The future of tornado research?

I was looking for inspiration on NSF Fastlane the other day, reading abstracts of recently-approved tornado and severe storm-related grants, when one titled “VORTEX8” caught my eye. Of course I clicked. On closer scrutiny, I noted that the date of the proposal’s initial amendment was “1 April 2111.” I was reading a grant abstract from 100 years in the future! In my astonishment, I refreshed the page and it immediately disappeared, presumably back into the rift in the time-space continuum from which it had emerged. I will attempt to re-create what I read, but the resulting piece is likely a woefully incomplete shadow of the real thing. Read on…

VORTEX8: For real this time!

Abstract: Despite the best efforts of research and forecast computing systems, tornadoes still manage to terminate a handful of taxpaying, backwater yahoos every year. The field phase of VORTEX8 will last from February to June of 2113. This time period has been selected to coincide with the changed climatological maxima for X-tremely severe thunderstorms and tornadoes across the Southern (February and March) and Northern (April and May) Great Plains regions.

Unlike previous field research efforts to study tornadoes (particularly VORTEX5, which was a spectacular waste of everyone’s time that we won’t mention further), the VORTEX8 instrumentation will be entirely automated and no human (or grad student) participation will actually be required. The instrument ‘swarm’ will consist of an assemblage of approximately 10,000,000,000 nanoradars, nanonets, and nanocams (drones), all controlled by an exa-scale uber-computer (queen) that will detect vorticity maxima through real-time assimilation of the swarm members’ trajectories and measurements, and automatically migrate the swarm to promising tornadoes (XEEF-3 or greater) via the “SASSInet.” The drones, powered by onboard fusion pico-reactors, will automatically disperse to designated locations in relation to the tornado, collecting data throughout its depth (both interior and exterior). For the duration of this experiment, the PIs have promised to disengage their respective drones’ battle protocols and thus the loss of drones due to ‘hostile scientific competition’ is expected to be negligible.

Swarms of nano-scale instruments probe a tornado.

Illustration of the VORTEX8 data collection strategy.

Data from the swarm will be assimilated in real time into micrometer grid scale computer models and disseminated to the public at large via the universal interjack.

Intellectual Merit: Thanks in large part to the seminal publication “The six degrees of tornadogenesis” in 2055, tornado warning lead time is now an unprecedented 5.2 hours. Nano-instrumentation has enabled tremendous strides in elucidating the dynamics, kinematics, and behavior of tornadoes, suction vortices, micro-vortices, and all manner of lesser whorls. However, the exact mechanism(s) by which tornadoes loft and transport individual, millimeter-scale particles and pieces of debris, such as individual aerosol particles and strands of animal fur, represent fertile territory that remains to be explored in a comprehensive observational and numerical study. Advances in the understanding of molecular-scale interactions and quantum entanglement are expected as a direct benefit of this experiment.

Plus, let’s face it, tornadoes are still the shiznit, and old scientists just can’t seem to let them go.

Broader Impacts: Although the usage of the automated sensor swarm will preclude the need for direct student participation in the field phase, it is estimated that approximately 140,000 graduate students will need to be employed to manually dealias the data from billions of nanoradars. In addition, at least fifteen Martian and four Titanian Ph.D. candidates candidate will observe the experiment. It is expected that these students will later apply some of the nano-swarm technology to studies of other vortices in the solar system, including but not limited to Martian dust devils and the Saturnian polar hexagon, respectively.

Okay, I’ve stretched that premise well past the breaking point. APRIL FOOLS’! Seriously, though, I yearn to know how tornado and severe storms field research will evolve in the next 100 years. Will there ever be another Project VORTEX? And what questions will we seek to answer in those efforts?