as loud as a freight train.

(Image: Courtesy of wunderground.com)