An MIT Alumni Association Publication

How to See Inside a Tornado like Never Before

  • Julie Fox
  • Slice of MIT

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Did you know that it takes 10 seconds or less for a tornado to form? That’s according to Howie Bluestein ’70, SM ’72, PhD ’76, whose 40-plus years as a storm chaser more than qualifies him as an expert on the subject. And since tornados form so quickly, he and his colleagues are working to build a new radar that can scan most of a storm’s volume in 15 seconds.

“This is going to allow us to see things perhaps we’ve never seen before,” explains Bluestein, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. “We’re going to be able to watch tornadoes and see how they evolve within the storm. We’re also going to be able to use this particular radar in hurricanes, and it’s going to be able to look at thunderstorm electricity and see how long it takes charge to build up in a thunderstorm.”

Bluestein became interested in extreme severe weather at a very young age. When he was five, he remembers struggling to run home against the wind as Hurricane Carol passed through his town. On another occasion, lightning struck his house and blew up the television. “That got my attention, that made an impression on me,” he says. And his interest was piqued.

After graduating from MIT with degrees in electrical engineering and meteorology in the 1970s, Bluestein went to Norman, Oklahoma, to study severe weather. “I arrived in Norman when people were beginning to storm-chase and people were beginning to look at Doppler radar information. And the idea was that the Doppler radar might be able to give us some advanced warning for tornadoes and severe storms.”

Actually seeing the tornado is beautiful, aesthetically beautiful. And at the very, very end, the analysis, that’s where you start to make the discoveries. You look at the data and you see things that you didn’t expect.

He excitedly joined the group that, before long, was providing on-the-ground observations to the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

“We would go out in the field and look at a storm and provide ground truth for the scientists back at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman who were looking at the Doppler radar,” says Bluestein, who says that, long before cell phones, this meant running back and forth to pay phones. “We would say, ‘Yeah, we see a tornado. No, we don’t see a tornado, we see a rotating wall cloud or we see large hail.’ And they would correlate our visual observations with what was seen on the radar. And this was to become the basis for how Doppler radars were used or had been used to provide warnings to the general public.”

The nature of the research, and radar technology, has changed dramatically over the four decades he has been involved in it, but the thrill of the discovery remains. “Actually seeing the tornado is beautiful, aesthetically beautiful,” Bluestein says. “And at the very, very end, the analysis, that’s where you start to make the discoveries. You look at the data and you see things that you didn’t expect. That’s also very, very exciting.”

Watch a recent MIT Alumni Association video to hear more.

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