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Naval Academy Professor’s Research May Help Predict Tornadoes

Posted on: July 17, 2013 08:00 EDT by Jessica Clark

A Naval Academy professor recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue research that could lead to a model for predicting tornado activity in the U.S.

Oceanography Professor Brad Barrett’s research was also published in the most recent edition of “Geophysical Research Letters,” a leading scientific journal in the meteorological, oceanography, and geosciences communities.

There is currently no ability to predict tornado activity with statistical confidence beyond five or six days. To be able to do that would be useful for emergency planners in areas potentially affected by large-scale weather events such as tornadoes, said Barrett.

Central to Barrett’s research is the relationship between weather and the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), a kind of cousin to the better known El Niño-Southern Oscillation in that it is also a large meteorological pattern that has global effects.

Barrett first considered the possibility that tornado activity in the U.S. could be impacted by the MJO in 2012, when he posed the idea to his senior capstone class. Two midshipmen (Michael Freedman and David Sumrall) volunteered to help with the research as their final project.

The MJO is driven by thunderstorms in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Northern Australia. As tremendous volumes of air repeatedly rise into the atmosphere, it eventually triggers a wave that travels east along the equator around the planet, said Barrett.

“Within one season, you’ll have one or two of these Madden-Julian Oscillation events that will pass around the planet,” he said. “As it goes around the planet, it affects mid-latitude and even polar weather.”

The MJO is characterized by eight phases. The numbers correspond to the global location of the active, thunderstorm-producing part of the MJO during its 30-60 day cycle.

By analyzing tornado data from 1990 to the present, Barrett and the midshipmen were able to determine that different phases of the MJO could intensify a normal outbreak of tornadoes or reduce them in an area of marginal tornado activity.

At this point, Barrett called in a colleague, Vittorio Gensini, assistant professor of meteorology at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Gensini is co-author of the recently published article.

“He and I worked this spring on developing the statistical framework for the relationship between the large-scale atmosphere, the MJO, and tornadoes,” said Barrett.

Barrett will continue working on this research in the upcoming academic year with Midshipman 1st Class Brittany Henley. Developing a predictive model is one goal of their research. They also intend to explore the relationship between the MJO and other weather events such as wind and hail.

“Some parts of the world don’t see a lot of tornadoes but can still get hail and wind events that may be affected by the same mechanism,” said Barrett.

For Barrett, it was especially gratifying to have the midshipmen involved in this project.

“To have them exposed to the science process early on – to me, that’s great,” he said.

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