The loss of almost two dozen people in central Tennessee to a series of nighttime tornadoes this week has underscored frustrations over the seeming inability to provide accurate storm warnings.

Fortunately, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite Program (GOES) satellite project could be a game changer in tornado prediction.

The joint effort of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a series of sophisticated, high-resolution satellites cruising a cool 22,000 miles above the Earth, providing a unique vantage point to track storms in the vast Midwest and Southern United States.

The problem with tornadoes is that they strike quickly, with little time for meteorologists to issue warnings.

Hurricanes, on the other hand, are massive and relatively slow moving, giving people plenty of time to spot, track and predict exactly where they will cause the most damage. In comparison to lumbering hurricanes, however, tornadoes are like guerrilla strikes that can seemingly come out of nowhere.

Tornadoes form when winds traveling in one direction collide with strong winds traveling in the opposite direction, at a slightly lower altitude. When temperatures and air pressure are just right, the colliding winds can start to spiral, forming tornadoes.

The average tornado is only on the ground for 10 minutes. But, as in central Tennessee Monday night, they can pack such a wallop of destruction that they can tear the roofs off houses, level buildings and injure or kill people caught in the crosswinds. The official death toll in the Nashville area is now 19 and climbing.

Since America is so vast and tornadoes are relatively small, there is not enough professional meteorological equipment on the ground to measure every square mile of our national landscape. And since predictions can be spotty, many people in tornado-prone areas take a warning siren with a grain of salt and don't take immediate cover.

With new GOES satellite technology, meteorologists finally have a smart tool at their disposal. Researchers at Penn State are working on models from GOES high resolution data that could help us spot tornadoes before they hit the ground. Even a few minutes warning can help people in their path find shelter.

Published on Mar 03, 2020