Tornado project takes national spin

Northern Tornadoes Project // Special to Western News

Damage from an EF3 tornado in Dunrobin, near Ottawa, in September 2018. It was the strongest of a cluster of six tornadoes that day.

A Western-led project to discover and decode tornadoes in remote Northern Ontario has spun into a nationwide mission to identify every Canadian tornado in 2019. By developing this deeper database, the Northern Tornadoes Project looks to improve early detection, mitigate against damage to people and property and model for the future implications of climate change.

“The goal is to capture everything nationally – to find, assess, store data and learn from each event,” explained Engineering professor Greg Kopp, who serves as project lead. “It’s a big goal and it’s a big country.”

A collaboration between Western Engineering and the Meteorological Research Division of Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Northern Tornadoes Project uses satellites, surveillance planes, drones and on-the-ground observation to capture the events and their extent. This high-resolution data offer a level of detail down to individual trees uprooted and their direction of fall, as well as where grasslands have been scarred.

About 60 tornadoes are identified and verified in Canada each year. However, Environment Canada’s modelling of lightning density data suggests the actual number of tornadoes is almost four times that number: about 230 per year. Many of those take place in areas where forest density and remote locale make traditional ground surveys impossible, or in grasslands where damage footprints are more difficult to detect.

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In 2017, the Northern Tornadoes Project’s initial work identified or re-analyzed 18 tornadoes – including uncovering a cluster of 11, one of the largest outbreaks recorded in Canada, in a heavily forested area in Quebec. But the project has evolved well beyond its original aim to identify tornadoes North of Superior.

In 2018, the goal was to cover everything Ontario and, to the extent they could, cover major events elsewhere in Canada. That included a supercell tornado in Alonsa, Man., and six distinct tornadoes that struck the national capital area in Ontario and Quebec on Sept. 21. In the latter cluster, the team’s survey data made it possible to detect one more tornado had taken place than previously thought.

In total, 12 previously undetected tornadoes were discovered in 2018, with improved data for another 10.

Results of the first two years of the Northern Tornadoes Project were recently published with Kopp and Environment and Climate Change Canada meteorologist David Sills as primary authors.

“We aren’t just finding tornadoes that were missed because they’re in the middle of nowhere, but also (discovering) ones in suburban areas because we are able to get high-resolution data,” Kopp said.

In 2019, in addition to identifying every Canadian tornado, researchers will begin work on a publicly accessible digital archive of all project materials.

Also opening this month, Please Don’t Take This Lightly is a large-scale art exhibit, influenced by Kopp’s tornado and wind studies. Through printmaking, sculpture, video and sound, Visual Arts students led by professor Patrick Mahon along with other students, faculty, alumni and staff feature the power and beauty and destruction of wind. A pop-up ‘Tornado Store’ will feature prints for sale, with proceeds going to artists and disaster-relief organizations. The exhibit runs from Jan. 10-24 at John Labatt Visual Arts Centre.