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Stunning new tornado simulation may help meteorologists unlock their secrets

ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - Weather experts are calling it the most realistic computer simulation of a tornado ever created.  Dr. Cathy Finely at Saint Louis University played a big role in making it happen. She is part of a team of meteorologists from around the country that are working together to bring this simulated tornado to life.

“What we are trying to do is model supercell thunderstorms, which are the rotating thunderstorms that produce tornadoes and tornadoes at a very high resolution,” says Finley.

Creating the simulation required high quality field observations to use as the initial conditions for the model. The El Reno, Oklahoma tornado of 2011 was a good fit. The team also needed some high-power computing capability to do the insane number crunching. They chose the Blue Water super computer at the University of Illinois. And even with it’s incredible capabilities, the simulation still took a week to generate. That is in part due to the very high resolution the model is being run at. Previous models were run at 1km resolution. Dr. Finley and her team slashed that to just 30 meters. It is like using a magnifying glass on the atmosphere.

That kind of resolution ins necessary to resolve some of the biggest questions in tornadogenesis according to Finley. “We have a good idea of how supercells form and how they acquire their rotation but we still don’t understand how and why tornadoes form.”

The results are stunning! “Everyone who sees these simulations pretty much their jaw drops…because it looks so realistic. We are seeing things in the simulation that we have not seen in previous simulations and that they are just starting to see in some Doppler radar observations out in the field.”

And it is just that kind of discovery that Dr. Finley hopes will lead to a better understanding of how tornadoes form. And a better understanding will lead to better warnings in the future. In addition to research, the models are so realistic that Dr. Finley believes they could be used to help train storm spotters in the future.

If you would like to learn more about this model simulation and see the various types of animations that were created check out the January edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Official Presentation at the 28th Conference on Severe Local Storms - November 9, 2016