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MOS: Tornado Alley

Spring is in the air. The temperature in Boston has been in the mid-50s and may even break 60º this weekend. The giant piles of snow from the innumerable Winter storms have disappeared. We spotted the first crocus bloom in the RainyDayGarden yesterday. While Spring in New England is generally mild, for our friends in the mid-west it marks the start of tornado season. “Tornado alley” stretches from Texas to Nebraska, and every season brings anxiety, danger, and destruction.

What, exactly, is a tornado? One of nature’s most violent storms, tornadoes are fast-spinning columns of air that extend from the base of a thunderstorm down to the ground, with wind speeds up to 300 miles per hour. They can appear suddenly and without warning. With paths in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long, tornadoes can flatten neighborhoods in seconds.

The exact parameters responsible for tornado genesis are still not clearly understood. This is the reason for projects such as VORTEX (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes EXperiment). In 1994 and 1995, VORTEX collected data on supercell thunderstorms and tornadoes. Building on what they learned in VORTEX, VORTEX2 went live in 2010. It was the most ambitious project ever undertaken to capture tornado-related data, and provide better understanding and prediction of tornado genesis. The National Science Foundation (NSF) foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contributed over $10 million towards the effort. Over 100 scientists from the US, Italy, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and Australia participated in the project.

In order to be able to respond at a moment’s notice. the VORTEX2 team was fully nomadic with no home base. In a caravan of 40 science and support vehicles, the scientists roamed from state to state, following severe weather outbreaks throughout the Plains.

Readers interested in seeing the inside of a tornado first-hand should check out the new IMAX movie, Tornado Alley, available ONLY at the Boston Museum Of Science. The film opens to the public in the Museum’s Mugar Omni Theater, Friday, March 18, 2011. You will get a front row seat as you follow atmospheric scientist Dr. Karen Kosiba, the Vortex II team, and storm chaser Sean Casey as they (and you) plunge into the heart of the storm and back out again, in one piece. You will also get an up-close look at Sean’s insane homemade Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV) and the VORTEX2’s Doppler On Wheels (DOW).

Tornado Alley is a co-production of Giant Screen Films and Graphic Films, in collaboration with the Giant Dome Theater Consortium. Major funding was provided by the National Science Foundation. Tornado Alley is sponsored by The MathWorks. Admission to the Mugar Omni Theater is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors (60 +) and $8 for children (3-11). For more information or to purchase tickets in advance, the public can call 617/723-2500, (TTY) 617/589-0417, or visit

NOTE: All images courtesy of the MOS and GiantScreen

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