WIU Professor, Students Work on Tornado Study
July 24, 2013
MACOMB, IL – The research of a Western Illinois University professor and two of the school's meteorology students could contribute to better tornado prediction methods.
Assistant Professor Marcus Büker, who teaches meteorology in Western's Department of Geography, received a nearly $180,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in October 2011. With the help of the three-year grant, Büker and students Jacob Vancil, a junior from Bushnell and Alexander Adams, a sophomore from Macomb, are studying the fundamental physics behind tornado development, specifically how tornadoes form and how vortices interact with each other to create a funnel.
"Most meteorologists are interested in tornadoes to begin with," Büker said. "I am also interested in how two very different physical systems (fluid dynamics and electromagnetism) behave similarly when you look at the mathematics."
Most of the research is theoretical and includes computations using a new high performance computer system to perform vortex and storm simulations. The computer-generated results are then compared to field data, including those from VORTEX (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiments), collected by an international team of researchers who observed tornadoes and their environment with a variety of scientific instrumentation, including portable Doppler radar.
"The main goal of VORTEX, as well as our own research, is to better understand tornado formation, increase our predictive capability and ultimately provide better warning lead times and fewer false alarms," Büker said.
Currently the research is focusing on how vortex features in a storm behave when they come in contact with one another.
"We're looking at how wind interacts with itself," Büker said. "We simulate the vortex systems and compare what we find to those vortices generated in a supercell thunderstorm – the type that produces tornadoes. We hope to figure out which rotating thunderstorms will or will not produce tornadoes, and what conditions to look for before a tornado actually forms."
Büker said the research also could have implications in other fields of study, including turbulence and electromagnetism.
The student portion of the grant study began in the summer of 2012 when Vancil and Adams said they began to learn the computer language, math and physics they would need to be part of the research project. This summer, the two are getting more in depth with their study of vortex interaction.
For Vancil and Adams, the research is more than just a 40-hour-a-week summer job. The pair presented the findings from their first summer of work in a poster presentation at the American Meteorological Society conference in Austin, TX, in January. A second poster presentation will be made in 2014, and the research will also eventually be part of each student's senior thesis project.
"We're building the research into their education," Büker said. "Now they are each working on two pieces of a puzzle, and the eventual goal is to have their work published before graduation. In larger terms, this will help make sure they are well prepared for graduate school."
Vancil, whose parents own Hart's Nursery in Bushnell, IL, said he has always been fascinated with weather patterns because of their implications for his family's business.
"There is a field behind the nursery and we could see weather approaching – the weather was a big part of my life growing up," he said. "This is a great opportunity to do some research into weather."
Vancil said after his graduation from WIU he would like to attend graduate school and eventually work on the research side of meteorology.
Adams said he was also interested in weather systems at a young age.
"My parents told me that I was always fascinated with weather and I would watch thunderstorms out of the living room window when I was little," he said.
In seventh grade, Adams was assigned a project for a science Olympiad event that had a weather theme. He and his research partner captured first place in a state competition with their work.
Once Adams moved on to high school, he developed an interest in math. It was a visit to his high school classroom by WIU Associate Professor Redina Herman, of the Department of Geography, that showed him that math and meteorology could be combined into a field of study.
"It was the best of both worlds," he said of the realization. "I was very excited to learn that."
Adams hopes to also continue on to graduate school and work on the research side of meteorology some day.
Büker said he was recently informed that the third year of the NSF grant would be funded, which will allow for a third summer of research for the students. Büker also works on the study throughout the school year and must update the NSF on any progress.
For more information about the meteorology program at Western, visit wiu.edu/academics/majors/arts_and_sciences/meteorology.php.