Scientists Convert Drones Into Tornado-Predicting Machines

Justin1569, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Justin1569, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The storm chasers of the future are lifting off today. Researchers at Oklahoma State University are developing a fleet of data-collecting drones that may help forecasters—and residents of tornado-prone regions—get ahead of dangerous weather events.

Not all storms are the same when it comes to predictability. Hurricanes and blizzards are pretty easy to spot. Meteorologists can typically call them days ahead of time. But tornadoes are wild, and they can whip up suddenly. Right now, our instruments can only spot a tornado 10 to 15 minutes before it happens. That’s simply not enough time for those in danger to get out of the way.

And while weather balloons are useful, their success depends on being in the right place at the right time. "Once dropped, they can’t move and thus are subject to the unpredictable nature of a storm," mechanical engineer Jamey Jacob told Popular Science. The ideal monitoring vehicle will be steerable, durable, and loaded with sensors.

Enter the drones.

Jacob and his colleagues hope to integrate the drones into normal forecasting instrument arrays within the next four years.

"Eventually what we want is to get to a point where you're watching the weather channel," says Jacob, "and they're reporting data that they're getting from the drones, and nobody cares—it's just the data that's coming in."

Once everything is up and running, Jacob told PBS NewsHour, the drones will ideally be able to extend storm warnings from 10 or 15 minutes to as much as an hour—which could give local residents enough time to prepare, batten down the hatches, or evacuate. “And you know that’s really going to save lives in the end.”

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

A Simple Trick for Defrosting Your Windshield in Less Than 60 Seconds


As beautiful as a winter snowfall can be, the white stuff is certainly not without its irritations—especially if you have to get into your car and go somewhere. As if shoveling a path to the driver’s door wasn’t enough, then you’ve got a frozen windshield with which to contend. Everyone has his or her own tricks for warming up a car in record time—including appropriately-named meteorologist Ken Weathers, who works at WATE in Knoxville, Tennessee.

A while back, Weathers shared a homemade trick for defrosting your windshield in less than 60 seconds: spray the glass with a simple solution of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol. “The reason why this works,” according to Weathers, “is [that] rubbing alcohol has a freezing point of 128 degrees below freezing.”

Watch the spray in action below.

[h/t: Travel + Leisure]