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Howard Bluestein, Tornado Hunter, Says Data Gathered From Deadly Storms Can Help Save Lives

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HOWARD BLUESTEIN
Howard Bluestein drove a mobile Doppler, like the one pictured above, close to a deadly tornado Sunday. The data gathered, which he described as unprecedented, could help researchers better understand tornadoes, improve forecasting technology, and save lives. (Credit: National Science Foundation) | National Science Foundation

While it may be little consolation to those who lost relatives and homes to the twisters that ravaged central Oklahoma this week, a famed tornado hunter sees one benefit in the devastation: Data collected from the storm could help save lives in the future.

Howard Bluestein is a professor at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Meteorology and one of the best-known storm-chasers in the United States. His work trying to measure and catalog tornadoes, which involved getting in front of the storms and leaving 400-pound bundles of measuring equipment in their path, inspired the 1996 movie "Twister."

Bluestein, now 64, was out chasing tornadoes this weekend when extreme storms ripped through Oklahoma's landscape. In a phone interview from his home in Norman on Tuesday, Bluestein described how he tracked a tornado that moved from Norman to the nearby town of Shawnee late Sunday. The monster storm formed a half-mile wide ball of debris made of several smaller tornadoes moving in tandem, with winds clocking in over 200 miles per hour.

Bluestein says he was able to drive the mobile Doppler radar installed on his “very large pickup truck” close enough to get what he describes as unprecedented data.

“This is probably one of our best data sets that we’ve ever collected,” he said.

Bluestein said the data will help him and other researchers better understand what causes tornadoes to form in the first place, possibly helping improve forecasting technology by, for example, providing a better understanding of what kind of thunderstorms are likely to spawn tornadoes.

“It can help us understand what the structure of tornadoes is and it could help understand how tornadoes form,” Bluestein said. “Better understanding of what makes it more likely for tornadoes to form is the ultimate goal of our field.”

Bluestein was especially excited about what his data might reveal, he noted, because of the power of Sunday’s tornado and the fact it had a “multiple vortex” structure.

Bluestein seemed nonchalant about the power of the storm, but after years of hunting tornadoes, there's still one challenge that unnerves him: traffic.

“I drove the mobile Doppler truck through a populated, urban area once,” Bluestein said. “Never again.”

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