EAPS Prof. Jeff Trapp experiences two tornados during field experiments


Ominous skies in Oklahoma

Ominous skies in Oklahoma.

A trip to Oklahoma to conduct weather balloon experiments for better detecting supercell thunderstorms saw Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary students and faculty in the midst of two May tornados.

Led by Jeff Trapp, EAPS professor and associate head of the department, and Prof. Michael Baldwin, the Purdue group traveled as part of the Mesoscale Predictability Experiment (MPEX), which ran from May 15 to June 15.

Trapp, Baldwin and their graduate students, Logan Dawson and Joe Woznicki,  sampled severe storms in Kansas, Texas, Nebraska and Wyoming, but their time in Oklahoma coincided with the May 31 storm that hit El Reno, Okla., and the national headline-making May 20 tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., just outside of Oklahoma City.

“Because supercells are the most prolific generators of tornadoes, we fully expected to encounter a tornadic storm at some point, and our sampling strategies were constructed with this in mind,” Trapp reported. “Despite the logistical challenges on May 31 of conducting operations in the Oklahoma City metro area, our weather ballooning teams were still able to safely complete their respective missions.”

Question:  What was the experience like when the tornados formed?

Answer: We had real-time weather-radar data that showed the intensity and track of the tornadoes.  At the time, we had a sense of foreboding; we didn't know how significant the tornadoes were until later, once we started to hear the damage reports.  

Q: What was the devastation like in person?

A: The devastation after the Moore tornado was particularly striking to me because of the large amounts of debris still found along the highways more than a week after the event. 

Q: How many other tornadoes have you experienced/studied? How did these Oklahoma storms compare?

A: I've personally experienced approximately 20 tornadoes, mostly through organized field campaigns, but have analyzed data on hundreds more. The supercell that spawned the El Reno tornado had some unique structure, such as multiple simultaneous hook echoes, which we hope to explain with our MPEX data.

A weather balloon soars before an Oklahoma storm.

Letting a weather balloon soar before an Oklahoma storm.

Double rainbow!!

A double rainbow in Oklahoma!

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