New tornado research project to focus on Dixie Alley

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HUNTSVILLE, AL (KTVI) – A major new tornado research project is underway.  FOX 2 was the only St. Louis TV station there to cover the rollout for VORTEX Southeast in Huntsville, Alabama, Monday.

VORTEX Southeast is the latest edition of the VORTEX family.  VORTEX stands for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornados.  The first VORTEX field project was in 1994, with VORTEX 2 taking place in 2009.

As the name implies, VORTEX Southeast will focus on the lesser known tornado alley, known as “Dixie Alley” that stretches from Louisiana into Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.  Just last week we were reminded of how violent those storms can become.

“It is a unique new experiment that is looking at tornadoes that are unique to the southeast,” says Erik Rasmussen, the lead scientist for VORTEX Southeast.

VORTEX Southeast will take a closer look at why storms in the Dixie Alley are so different than those in the Plains.

“It just amazes me the types of storms that produce intense rotation.  Sometimes the structure of the storm is just a blob and really disorganized and then all of the sudden a strong rotation forms,” say Rasmussen.

And from those rotations, come monster, killer tornadoes.  In fact, the number of killer tornadoes is disproportionately large when compared to the overall tornado numbers across the rest of the country.  That is a key reason why congress voted in December to authorize the $5 million needed to fund the research.

Jason Simpson, the Chief Meteorologist at our sister station WHNT in Huntsville has experienced some of the worst outbreaks this region has ever seen, including the April 2011 super outbreak.  He says this is a big deal!

“There is a big issue with terrain.  And that’s one of the big factors the University of Alabama Huntsville has been studying for years…to figure out how these storms interact with our terrain… the foothills of the Appalachians and with the plateaus we have around here.  And how that interaction forms, promotes or even destroys a tornadic circulation.”

That terrain is also a major obstacle to conducting field research which is why VORTEX Southeast will use a different approach from before according.  Rather than chase, they will have deployed a robust stationary observing network in and near Dixie Alley and will simply let the storms come to them.

Rasmussen says lessons learned in the VORTEX Southeast could be valuable in the St. Louis area because there are some similarities with respect to severe weather and tornado characteristics.

The project started Monday and will run through April.

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