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updated: 5/3/2018 6:46 AM

NIU professor hopes to give you weeks to prepare for tornadoes, hail

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  • Victor Gensini, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, is researching long-term weather patterns in an effort to be able to predict hail storms and severe weather two or three weeks in advance.

      Victor Gensini, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, is researching long-term weather patterns in an effort to be able to predict hail storms and severe weather two or three weeks in advance.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Using data analysis and computer modeling, NIU Assistant Professor Victor Gensini is studying the North Pacific jet stream. "The Pacific Ocean is a major player in modulating our weather conditions," Gensini said.

      Using data analysis and computer modeling, NIU Assistant Professor Victor Gensini is studying the North Pacific jet stream. "The Pacific Ocean is a major player in modulating our weather conditions," Gensini said.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Gensini says mapping wind speeds helps create a digital footprint in the jet stream and the data can be used to help generate more accurate long-range forecasts.

      Gensini says mapping wind speeds helps create a digital footprint in the jet stream and the data can be used to help generate more accurate long-range forecasts.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • In high school, Victor Gensini planned to study engineering until a tornado hit Putnam County, Illinois, where he lived, on April 20, 2004. The tornado killed eight people without much warning and ignited Gensini's interest in studying weather patterns.

      In high school, Victor Gensini planned to study engineering until a tornado hit Putnam County, Illinois, where he lived, on April 20, 2004. The tornado killed eight people without much warning and ignited Gensini's interest in studying weather patterns.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
By Victor Gensini
Special to the Daily Herald
Editor’s note: Victor Gensini is an assistant professor in the Department of Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. With a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, Gensini teaches meteorology and climate classes. His research focuses on extreme weather and climate, looking at ways to extend forecasting of severe weather.

On the morning of March 25, 1948, the first known tornado forecast was disseminated at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City by Maj. Ernest J. Fawbush and Capt. Robert C. Miller. Their successful forecast of a tornado near the base that afternoon proved to be a turning point in modern day severe weather forecasting.

Severe weather forecasting has come a long way since 1948, but there is room for improvement.

What if, for example, meteorologists could give accurate forecasts for tornadoes and hailstorms two or even three weeks in advance? These phenomena cause more than $10 billion of economic loss every year in the United States, and particularly bad years (such as 2011) can lead to casualties in the thousands.

Long-range forecasts for these events could lead to better mitigation and preparedness strategies for emergency managers. Insurance companies could anticipate periods of large potential losses. Planners and administrators could plan and rehearse strategies for potential upcoming active periods of severe weather.

Scientific know-how isn't there quite yet. We scientists cannot say it will storm or be sunny on this day in this city a month from now -- but we're working on it.

I've been fascinated by severe weather since I was a child and first got interested in meteorology after a tornado destroyed my middle school in 2004. Nowadays, I'm teaching NIU students about the mechanics of severe storms and pushing the research envelope on long-range tornado and hail outlooks.

I might guess what you're thinking: How could it be possible to forecast tornado and hailstorms weeks in advance when the forecast for rain tomorrow can seem so iffy?

The truth is, forecasts for temperature, precipitation and even severe weather are quite good seven to 10 days in advance. It's human nature, however, to focus on the bad forecasts while forgetting about all the good ones.

Compared to 70 years ago, the science of meteorology really has made significant advances. Today, day-seven forecasts are as solid as day-three forecasts were in 1980. Over the past five years, we also have made great strides in the anticipation of severe weather weeks in advance.

Our research focuses on the North Pacific jet stream, a very fast, narrow ribbon of wind found at the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft. First discovered during World War II, jet streams can cause wind speed and direction to change with altitude. This phenomenon is known as wind shear, which is an ingredient necessary for supercell thunderstorms that can spawn tornadoes. Wind shear causes the updraft of a thunderstorm to be tilted in nature. This tilt causes a separation in the updraft and downdraft, leading to a stronger and longer-lived storm. Without wind shear, garden variety thunderstorms occur that generally produce lightning and copious rainfall.

How can meteorologists forecast where a thunderstorm is going to occur?

It's all related to the atmospheric environment. Forecasters use an ingredients-based checklist -- not unlike a recipe for apple pie -- to look for wind shear, instability, lift and moisture. If these ingredients are expected to be present on any given day, expect thunderstorms in the forecast.

Pinpointing the exact time and location of these storms is still difficult. Thunderstorms are relatively small phenomena and last only a short period of time. However, recent advances in computer modeling have made it possible to predict thunderstorms at the county and even street level. These forecasts are generally confined to the next 24 or 48 hours due to the chaotic nature of thunderstorms.

Research has shown that the most important ingredient for tornadoes and hail is wind shear. Thus, we've begun looking at ways to track, analyze and forecast locations of jet stream patterns to better pinpoint when conditions may favor severe storms. Using a complex blend of statistical and dynamical models rooted in physics and mathematics, we've had some success in two- to three-week forecasts for severe weather in the United States.

These long-term forecasts are dependent on identifying the type of jet stream patterns over the Pacific Ocean that produce severe weather. Thunderstorms in the tropical areas of the Pacific Ocean cause dramatic shifts in the strength and placement of the jet stream. These patterns are typically classified into zonal (flat, east-to-west oriented) or meridional (wavy, north-to-south oriented) wind flow. Wavy, roller coaster-like jet stream patterns are the most likely to produce severe weather across the United States and are used in our model to help aid prediction.

But weather forecasting is an inexact science because of the assumptions we must make about the atmosphere. Our biggest challenge comes from limited atmospheric observations, especially over the vast oceans, which can introduce errors into a forecast that are compounded over time. Our hope is that techniques such as deep-machine learning and pattern recognition might allow us to more skillfully forecast further into the future. In addition, recent technological advances such as satellite have greatly enhanced our ability to monitor Earth's weather conditions.

It's likely we will never be able to say for certain that a hailstorm or tornado will hit your town in two weeks. But we are striving to get to the point where we will be able to skillfully forecast a higher or lower chance of that happening. With every passing year, severe weather season adds new data points to our research, and allows us to test and refine our methods.

I think Maj. Fawbush and Capt. Miller would be impressed.

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