From the Heart of the Storm - Texas Tech's Field Research Programs
Tanya M. Brown
Texas Tech made headlines during the summer of 2009. But the headlines were not focused on the upcoming football season or funny comments made by former Head Coach Mike Leach. Instead, they were focused on a team of weather nerds. For five weeks in May and June, graduate students and faculty from Texas Tech and their partners, University of Michigan undergraduate students, battled through the rain, wind, hail, and a tornado, during VORTEX 2, the largest tornado research project in history, to collect valuable, one-of-a-kind data from the heart of the storms.
The team’s efforts were documented and featured in daily clips on The Weather Channel, in newspaper articles, in interviews with local media affiliates throughout the Plains, with the Washington Post’s "Capital Weather Group," and on the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) LiveScience features. The team had some old pros and some newbies on board and traveled thousands of miles to unlock some of Mother Nature’s most hidden secrets. The season culminated in dramatic fashion with the team finally making a tornado intercept with only nine days left of the project.
The backbone of Texas Tech’s field research programs is our unique surface observing platform called StickNets, so named for their resemblance to a stick-figure. The StickNets are portable weather stations that measure temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed and direction, and precipitation. The 24 StickNets were designed and built, and are maintained entirely by Texas Tech students in the Atmospheric Science Group and the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center.
Mike Bettes (left) of The Weather Channel joins Texas Tech team members Brian Hirth and Tanya Brown in a timed mock-deployment of StickNet on live TV. Credit: BCM, Texas Tech University.
Each StickNet consists of three parts: a 25-pound tripod with wind-sensing instruments mounted on top; a 35-pound data acquisition box, which collects and stores the data; and an 80-pound gray battery box, which extends the instrument’s run-time in a hurricane and adds more weight and stability to the platform. The StickNets are anchored to the ground via three 18-inch stakes driven into the ground through the legs. In the hurricane configuration, a strap is attached to the platform and driven into the ground with an earthscrew to provide additional stability. The StickNets travel in covered trailers and 4x4 pickup trucks. It takes two people about two minutes to deploy a StickNet for a thunderstorm, and about five minutes for a hurricane configuration. The fastest wind speed ever recorded by a StickNet in a severe thunderstorm is 80 mph, recorded in Valparaiso, Nebraska during Project MOBILE (Multiple Observations of Boundaries In the Local-storm Environment) 2008; the fastest speed recorded in a hurricane was 108 mph which occurred with the landfall of Hurricane Ike near Houston.
Over the past two years, Texas Tech has been designing, developing, and constructing two state-of-the-art mobile radar systems. The first of these, dubbed TTUKA-1, was completed just before the beginning of the severe storm season of 2009. These radars operate in the Ka-band frequency (35 GHz), and provide increased sensitivity compared to conventional radar systems, and offer high-resolution capabilities to capture the structure of the small-scale variability of the wind. The second radar, TTUKA-2, is nearing completion and will further Texas Tech’s field observation capabilities. The two radars, coupled with the surface observations provided by the StickNets will provide a 3D view of the wind structure of the atmosphere, and will allow a view of the wind field at the lowest levels of the atmosphere where it interacts with man’s built environment. The radars can also be used for numerous other studies; most recently they have been employed to evaluate wind flow through and around wind turbines and wind energy parks.
Severe Thunderstorm StickNet Missions
During 2006, 2007, and 2008, the StickNets were used during the spring to collect weather data from severe thunderstorms making their way through the Great Plains during Project MOBILE. Texas Tech teams have traveled as far as Minnesota to intercept these storms.
During thunderstorm missions, the fleet of StickNet vehicles consists of four trucks, each with three people and five-to-seven StickNet probes assigned to it, depending on the vehicle. Two people are responsible for deploying the instruments, while the remaining person serves as the navigator and remains in the vehicle to monitor radio communications and to log important information about the deployments, such as the time, GPS coordinates, any obstructions to the flow, and any instrument damage or errors upon retrieval. Teams travel in a caravan to target locations and wait for storms to develop, adjusting the location along the way. Once a target storm is selected, suitable deployment roadways are identified. Two of the trucks begin setting up their instruments in a large-scale array, with two-to-four miles between probes, about an hour before the storm will pass the target road. The remaining trucks wait to begin their setup until the storm gets closer, so they can adjust their position if needed to ensure an intercept, then they lay out a fine-scale array, with one mile or less between the probes. The goal of the missions is to collect data near the heart of the storm, to better understand the near-storm environment and its effect.
