Wind wonks twistin’ the year away

Sci­en­tists to track twisters from coast-to-coast

The Expositor (Brantford) - - NEWS - JENNIFER BIEMAN

LON­DON - Leave no tor­nado un­turned. Sci­en­tists in Lon­don lo­cated in South­west­ern On­tario, Canada’s tor­nado al­ley - will spend 2019 track­ing twisters coast-to­coast in the most com­pre­hen­sive anal­y­sis of its kind ever done in Canada.

Across the coun­try, about 60 twisters are iden­ti­fied and ver­i­fied each year, but sta­tis­ti­cal analy­ses of weather, pop­u­la­tion and light­ning data sug­gest the ac­tual num­ber could be al­most four times as high, closer to 230 tor­na­does an­nu­ally.

“The goal is to find those miss­ing tor­na­does. We think there’s quite a few more hap­pen­ing in Canada,” said lead re­searcher Gre­gory Kopp, a Western en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor and act­ing dean of the depart­ment. “We’re try­ing to find out where they’re hap­pen­ing and how strong they are.”

The prob­lem is, Canada is large and sparsely pop­u­lated. If a tor­nado touches down in a for­est and no one is around to see it, it eas­ily can go un­de­tected and un­stud­ied- a missed op­por­tu­nity, Kopp said.

“If we’re miss­ing so many of them, we don’t have a true sense of what the risk is,” he said. “Even if they’re oc­cur­ring in parts of the coun­try where there’s few peo­ple, the fact that they’re there ac­tu­ally af­fects how we de­ter­mine that risk.”

The pro­ject builds on Western’s pre­vi­ous work study­ing a spate of tor­na­does in south­ern Que­bec on June 18, 2017. Wind en­gi­neer­ing ex­perts at Western did an ex­ten­sive ground and aerial sur­vey, un­cov­er­ing Que­bec’s largest tor­nado clus­ter yet and one of the worst on record in Canada.

Last year, Western re­searchers set out to find and doc­u­ment ev­ery tor­nado in On­tario and hone its anal­y­sis of twisters from coast to coast.

The re­searchers dis­cov­ered 12 pre­vi­ously un­de­tected tor­na­does and im­proved their data on an­other 10.

Western’s tor­nado team will use radar and satel­lite tech­nol­ogy to hunt for and doc­u­ment Canada’s tor­na­does. The re­searchers start out by track­ing po­ten­tially tor­nado­caus­ing storms us­ing En­vi­ron­ment Canada data. If con­di­tions are right for a twister, the team will zero in on the area us­ing ul­tra high-res­o­lu­tion aerial sur­veys. The satel­lite im­ages are so de­tailed, they can check where things are on the ground with about two to three me­tres of ac­cu­racy, Kopp said.

If the re­searchers see torn up grass­lands or up­rooted trees, they can send a sur­veil­lance plane up for more im­ages. The ones cap­tured by the plane show where things are on the ground within about five cen­time­tres of ac­cu­racy, Kopp said.

“That al­lows us to iden­tify the in­di­vid­ual trees, it al­lows us to iden­tify struc­tures that have been dam­aged,” he said. “From that in­for­ma­tion, we can tell how in­tense it was and get more de­tails on the track.”

The team may also use drones or send ob­servers to touch­down sites. Western sent a re­search team to the Ottawa area, specif­i­cally Dun­robin, Ont., and Gatineau, Que., af­ter three tor­na­does ripped through in Septem­ber, dam­ag­ing hun­dreds of build­ings and knock­ing out power to tens of thou­sands. Study­ing tor­na­does - and learn­ing where and when hid­den ones hap­pen - is im­por­tant for ev­ery­thing from hon­ing pub­lic alert pro­to­cols to mit­i­gat­ing storm dam­age.

Get­ting a fuller pic­ture of Canada’s tor­nado land­scape can guide engi­neers to de­sign houses bet­ter suited to storm-prone ar­eas.

“We can mit­i­gate a lot of the dam­age to houses and other struc­tures with rel­a­tively lit­tle cost,” Kopp said. “Like the event in Dun­robinGatineau, if we had our way and man­aged to change the (build­ing) code to make houses re­silient, we could have stopped a lot of that dam­age.”

The re­search is be­ing com­pleted through a part­ner­ship be­tween Western’s en­gi­neer­ing depart­ment and the me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal re­search di­vi­sion of Canada’s Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change.

En­vi­ron­ment Canada has its own tor­nado track­ing and pub­lic warn­ing sys­tem, but when a twister lands in a re­mote area with no one around to re­port dam­age, the agency doesn’t al­ways get the feed­back it needs to fine-tune its fore­cast­ing mod­els, Kopp said.

“We get them ground truth so they can con­tin­u­ally im­prove their mod­els, which will im­prove safety for Cana­di­ans gen­er­ally,” he said. “We’ll get bet­ter warn­ings, bet­ter fore­casts.”


Western Univer­sity en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor Greg Kopp and his team of tor­nado re­searchers are leav­ing their labs and wind­tun­nels to try and find all the tor­na­does in Canada for 2019. Kopp will be re­ly­ing on satel­lite imag­ing to show re­searchers de­bris or dam­age trails on the ground, which are the vis­i­ble scars left by tor­na­does.

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