VORTEX-Southeast research taking place in the air above the Tennessee Valley

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A group of severe weather researchers is back in the Tennessee Valley, and they have their eyes on the sky this spring.

The Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment-Southeast (or VORTEX-SE for short) is a collaborative effort coordinated by the National Severe Storms Laboratory and involves the Air Resources Laboratory, University of Alabama-Huntsville, Texas Tech University, Purdue University, University of Louisiana-Monroe, and many others.

Vortex-SE is hoping to study the atmosphere within the first three miles above the ground, which means many of their instruments are up in the air -- literally.

“We have these drones -- this is an octocopter, hence with the eight blades here," explains Temple Lee, a drone operator and atmospheric researcher at the NOAA Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division in Oakridge, Tennessee.

"[The octocopter is a] DGS-1000 to which we have attached a couple of temperature and humidity sensors, on the bottom we have an infrared camera and we also have a go-pro camera as well that’s used for capturing images of the land surface.”

Lee uses the octocopter as well as a quadcopter to take real-time measurements of the air within 400-1200 feet of the ground.

"During Vortex-SE, a lot of the work [the drone researchers] are focused on is not so much studying the storm processes themselves, it’s more of the antecedent conditions on the scale of four-five-six hours before the storms arrive," Lee noted.

Unlocking the mysteries of tornado formation in this region may be hidden within an area called the boundary layer, which is located within the first three miles above the ground.

It’s why you may see a few balloons drifting away on a stormy day.

“We launch weather balloons to profile the atmosphere, so that we can get temperature, wind speed, wind direction, dewpoint," said Preston Pangle, a University of Alabama Huntsville sophomore and Team Leader of UPSTORM, an organization supported by the Atmospheric Science Department and SWIRLL research center.

The students will launch either a large weather balloon or a smaller one, depending on the data needed. Attached to those weather balloons are special instrument packs inclosed in a standard cardboard case (for the larger balloons) or reusable styrofoam coffee cups (for smaller balloons).

Why the different sizes in balloons?

“We typically get just the first two to three kilometers [1-2 miles] of the atmosphere with the smaller ones," Pangle explained. "With these bigger ones, we’ll get as far as 15 to 16 kilometers [9-10 miles] in the atmosphere."

And believe it or not, NOAA Hurricane Hunters are up for the job of tornado chasing. They will fly no less than three thousand feet above the ground.

But why fly an airplane into severe thunderstorms?

"It’s a heck of a radar platform, and we have that mobility," says Jack Parrish, who serves as a Flight Meteorologist onboard NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft. "A lot of other radars are stuck on the ground, they have to wait for the weather to come to them -- we go to the weather.”

While it may seem unusual to fly an aircraft dedicated to hurricane reconnaissance into tornadic weather, it is not unprecedented.

“With the VORTEX scientists, and the people from the National Severe Storms Laboratory, we have flown a lot of spring times in the Oklahoma area, and just last year in Salina, Kansas," Parrish explained.

“We’re familiar with this kind of weather to a large degree, but the weather in the Southeast is truly unique, especially in northern Alabama. So we’re going into this with a little bit of trepidation, we don’t quite know what to expect, but we know that the airplane is up to it, and the crew is up to it.”

But Parrish mentions that the Hurricane Hunters themselves will likely not see any tornadoes during this research period.

“We probably will never see a tornado with the radars that are onboard the airplane. However, tornadoes come from mesocyclones."

"Mesocyclones are of a large enough scale for our tail doppler radar to very accurately depict them. And if the weather doesn’t happen to want to be where a lot of these ground units are deployed, we can go where the weather is."

"So that’s our beauty. Where ever it’s happening, we can shift over to that location. We will not ever see anything at that microscale. That’s where you really need those ground units," Parrish concluded.

The second season of VORTEX-SE continues through the first week of May.