The StickNets are vital to accomplishing this goal, as weather observations are quite sparse, especially across the vast areas of the Great Plains. Prior to their development, researchers primarily relied on vehicle-mounted instrumentation, called Mobile Mesonets. Texas Tech maintains a fleet of four Mobile Mesonets, and while these instrument suites can collect vast amounts of valuable data, their proximity to the storm is limited for the safety of their passengers. Because the StickNets can be set up and left for the storm to pass over them, the teams can quickly deploy them and retreat to safety.
The first phase of VORTEX 2 (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment 2) began May 10, 2009, and lasted until June 15. Texas Tech was one of many groups taking part in the multi-million dollar project funded by the NSF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The goals of VORTEX 2 were to collect data from within a supercell thunderstorm, to better understand the near-storm environment and its effects on tornadogenesis. With this kind of understanding, scientists hope that they will be better able to forecast tornado occurrences, improve warning times so people have time to take shelter as well as decrease false alarm rates.
Texas Tech provided StickNets, which served as the primary surface observing platforms for the project. The StickNet team strategies were virtually the same as in the 2006-2008 severe thunderstorm seasons. VORTEX 2 was the debut for TTUKA-1, which was completed shortly before the project began. TTUKA-1 served as one of two tornado-scale mobile radars for the project, and captured the evolution and vortex structure of the LaGrange, Wyoming tornado on June 5. Whenever possible, TTUKA-1 was located in the near vicinity of the StickNet arrays, so that it could scan over the arrays to capture the 3D data that was desired. The Texas Tech VORTEX 2 team featured many veteran researchers to lead the efforts. All-in-all, two faculty members, one research faculty member, and 14 graduate students from Texas Tech, along with six students from the University of Michigan, lent their time and efforts to make the project a success. The Texas Tech team consisted of the largest number of total students, and the largest number of undergraduate students in the entire VORTEX 2 project.
TTUKA-1 gets up close and personal while scanning a storm. Credit: BCM, Texas Tech University.
VORTEX 2 proved to be a challenging and rewarding experience. The teams were on the road for almost 40 days, sharing hotels, eating fast food, driving hundreds of miles a day, being away from their friends, families, and daily lives, and putting their own research projects on hold to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Due to a slow storm season, only one tornado intercept was made, but despite the lack of tornadoes, the StickNet teams deployed 221 StickNet probes (including one six-hour stint of 36 deployments) for 25 storm events, many of which represented outstanding null cases. In order to understand tornadoes better and improve warnings, scientists must understand why some storms produce tornadoes while other storms that appear to be the same do not, so the null cases are just as valuable as the tornadic case.
The lone tornadic supercell occurred on June 5 near LaGrange, Wyoming, and was just what the project leaders were hoping for – slow-moving, long-lived, and in an unpopulated area. The entire event was captured from beginning to end. Teams were in place as funnels emerged from the cloudbase three times before finally making contact with the ground creating a tornado. Measurements were made until the tornado dissipated almost 30 minutes later. With all of the radars and instruments in place collecting data, this tornado is now the most documented tornado in history.
During VORTEX 2, several teams from The Weather Channel were embedded to document the project and educate the public about it. Students and faculty from Texas Tech provided numerous interviews about the project, the instrumentation, and their specific missions and tasks. The Weather Channel also featured live footage of storm intercepts and deployments, which included a StickNet deployment on live television with the LaGrange tornado on the ground in the background of the shot. The following links can be used to view the videos featuring the Texas Tech team and their instruments.
- Tools of the Chase
- What is a StickNet?
- Radar Love
- Hurry Up and Wait
- High-tech Radar
- Staying Ahead of the Storm
- Playing Marco Polo
- Multi-vortex Tornado! Holy Cow!
- Today's Top Forecasts
- The Analysis Begins
The Texas Tech VORTEX 2 team was also featured in a record-breaking five articles for NSF’s LiveScience online initiative, marketed towards U.S. adults 18-54 who are intellectually curious about science and technology. The first article entitled "Behind the Scenes: Students Venture into Hearts of Violent Storms," which highlighted the StickNet instrumentation and previous severe thunderstorm and hurricane intercepts, was released exactly one month before VORTEX 2 kicked off. An additional LiveScience article entitled "Scientists Get in Path of Tornado" was released in August, and featured a photo of Texas Tech team members Ian Giammanco and Frank Lombardo making a deployment with the LaGrange tornado looming down on them.
