Supercomputers, Tornadoes, and the Biggest mystery in Weather Technology

Expecting storms is so complex that a lot of people still rely on natural warning signs and folklore. Sky the color of pea soup, eerie stillness, and thundering hailstones are all dangerous tornado warning signs. But no one of these conditions, alone or mutually, guarantees a storm is coming up. Not even the best weather-forecasting technology can determine more than a few minutes ahead of time whether a tornado will strike.

By the time a tornado has touched down, it’s frequently too late for people to get the safety. John Kass, aChicago Tribune columnist who survived a devastating tornado in 1967, wrote that it sounded like a “freight train of demons,” and remembers the feeling of “nature as evil, nature with a mind, predatory, nature intent on hunting us down.”

Even as forecasting technology has made incredible advances in current decades, tornadoes are an outlier. They remain dangerously hard to see coming.

There are some reasons for this: Tornadoes are localized weather events, and they don’t last long. Even the most dangerous winds are over soon after they begin. Most last less than ten minutes. There are also a large variety of conditions that tornadoes favor, which means that most storms that could produce a tornado don’t. And the ones that don’t seem to look just like the ones that do.

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