Storm Chasing History: Project VORTEX

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When you discuss historical storm chasing, it’s hard to leave out the name “VORTEX.” Project VORTEX1 was the first time that scientists were able to record the entire evolution of a tornado while using a complex array of instrumentation. VORTEX2 would study how tornadoes form and what causes them to dissipate. Both have proved pivotal to our modern understanding of the phenomenon.

Project VORTEX Origins

The Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment, or VORTEX, were a pair of projects that began in 1994 with the stated goal of understanding how tornadoes form and how they behave. This was possible with a very elaborate and complex network of instruments arrayed across numerous vehicles in a fleet.

The scientists involved with the original VORTEX project were able to fly Doppler weather radar over a tornado, allowing them to harvest valuable data from the storm. We can thank the first VORTEX project for helping the National Weather Service issue tornado warnings with as much as a 13-minute lead time.

What Were VORTEX2’s Contributions?

VORTEX2 picked up where VORTEX1 left off in 1995, operating in 2009 and 2010. VORTEX2 was huge in scale, comprised of a caravan of vehicles carrying scientific implements and some of the most accomplished storm chasing meteorologists in the world. The second VORTEX project aimed to get a better understanding of how tornadoes form.

Some of the most important things learned during the VORTEX2 project were the minor changes that cause tornadoes to form or shift. Importantly, this helped to show that tornadoes form over much shorter time spans than previously thought and can be affected by surprisingly small shifts in the weather.

Other VORTEX Projects

In the late 90s, projects SUB-VORTEX and VORTEX99 operated on smaller scales, gathering information to supplement the main VORTEX findings. Likewise, from 2016 to 2019, a supplementary study called VORTEX-SE investigated the tornado patterns of the Southeast US, aiming to add to the findings of the VORTEX2 project.

VORTEX has been a huge contributor to our understanding of the formation and movement of tornadoes. It’s likely that many lives have been saved thanks to the more advanced warning and accurate predictions. In truth, the field of storm chasing largely has VORTEX to thank for pioneering the way scientists study storms.

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Jeremy Liu
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Jeremy Liu

Jeremy Liu has always been fascinated by extreme weather—but he prefers to write about the world’s deadliest storms from the safety and comfort of his home office. He’s much less likely to get hit with a flying cow that way. (And yes, Jeremy’s favorite movie is Twister.)

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Jeremy Liu Written by Jeremy Liu