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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


If a tornado touches down and no one is around to see it…

Kelsey Ellis, Assistant ProfessorCollege of Arts & Sciences - Geography

Tornado climatologists rely on a complete dataset of tornado touchdowns to analyze tornado risk across space and time. The only way for a tornado to be added to the national database is for it to be witnessed, reported, and the damage surveyed. Weaker tornadoes especially have a history of being unseen and underreported. States in Tornado Alley have a larger portion of tornadoes being observed recently, perhaps in part due to the watchful eyes of storm chasers that frequent the area. In Tennessee, the number of tornadoes remaining unobserved is not as clear. The state also has a high rate of killer tornadoes and the greatest percentage of nocturnal tornadoes in the country. Recognizing this, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has prioritized research in the area of tornadogenesis and tornado vulnerability in the Southeast United States. The VORTEX-Southeast program launched this month with the goal to better understand tornado formation and societal risk in this region, with a large part of the social science research and outreach occurring in Tennessee.

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