How Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute helps the world prepare for tornadoes

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LUBBOCK, Texas — The secrets behind tornadoes’ destructive power may lie in a research facility tucked inside Lubbock’s Reese Technology Center.

Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute conducted leading research into severe storms for decades, providing insights into tornado forecasting and preparedness. They said the devastating storms of last Friday remind them of the importance of their work.

“The event from last Friday was terrible, but it really motivates the type of work that we do here,” Texas Tech professor of atmospheric science Dr. Chris Weiss said. “What we have found so far is that some of the buildings weren’t up to the published codes… the research we do here helps inform those codes so that we can build better structures.”

NWI’s facility hosts a debris impact facility and a wind tunnel, in which Dr. Weiss and his team fire 2×4 beams into walls and run tornado-force winds over mock structures. The data they collect informs governments of the safety standards they ought to require to help their cities weather the strongest storms.

The most intimidating piece of technology, however, is the massive tornado-making machine called The Vortech. By using a series of powerful fans and levers resembling airplane flaps, the NWI team manipulates the warm West Texas air inside their facility to create tornadoes for observation.

“We make mini tornadoes that we can actually stand in and observe,” Weiss said. I’d prefer [standing in] the tornado in the chamber versus the one out in the field, probably.”

When the tornadoes are in the field, NWI is right there with them. They showcased a fleet of mobile tornado labs, hauling a doppler radar encased in a giant protective “golf ball” that records data from tornadoes from as close as a mile away. Their team has raced these trucks to follow storms everywhere from the South Plains to the border of Canada.

“I’ve been pretty close to some tornados in the field as you might imagine,” Weiss said. “We try to always be safe of course and stay a fair distance away. Sometimes the atmosphere has a curveball for us and we have to react to that… after all, if we were perfect at predicting the storm, I wouldn’t be doing this job.”

While tornadoes are typically active in “Tornado Alley,” threatening Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas from April to June, Weiss stressed the impact that a changing climate has on their unpredictability. The EF-4 tornado that devastated Western Kentucky, for example, is an anomaly.

“[It] was certainly out of season for when we start talking about significant tornadoes,” Weiss said. “What we’re noticing when we look at the trend over the last couple decades, which may owe its existence to factors like climate change, we’re starting to see a shift in that tornadic activity.”

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