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Tornadoes Over Tennessee

PhD student Daniel Burow, undergraduate student MonTre' Hudson, and Professor Ellis examine an archived radar image, aiming to classify the type of storm that initiated a tornado.

PhD student Daniel Burow, undergraduate student MonTre’ Hudson, and Professor Ellis examine an archived radar image, aiming to classify the type of storm that initiated a tornado.

Assistant Professor Kelsey Ellis wants to make Tennessee residents safer during severe weather events. Tennessee, especially the Memphis area, and the rest of the southeast have the most fatalities due to tornadoes. Ellis and her collaborator, Lisa Reyes Mason, assistant professor in the College of Social Work, believe the high proportion of Tennessee tornadoes occurring at night may be a major cause. They have two grants funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to test their hypothesis and identify ways to improve how people plan for and respond to tornado warnings. Their funding comes from VORTEX-Southeast, a Congressional Mandate that aims to improve public safety to tornadoes in the southeast by supporting research that incorporates social science, meteorology/climatology, and weather forecasters.

The project, which lasts through 2018, is highly collaborative, involving techniques from social and physical sciences and outreach to forecasters and the public.

Data collection began in 2016 with a phone survey of more than 1,800 Tennessee residents. Preliminary findings suggest survey participants understand tornadoes happen at night, but underestimate how often tornadoes occur in the state. Participants were twice as likely to underestimate their tornado risk if they have never been affected by a tornado. Those previously affected by tornadoes are likely to believe tornadoes are more common.

Survey participants were also asked if they believe they would receive a warning to a hypothetical tornado event, how they would receive the warning, and their intended response. Only 50 percent of participants believed they would receive a warning at night and recognized the importance of weather radios to receive warnings. Participants less likely to receive a warning of a nocturnal tornado and believe luck is an important factor in surviving a tornado were those in East Tennessee.

Ten undergraduate and graduate students have worked on the project, earning course credit or stipends for their work. In geography, graduate students Daniel Burow and Kelly Gassert and undergraduates MonTre’ Hudson and Chesnea Skeen analyzed what types of storms are most likely to cause nocturnal tornadoes in Tennessee. They discovered that, climatologically, tornadoes at night are likely to be caused by linear events like squall lines. These four students alone have already gotten one publication, completed a master’s thesis, and given three presentations based on this work. Master’s student Elizabeth McLennan is working to determine which storms are most responsible for false alarms – that is they have a tornado warning, but never spawn a tornado.

Ellis and Mason interviewed National Weather Service forecasters across Tennessee to learn how the characteristics of storms causing tornadoes affects their ability to warn the public successfully. Forecasters agreed the type of storms that occur at night are particularly challenging because the tornadoes are weaker and spin up quickly. Adding to that challenge is the lack of people witnessing tornadoes at night. Storms spotters and the public provide essential information to forecasters. Without their storm reports, forecasters cannot be certain that a tornado has been or is currently on the ground.

Results of the surveys will be used to develop an outreach program to inform vulnerable residents of their risk to tornadoes and to help them identify the safest actions to take during severe weather events. Mobile home residents and those who speak languages other than English have been found in the past to be particularly vulnerable. Mobile home residents cannot safely seek shelter in their residence, and people without a strong grasp of the English language struggle to understand what warnings mean and what protective actions they should take. The workshop will likely target one or both of these groups and evaluate ways to help them improve their severe weather safety. If successful, the workshop will serve as a model for other locations.

As parts of the project are completed, they are added to the website tornadosafety.utk.edu, which aims to serve three groups of people. Tennessee residents can use the website to find information about their local tornado risk, how to plan for a tornado, and the safest place for them to go based on what type of structure where they live. Scientists studying tornado risk and vulnerability can access the website to see project results and request data access. Forecasters and other decision makers can access results tailored to their needs that highlight ways they can translate the findings into action.