Modeling Tornado Formation

Meteorologists, atmospheric scientists and many ‘citizen scientists’ are fascinated with the formation of tornadoes. The traditional approach to the study of tornado formation is to chase tornado-producing storms (mesocyclones) across the landscape, hoping to take video of their formation. Although very dangerous work, the study of these videos has resulted in many invaluable contributions to our understanding of how tornadoes form.

A new approach to the study of tornadoes involves the use of supercomputers. In these studies, atmospheric data from actual tornadoes is used to generate detailed computer models of air flow within the different parts of a mesocyclone. The advantage of the computer models is that they allow scientists to visualize interior parts of a tornado that cannot be seen from a distance.

For this video, you will watch an interview with Dr. Leigh Orf, one of the leading scientists in the field of tornado computer modeling. As you watch the video, answer the following questions which address some of his research discoveries and the important connections between computer modeling and tornado ground observation.

Upload your completed assignment as a .doc or .docx file to the designated dropbox by the posted deadline.

Watch the video, Science Inside a Tornado, and answer the following questions.

  1. Why does the National Weather Service have to issue a tornado warning for the majority of supercell storms, even though not all produce tornadoes?


  1. How do most scientists study the formation of tornadoes? How does Dr. Orf’s research differ from their method?


  1. What does Dr. Orf’s model propose about a tornado’s inflow air temperature? How is this different than most models for tornado formation?


  1. What is a ‘streamwise vorticity current’ (SVC)? How does Dr. Orf use SVC to model the path of air into the updraft of a tornado?


  1. In most theories based upon observational data, how is Rear Flank Downdraft (RFD) believed to act in the formation of tornadoes?


  1. What does Dr. Orf’s computer modeling research show about RFDs that suggests they might be ‘more of a symptom than a cause’ of tornado formation?
  2. Are the features of Dr. Orf’s computer generated mesocyclone consistent with observation of actual mesocyclones? If so, give two examples.


  1. Although Dr. Orf’s model seems to very accurately reproduce features of observed mesocyclones, what is a potential pitfall of computer modeling that could invalidate his model’s results?


  1. How can actual mesocyclone storm video footage be used to test Dr. Orf’s computer-generated model?


  1. Assuming that features in Dr. Orf’s computer model can be validated by observations of actual mesocyclones, what is the next step in Dr. Orf’s research in order for his model to be accepted as scientific theory?
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