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UNL drone study

University of Nebraska professor Adam Houston (right) talks with a colleague while chasing storms. Houston is among the leaders of a project to study supercell thunderstorms.

Nearly 75 percent of the time the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, no tornado develops.

Beginning in May, a team of researchers led by some from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will use drones and other equipment with the goal of improving tornado forecasts and minimizing the cases where warnings are issued and the public deems it a false alarm.

A group of more than 50 scientists and students from four universities will participate in the Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells study funded through a three-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

By using drones, along with a manned aircraft, eight trucks equipped with meteorological instruments, several mobile-radar systems and sophisticated weather balloons, researchers hope to expand their understanding of supercell thunderstorms beyond the metrics picked up by ground-level Doppler radar, according to Adam Houston, associate professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at UNL.

"To date, we have very limited observations above the ground in the storm," Houston said. "We can collect observations on the surface, but we know very little about temperature and moisture above the surface in the storm. The reason that's important is, it fills a gap in our understanding of the thermodynamics of the storm."

Houston said the group, including scientists and students from the University of Colorado, Texas Tech University and the University of Oklahoma, applied unsuccessfully for the grant four different times before gaining approval.

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"In some ways, it was a bit of a relief to finally get this," he said. "We've had a really good idea for a long time. We've had the technology for a long time, but the advantage is, the longer it takes, the more the technology improves. So in retrospect, if we'd gotten this project funded when we'd first proposed it in 2012, we wouldn't have been able to do as much."

Study participants will hit the field May 13 and spend the 2019 and 2020 seasons following storms across the Central Plains, from Texas to North Dakota and Iowa to Wyoming.

In the meantime, researchers are going through training and preparing equipment to be storm-ready.

"Once you shoot a moose, that's just part of it, then you have to drag the moose home," Houston said. "Now we have the obligation of making sure this actually works. There's a lot that needs to be done. I have a truck to build, Colorado has personnel to train. This is at a scale that we have never operated."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or wstone@journalstar.com.

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