Researchers "listening" to tornadoes to try and better predict them

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Tornadoes are one of the most difficult things to predict.

And while radar and other technology has improved, around 75 percent of tornado warnings are false alarms. But new research is hoping to cut down on that number. Researchers hope "listening" to storms might be the key.

The sound of a tornado has been described as a loud roaring sound, even sometimes described as a freight train or a jet engine. Right now, tornado research is being done using sound that we can't even hear. That imperceptible sound is known as infrasound.

"Infrasound is just like what you hear," said Dr. Brian Elbing, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Oklahoma State University. "It's just at frequencies so low that humans can't perceive it."

Doctor Brian Elbing and his team of researchers use special equipment to capture those frequencies, which may detect the formation of tornadoes.

"It's like a canister with soaker hoses coming out of it, and through these soaker hoses the only acoustic input to the microphone that's inside of that sealed container."

While it's still being studied, the research is showing some promise to help predicting where a tornado will form.

"There's definitely supportive evidence that tornadoes specifically within the storm are producing infrasound," said Dr. Elbing. "In May of 2017, there were supercells all around us. We weren't really picking up any signal until this one tornado had formed just south of us."

He and his team of researchers detected that tornado eight minutes before it even formed. The goal is to get similar results from more storms to one day warn people about tornadoes well in advance.

"That should improve tornado warnings, particularly cutting down false alarms," he said. "I think it'll really save lives."

The special microphones are used in clusters of three or four. And they can "hear" the infra-sound from tornadoes up to 100 miles away.