Joplin tornado research sparks hope for "seismic" help in the future

Published: Nov. 7, 2017 at 5:19 PM CST
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A new research study based on the 2011 Joplin tornado says that seismometers used to measure earthquakes might also help determine the wind speed of tornadoes in real-time.

Getting that kind of information is typically not available now as authorities usually have to look over damage reports after the storm has passed to determine the twister's intensity ranging from F-1 to F-5.

The Joplin storm is still very vivid in the minds of residents in southwest Missouri as it was the costliest and one of the deadliest tornadoes in American history.

The May, 2011 disaster killed 158 people, injured over 1,000 others, and did over $2.8 billion in damage.

And although it happened six years ago, researchers are still trying to learn from the massive storm.

There are some 400 high-quality seismometers in the US. Missouri has 32 of them including several in the Joplin area.. And newly published research from Cal-Santa Barbara concludes that seismometers located near the twister on that fateful day showed that the seismic waves matched the estimated wind speeds.

That research is still in its early stages so members of the National Weather Service in Springfield don't know if it will ever come to pass that seismic readings could help them in real time determine the scope of a twister. But if it could, it would important because the information could get to the general public faster.

"As scientists we are going to use anything we can get our hands on to confirm the threat," explained Steve Runnels, the warning coordinator for Springfield's National Weather Service.

But even when they do get out the early warnings to the public, the weather service's research has shown that many people don't immediately take shelter.

"Social scientists taught us a very important lesson," Runnels explained. "That people go through a multiple-step process to determine if their families lives are in danger."

As in checking their cell phones or going outside on the porch to look for themselves.

And that has led to the national weather service understanding the need to get more information about the seriousness of a storm disseminated to the public faster.

"Perhaps the greatest thing that the weather service has done since the Joplin tornado is go to an impact-based warning system," Runnels said. "We will tell you if the warning is radar based or if a spotter or someone else has confirmed a tornado on the ground. Is it a weak tornado versus a very powerful tornado."

"What the social scientists have told us," Runnels continued, "is that if we get that information in the hands of the people in the path of that storm, they'll recognize that this is a storm they cannot fool with, And they'll take shelter immediately."