MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The largest, most sophisticated tornado chase ever is roaming the Great Plains looking for storms. VORTEX2 wraps up a five-week trek on Saturday. The original VORTEX inspired the movie "Twister."
In the film, scientists chased tornadoes past flying tractors and right through an intact, rolling farmhouse.
(Soundbite of movie, "Twister")
Mr. BILL PAXTON (Actor): (As Bill Harding) Oh, my God.
Ms. HELEN HUNT (Actress): (Dr. Jo Harding) My God.
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Harding) I think we're going in.
NORRIS: Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports that the actual roving experiment hasn't been quite that kind of a white-knuckle ride, but it is cracking some of the mysteries about tornadoes and finding ways to save lives.
FRANK MORRIS: Every spring here in the Midwest, kids, even little ones like these five year olds in a Kansas City preschool, have to learn about tornadoes. They have lots of questions.
Unidentified Child #1: How do tornadoes start?
Unidentified Child #2: Yeah, how?
Unidentified Child #3: How do they start?
MORRIS: Good one.
Unidentified Child #4: How do they start?
MORRIS: Fact is, nobody knows. But the federal government is spending $12 million to try to find out.
(Soundbite of a siren)
Tornado sirens blare as a fierce storm lashes Maysville, Missouri. The sky is dramatic, a tornado seems imminent.
A few miles away, in a truck humming with equipment, Erik Rasmussen watches, looking for clues as to why some intense thunderstorms spawn twisters, some don't.
Dr. ERIK RASMUSSEN (Co-Chief Investigator, VORTEX2): Well, that's, you know, that's the question that the whole experiment is about. You get a storm that looks like this. It really - normally, we would expect it to be producing a tornado, but it's not. So hopefully, all the data we gather, when we analyze it later, we can answer that question.
MORRIS: This truck is the command post for VORTEX2. Rasmussen shifts his attention between the clouds churning outside his window to the radar images and data flashing on the screens. Bright dots map some 40 vehicles he's deployed to surround and monitor this storm.
Herbert Stein operates one of them.
Mr. HERBERT STEIN: Big Blue right here. This is a mobile Doppler weather radar.
MORRIS: Ten radar trucks rush into position ahead of the storms and paint the weather systems with very high definition, overlapping images.
Mr. STEIN: If you look at all the data, with all the radar, and it is, it's like little slices through different levels.
MORRIS: Hail-dented minivans and trucks with banks of whirling gizmos on top fan out. Then, there's Sean Casey's homemade tank.
Mr. SEAN CASEY (Documentary filmmaker): What we have here is a 14,000-pound armored vehicle called the Tornado Intercept Vehicle, or TIV for short.
MORRIS: Casey's a documentary filmmaker, not officially part of VORTEX2. He built this turtle-looking, ironclad monstrosity himself. See, close isn't good enough for Casey. He wants to drive into tornadoes. He loves them.
Mr. CASEY: Tornadoes, you know, they're magical. They're these ethereal entities that seemingly appear out of nothingness.
MORRIS: Unfortunately for Vortex 2, the jet stream took a freaky turn late this spring and all but shut down the High Plains tornado season. The fleet roamed a month without seeing a single twister. Finally, the drought broke in Wyoming.
(Soundbite of hail storm)
Baseball-sized, windshield-cracking hail pummeled the VORTEX armada as it caught its first actual tornado, but Josh Wurman says they were all over it.
Dr. JOSH WURMAN (President, Center for Severe Weather Research): We got more scientific instruments, more different kinds of data of different varieties, more radars, more surface instruments than we ever had before. So it is by far the most studied tornado ever.
MORRIS: And Wurman, who co-directs VORTEX2 with Erik Rasmussen, says those mountains of data will come in handy.
Dr. WURMAN: If we can understand more about tornadoes, then we can make better warnings. If we can get the warning lead time up from its current 13 minutes to 20 or 30 minutes, that's great. People's lives will be saved. If we can reduce the false alarm rate from its current 70 percent down to 50 percent or even lower, then those warnings will be more precise. People might take action more if they know there's a lower false alarm rate.
MORRIS: Back in the command truck, Erik Rasmussen is tapping out a message to the rest of the fleet: No tornado today.
Dr. RASMUSSEN: Mission has ended. Nice deployment here. Okay, that's it. And now, we start looking at tomorrow.
MORRIS: Rasmussen brings up a complicated-looking weather map and plots the following day's course. He's also looking ahead to the second year of this experiment and perhaps to better hunting when VORTEX2 goes on the chase next tornado season.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
(Soundbite of music)
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