This past April, Chattanooga experienced something uncommon for this area, something that is all too common in the Midwest. I sat on my porch in East Ridge watching impossibly dark clouds roll over the horizon, wondering where I could possibly take my family to keep them safe. The trees in the backyard were already leaning, eager to fall through the living room at any moment. We were lucky, however. The storms surrounded us, but the damage made a clean circle around our street. Ringgold and Tuscaloosa weren’t as lucky. If storms like these are to be survived, people need to be warned as soon as possible, giving them a chance to get to safety.
VORTEX2 is a project funded by the National Science Foundation that has been collecting data from storms for the past eight years. Ending in 2010, the project had more than 100 researchers and 40 vehicles, all tasked with getting as close to a tornado as possible in order to measure the conditions needed to produce one of nature’s most devastating forces. The research team is featured prominently in the Tennessee Aquarium’s new IMAX film, Tornado Alley 3D. Filmmaker Sean Casey, from the Discovery Channel’s show Storm Chasers, has produced a 43-minute documentary showcasing these researchers and the storms they want so strongly to understand. At the center of the film are Casey and his post-apocalyptic armored car, the Tornado Intercept Vehicle. Casey and his team are hoping to drive the TIV directly into the center of a tornado and document an event no one has ever been able to. I met with two of the VORTEX2 team the night before Tornado Alley premiered at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX.
Dr. Karen Kosiba, one of the researchers in the film, doesn’t seem much like a storm chaser. Her slight build and quiet confidence make her appear more at home indoors, analyzing data and studying spreadsheets, than tearing around the Great Plains in giant mobile radar trucks underneath dangerous supercells hoping for perfect tornado conditions. I asked the good doctor what the ultimate goal is for the project.
“The goals are somewhat multifaceted, I guess. Primarily, we are interested in forecasting tornados accurately,” Dr. Kosiba says. “But we’re also interested in tornado genesis, how they form, and why some storms produce tornadoes and others don’t.”
The answer has something to do with hook curvature in a supercell, requiring specific conditions involving circulating warm and cool air. I can’t say that I understand much of what Dr. Kosiba described. My knowledge of extreme weather extends to staying out of it whenever I can. Dr. Kosiba’s compatriot, Andrew Arnold, doesn’t share my concerns. One of his jobs as a tech for the team is to place the pods, 140-lb. measurement tools equipped with cameras, into the path of likely tornadoes. Because tornadoes are so unpredictable, he has to place 16 different pods at 100-meter intervals within three minutes. Even at this speed, the team hasn’t yet been able to get a direct hit on a pod. Tornadoes are fickle mistresses.
The film highlights both the excitement found in chasing storms across Texas and Wyoming and the boredom of a sunny, spring day. Casey has stated that one of his filmmaking goals was to make the storms central characters, letting them take a life of their own. He succeeds in extraordinary fashion. There are otherworldly moments in this film, moments that can only be experienced in an IMAX setting. My heart pounded as Casey and his team rushed alongside a funnel cloud that looked to be a mile across, edging closer and closer. The tornado then changed direction, chasing the chasers. Any precautions Casey might have taken, any modifications the TIV might have, seem flimsy when faced with an erratic mountain of wind, dust, and debris. Casey walks a thin line between bravery and foolishness and tends to stray dangerously close the latter. Here be dragons, and Casey might as well be dressed in tinfoil compared to the awesome power of nature’s fury.