LiveScience also profiled three of our researchers – Chris Weiss, Giammanco, and Sarah Dillingham. Weiss is an assistant professor in atmospheric science and the principal investigator for Texas Tech’s involvement in the VORTEX 2 project. Weiss has participated in field research since his time as a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, where he worked under one of the most recognized names in the world of meteorology, Howie Bluestein. During VORTEX 2, Weiss coordinated the efforts of all four StickNet vehicles and TTUKA-1, while also serving as the navigator and recorder for StickNet team 1. Giammanco, a then fourth-year doctoral student in Wind Science and Engineering, had previously participated in Texas Tech’s field research in Projects WIRL (Wheeled Investigation of the Rear-Flank Downdraft Lifecycles) in 2004-2005 and MOBILE in 2006-2008. He is also the field coordinator for the Texas Tech University Hurricane Research Team (TTUHRT) and has participated in hurricane deployments since 2003. During VORTEX 2, Giammanco served as the vehicle leader for StickNet team 3, and was also responsible for instrument maintenance and repairs and radio communications. Dillingham, a then first-year masters student in atmospheric science, was participating in her first organized field research program, but she had plenty of experience handling the StickNet instruments. Early on in her career at Texas Tech, she took an interest in the field instrumentation and learned how to maintain and repair the StickNets and participated in much of the testing and preparation leading up to VORTEX 2. She is using StickNet data captured from Project MOBILE 2008 for her master’s thesis. During VORTEX 2, Dillingham was a member of StickNet team 3, and served primarily as their navigator and recorder, but was also used in several deployments as well. Each of these team members was instrumental in the first phase of VORTEX 2 and each provided a unique viewpoint on their experiences in scientific research and their perspectives on the field research campaigns. All three will return for phase 2 of VORTEX 2, beginning May 1, 2010.
Undergraduate Research Experience: The University of Michigan Partnership
University of Michigan student Mike Texter and Texas Tech University student Tanya Brown give this StickNet a last check before racing away from the LaGrange, Wyoming tornado to the next deployment site. Credit: Adam Davis, University of Michigan.
Texas Tech is becoming very well known and respected in the world of field research, with more than a decade of hurricane intercepts and many years of severe thunderstorm research. The students have an outstanding opportunity to work in the field and get a hands-on education of the atmosphere and the instruments used to study it. Field research at Texas Tech is unique because of the large participation and responsibility given to the students. Texas Tech graduate students are more involved in the data collection, analysis, instrumentation, and maintenance than at any other university. This type of hands-on learning has generated much interest, and has led to the partnership with the University of Michigan. Since 2006, the University of Michigan’s Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Science Department has sent a team of undergraduate students and their graduate student supervisor to participate with Texas Tech in severe thunderstorm research. These students receive credit for a summer course. For students who do not see much severe weather in Michigan, they have an opportunity to not only study severe weather but also to get hands-on experience in field work, which is rare for undergraduate students.
During Project MOBILE in 2006-2008, the University of Michigan teams were primarily responsible for operating the Mobile Mesonets, although several students were also used in StickNet teams. During VORTEX 2, the six Michigan students and their graduate student supervisor were vital to the project, scouting out open areas for TTUKA-1 to operate, and serving as navigators and making deployments on the StickNet teams. Quite simply, Texas Tech could not have done it without them. These students were phenomenal and shouldered the largest responsibilities of any undergraduate students on the project. The Texas Tech team is very fortunate to have formed such a strong and valuable partnership with a peer public research university, and looks forward to many more years of continued collaboration. This partnership is also a useful recruiting tool – Brad Charboneau, a three-year member of the Michigan team, enrolled for his first semester of graduate school at Texas Tech in the fall and will join return as a seasoned veteran for the 2010 phase of VORTEX 2. An additional three-to-five University of Michigan students are expected to apply for acceptance into the master’s program for next fall.
Texas Tech University Hurricane Research Team
In addition to ground-breaking severe thunderstorm research, the six members of the Texas Tech University Hurricane Research Team (TTUHRT) use StickNets and TTUKA-1 to collect data from landfalling tropical cyclones, to document the wind field. These data are especially important, as conventional observing stations often fail in the prolonged high winds of a hurricane when the power goes out. The group hopes that in the future, this kind of data can be provided in real-time to weather forecasters, emergency managers, and first responders. There is also hope that engineers will be able to use high-quality data like this to build stronger buildings, to eliminate or reduce the kind of wind damage caused during recent hurricane seasons.
