Tornado project expansion to deepen understanding, save lives

Frank Neufeld // Western NewsEngineering professor Greg Kopp and meteorologist David Sills, Project Lead and Executive Director for the Northern Tornadoes Project, respectively, say their project’s findings will save lives, mitigate losses and strengthen our understanding of severe storm activity.

Western is poised to become the country’s leading authority on tornado tracking and research thanks to a major expansion of its Northern Tornadoes Project. With a goal of detecting and analyzing every tornado in Canada, project organizers know its findings will save lives, mitigate losses and strengthen our understanding of severe storm activity.

“It will have an impact on the lives of Canadians,” said David Sills, who joined Western as the new Northern Tornadoes Project Executive Director. “We hope to be able to affect the timeliness and quality of tornado warnings that go out in a partnership with Environment Canada.”

The Northern Tornadoes Project began two years ago with a pilot study to conduct aerial analyses of storm damage in remote, unpopulated areas of northern Ontario. Its expansion now is a result of an investment from ImpactWX, a Toronto-based social impact fund that also funded the initial research.

The expanded scope includes the establishment of the ImpactWX Chair in Severe Storms Engineering, as well as the expansion and intensification of Northern Tornadoes Project data collection, analysis and archiving activities across Canada.

ImpactWX recently supported the Northern Tornadoes Project with a $6.4-million investment, to which Western added $2.5 million to endow the ImpactWx Chair. Combined with support for the pilot, the total investment comes to $10 million for tornado research at Western.

“We are grateful for the support of our partners at ImpactWx and excited to continue working with them, and our experts here at Western, to build the Northern Tornadoes Project into the premier tornado research program in Canada,” said Amit Chakma, Western President and Vice-Chancellor.

Sills called it a “tremendous opportunity” to expand Canadian storms knowledge and prediction.

Engineering professor Greg Kopp agreed.

“Canadians want to know what their risk is. How often do these occur and what are the most tornado-prone areas?” said Kopp, who serves as Northern Tornadoes Project Lead.

About 60 tornadoes are identified and verified in Canada each year. But the actual number, based on Environment Canada’s lightning density modelling, is believed to be about 230. Many of those take place in areas such as the prairies and unpopulated boreal forests that don’t lend themselves to easy detection or wind-speed analysis.

“We’re systematically gathering data, which hasn’t been done before at this kind of scale,” Kopp said.

That’s one reason observer data will be an important part of the project, along with satellite data, aerial photography, drones and wind-speed engineering research.

“We really think it has to be community-driven and community-led,” Kopp said. “In south Saskatchewan, there was an outbreak last summer and there was almost no damage even though there were many tornadoes. It was only people on the ground – the chaser community – who were seeing them.”

Sometimes tornado warnings are issued for far-flung areas, but there is no follow-up.

“They’ve kind of given up on any idea that they’ll ever get some data from there,” Kopps explained. “Now that we can start providing data for some of these events, they can start getting some information about whether these watches and warnings can be verified (by actual events) in these areas. That will help increase the timeliness and accuracy of the warnings themselves.”

Sills, who worked as Environment and Climate Change Canada’s severe-weather analyst for 20 years, has worked on various projects with Kopp for more than a decade.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to work together and bring the disciplines of meteorology and wind engineering into one project, which doesn’t happen very often, if at all. So it’s a unique opportunity for sure and we’re here to make the most of it,” Sills said.

“It’s a really ambitious project. There’s a lot of excitement behind it. There are a lot of really passionate and skilled people involved in it.”

In partnership with Environment Canada and Western Libraries, the project also includes a publicly accessible archives with searchable historical data. The Northern Tornadoes Project Open Data site will also be a place where people can report tornadoes when they see them and where there will be a damage map that’s almost in real time. Detailed analyses will also be available to researchers for study purposes.

Meanwhile, as Environment Canada is replacing and upgrading its weather radar centres, Northern Tornadoes Project researchers have an opportunity to acquire and relocate the Exeter radars, Kopp said. “We’re in the middle of trying to find ways to take that radar down in such a way that we can put it back together again.’

Kopp’s hope is that detection can one day become an automated process, augmented with machine learning. “I would love 10 years from now to get an email from my artificial-intelligence system telling me there was a tornado, and here was the track length and intensity, and having that completely automated from all the data we have.”