A Real Life Version of 'Twister'

May 18, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Tornado Chasers
UNL Professor Adam Houston in 2019 on a storm chasing mission (Photo: Nebraska Public Media)

A team of scientists headed by a UNL professor is doing research right now that could save lives in the future. The research is a real-life version of an iconic movie.

When you mention tornado chasers, most people think of the classic 1996 movie ‘Twister’.

“In spirit it’s the same, the details of course, are vastly different, ” said UNL atmospheric scientist Prof. Adam Houston.

He’s leading a group of real-life tornado chasers, out in the field right now , trying to get a deeper understanding of super-cell thunderstorms that spawn deadly and destructive twisters across the Great Plains.

They’ll be out chasing storms for about a month , with an arsenal of equipment on the ground, a P-2 Hurricane hunter plane in the air, drones and weather balloons – looking at what’s called air mass boundaries.

“Essentially what an air mass boundary is, is a feature we can sample at the surface and aloft that separate 2 different bodies of air," Houston said. "These are fairly large bodies of air, they’re bigger than a city.”

Professor Houston says some tornadoes form on these boundaries and his team is trying to figure out how they play into tornadic development.

The long game is to add to the base of knowledge about storms, but also to help give people warning.

“Improvement, refinement of our knowledge base will help forecasting supercells and tornadoes," he said.

The official name of the project is TORUS, an acronym for 'Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells'. A total of around 60 people will be participating in the month-long field project.

This is the first time the team has been out in the field since 2019 – the past two years’ field projects were cancelled due to the pandemic.