Supersize supercell supersimulation
SUPERCELL THUNDERSTORMS ARE GIANT TEMPESTS with powerful rotating updrafts at their cores—and one out of every four or five spawn tornadoes. Most of these twisters are little, but some can grow fierce. To predict the rare killers—and thus give moretargeted warnings—meteorologists need to better understand how tornadoes form. But simulating a supercell thunderstorm and the
tornado it produces involves hundreds of terabytes of data—an amount so vast that Leigh Orf, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, had to use a supercomputer to make it happen.
Some of that data came from the sheer size of the storm (similar supercells can stretch more than 12 miles high). But Orf needed most of the power in order to capture all the details and see the whole system at a high resolution. To get started, he used observations from an actual storm that raged through central Oklahoma in 2011. Then he created a digital version similar to the real thing, spinning together the most high-resolution supercell simulation ever made. “For the first time, we’ve been able to peer into the inner workings of a supercell that produces a tornado, and we’re able to watch that process occur,” Orf says.