The Science Of Predicting Tornadoes

Originally published on May 23, 2011 3:00 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

The destruction in Joplin marks the second major outbreak of tornadoes this year. In April there were hundreds of twisters, making it one of the busiest months on record. Well, joining us now to talk about the science of tornadoes is NPR's Jon Hamilton. Hey, Jon.

JON HAMILTON: Hi.

LOUISE KELLY: So we just heard Missy Shelton there describing thunderstorms over Joplin today. Do we know any more - are there more tornadoes in the immediate future for that area?

HAMILTON: Well, at the moment the U.S. Storm Prediction Center - that's the place that keeps track of this stuff - they're keeping an eye on two places they say are showing moderate risk of severe storms, the kind of storms that could lead to tornadoes. And one of those areas is near Joplin, Missouri. But right now they have issued no tornado warnings. Obviously that could change during the day. The ground gets warmer. Conditions (unintelligible) but at the moment it doesn't look like there probably will be a repeat of yesterday.

LOUISE KELLY: Okay. And as they look ahead to the short to medium term forecast, weeks and months down the road, is there any way to know whether this year is going to continue to be particularly bad?

HAMILTON: Also, remember that, you know, like a hurricane is huge. It can be like 100 miles across and it may exist for a week or more, whereas a big tornado like the one that hit Joplin might be only a mile across and its life can be measured in minutes.

LOUISE KELLY: So much harder to pinpoint where exactly the path might end up taking it. Well, I mean obviously one of the big things that affects people being able to get out of the path of these things is how much warning they have. A few minutes can make a big difference. How good are scientists at being able to forecast a tornado that's headed towards somebody?

HAMILTON: There were hundreds of tornadoes, and of course hundreds of people who were killed. You know, the problem is, of course, even once a tornado has formed, you really don't know if it's going to hit your house or even your neighborhood.

LOUISE KELLY: And Jon, climate change - does that have anything to do with what we're seeing this spring?

HAMILTON: So if you go and you read the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they say it's just not clear.

LOUISE KELLY: Just not clear. Alright, thanks so much.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

LOUISE KELLY: That's NPR's science correspondent Jon Hamilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.