TTUHRT has deployed field instrumentation into landfalling tropical cyclones since 1998, when team founder and principal investigator John Schroeder completed a field study on Hurricane Bonnie for his own dissertation. Instrumentation at that time consisted of a single, trailer-mounted instrumented 10 meter tower. Over the next several years a second trailer-mounted tower, and three free-standing towers were constructed for use, and the SMART-radars were occasionally available for use in hurricane studies. Despite these assets Schroeder and then newcomer Chris Weiss desired more observational platforms with a focus on making them rapidly-deployable so they could be used for both severe thunderstorm work and hurricane research. Thus, the concept of the StickNet was hatched.
Team members from Texas Tech and the University of Michigan pose with The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes and get their guns up! Credit: Joe Merchant, University of Michigan.
Although the fleet of 24 probes was fully completed by the 2007 Atlantic hurricanesSeason, the lack of U.S. landfalls prevented a hurricane deployment until the 2008 season. In 2008, the team made three deployments, for Hurricanes Dolly and Ike in Texas, and for Hurricane Gustav in Louisiana. Sixty-six probes were deployed for these systems, covering a wide range of exposures and terrains. Probes were deployed on sand dunes, on salt domes, on forts, on levees, at the Tabasco and Morton Salt plants in Louisiana, and on the devastated Bolivar Peninsula. Deployments in previous seasons featured the five towers from Texas Tech and six towers from two other schools – 24 StickNets more than doubled the number of observations available, and they proved to be more maneuverable and more versatile than the bigger and more cumbersome towers.
The StickNet teams can go places that the tower teams cannot and because of the rapidly-deployable nature of StickNet, they can wait longer before making deployments, resulting in better deployment accuracy as the storm approaches the coastline. The StickNets have proven their value as a cutting-edge tool for hurricane research, standing up to winds over 100 mph. They have survived rising storm surge water up to 3.5 feet, and flowing surge water over 2 feet. A StickNet survived to capture a full data record on the Bolivar Peninsula, where thousands of homes were destroyed by storm surge. The team knows that there is no way to prevent hurricanes, but hopes that the data will someday make forecasts and warnings better, and can be used to help prevent future losses.
The 2009 Atlantic hurricane season was a relatively normal season in terms of the number of storm systems, but there were very few U.S. landfalls. The team deployed just once, for Tropical Storm Ida, an odd late-season storm that came ashore near Gulf Shores, Alabama. The real objective for this season was to test TTUKA-1 in the tropical cyclone environment, and to collect overlapping data with the StickNets. The deployment was a success and the team is looking forward to the second radar’s completion for use next fall. NSF’s LiveScience again featured a piece on Texas Tech’s field research. An article titled "Storm Tracking Goes Hi-Tech" was released in December, highlighting the team’s deployments for Tropical Storm Ida and featuring a photo of a StickNet perched atop Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island.
This StickNet probe located near Winnie, Texas survived 3.5 feet of rising water during Hurricane Ike and collected a full data record. Credit: Tanya Brown, Texas Tech University.
The past decade has been an exciting time for Texas Tech’s field research programs. Armed with the newly developed StickNets and the state-of-the-art Ka-band mobile Doppler radars, Texas Tech has emerged as one of the world’s top research programs for collecting field data in both thunderstorm and hurricane environments. The assets and capabilities of the field programs make this a desirable place for students to pursue graduate degrees, and the applicant pool is increasing each year.
Team members have the opportunity to make a contribution toward advancing the fields of meteorology and wind engineering, while studying weather phenomena first-hand. Under the leadership of John Schroeder and Chris Weiss, the Texas Tech teams will continue to push the envelope, making scientifically-relevant deployments to collect valuable data, and developing new, innovative technologies to study nature’s tempests. Look for the Texas Tech VORTEX 2 team on The Weather Channel beginning May 1, 2010.
Tanya Brown is a doctoral candidate in wind science and engineering, from Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her primary research interest is the remote-sensing of windstorm damage. She has been participating in TTU’s severe thunderstorm research efforts since 2007 and will lead one of four StickNet teams in the 2010 phase of VORTEX 2. She has been a member of TTUHRT since 2008, making deployments for Hurricanes Dolly, Gustav, and Ike, and Tropical Storm Ida.