Perfect summer running down perfect storms

This won’t be a summer at the beach for Maryam Refan. Three weeks into a summer-long stay in ‘Tornado Alley’, the Mechanical Engineering PhD student plans to spend her holiday chasing tornadoes – all in the name of research.

Refan has joined with scientists, meteorologists and fellow graduate students to spend time in Colorado, Kansas, Texas and New Mexico to get a better understanding of what happens inside a tornado.

“I use the lab in WindEEE to simulate the affects of a tornado to get experimental results, but I need data from the real tornado,” said Refan, who admits to never experiencing a real-world tornado. “We want to make sure what we are simulating here in the lab is exactly what is happening in real cases. We want to ensure our work at Western is as close as possible to the real thing.”


Through the use of ‘tornado pods’ – 120-pounds devices consisting of cameras and other measurement tools – Refan looks to chase down potential tornado-producing storms with the help of Doppler radar, place these pods in their paths and hope a tornado finds them.

“The pods are heavy; so we’re hoping the tornado won’t move it,” laughed Refan, adding she’s anticipating the facts and figures she’ll be getting from inside the twisters.

“The most important thing we are looking for is getting data as close as possible to the ground,” she said. “Usually, the radar data you get has its limitations, with the data usually from higher elevations. With these pods you get data right on the surface. This will give us a greater understanding as to the true structure of the tornado, and see what is really causing damage – Is it wind shear? Is it because of the suction?”

She has always been intrigued by how tornados can cut a swatch of destruction through a community, leveling one home and leaving the neighbouring house untouched.

“How is this possible? How does this happen?” Refan said. “Nobody really knows why. But getting these low-level measurements may answer some questions. If you want to make houses more resistant to tornados, we need to know this.”

Refan looks forward to learning from the other participants, particularly eyeing how meteorologists collect and create their data. But as far as ‘What I did on my summer vacation’ stories go, she’ll surely have a few tales to tell.

“I’ve seen the movies, of course, and have worked in the simulating labs, but as someone who is working on tornados for a living, I should really see what one is all about,” Refan said. “It will give me a better understanding toward my future work.”


Follow Mechanical Engineering PhD student Maryam Refan as she chases down twisters this summer at her blog.