Q&A with Don Burgess (Scientist)

YOU’VE BEEN STUDYING SEVERE WEATHER FOR FORTY YEARS, AND YOUR COLLEAGUES HAVE COMMENTED ADMIRINGLY ON THE DEPTH OF YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF TORNADOES. IN ADDITION TO SERVING AS A SCIENCE ADVISOR ON TORNADO ALLEY, YOU ALSO DID SOME ADVISING ON THE MOVIE TWISTER, IS THAT RIGHT?

Only in an indirect way. Back in the nineties, I was working on the VORTEX1 project, guiding the chase teams, and some people from the movie Twister came and sat with me and asked questions. They were trying to understand the process. And, actually, the highlight for me was being able to sit for a whole afternoon with Bill Paxton when he was preparing for his role in that movie. He was a really nice guy, and we just sat and talked all afternoon, talked storms, and he wanted to understand—which is a good thing for an actor, I think—all the jargon and the phrases that we used. Two or three of the things we talked about ended up as lines in the movie. And I later wondered, you know, if any of those lines came from that afternoon. So that was my interaction. It was a fun thing to do.

 

NOW, OF COURSE, HE’S NARRATING TORNADO ALLEY?

Yes, that’s another tie, which is a neat thing. All of us are excited about that.

 

HE HAS ALSO TALKED ABOUT GETTING BEHIND A TWISTER 2 PROJECT.

Well, they’ve talked about that for a long time. It’s kind of been on and off, so I don’t know if it’s going to occur, but if it does that’ll be interesting. If it’s not crazy.

 

DID YOU LIKE THE FIRST MOVIE?

Oh, I liked certain aspects of it. Certain aspects I didn’t like. If I had been the king of the world I would have changed at least a couple of things. This business of being able to chase and stop and go to Aunt Em’s place and eat and have a shower and then go and chase again. I’ve never had that happen. Chasing is more difficult than that. And the other thing, there was a scientific flaw in the movie that, to me, was glaring. Even now when I watch the movie it makes me cringe. And that is that none of the tornadoes had inflow. The characters could be close to a tornado and the wind would not be sucking in. There is no way for a vortex like that to get strong and rotate without drawing a lot of air in, and it does so right along the ground, in a very shallow boundary layer. So if you’re standing in front of a big tornado you’re in this roaring wind that’s blowing into the tornado. And they didn’t capture that at all. It frustrated me then and it frustrates me now.

 

THERE WERE DEFINITELY A LOT OF HOLLYWOOD MOMENTS. THE FLYING COW GETS JOKED ABOUT A LOT.

One thing I’m learning—and I guess I realize it more now, since some of us have been advising on the Tornado Alley project—a movie has to work as entertainment. If it doesn’t, then we’re not going to be able to get our scientific points across, because nobody’s going to come and see it and try to understand them. It has to be entertaining. I’m sure Twister had to be entertaining. And I think Tornado Alley will be entertaining, but a lot of that entertainment will come from the beauty of the large-format IMAX film.

 

WHAT STRUCK YOU ABOUT THE TORNADO ALLEY PRODUCTION?

They didn’t seem to collect that much film. They might be with us for a whole day, but only collect film for 15 or 20 minutes. I think each magazine only had about five minutes worth of film on it. And then they had to get out and change the magazines and go through this elaborate reloading process. So they were conservative with how they shot that film. They didn’t film everything. They only filmed things they knew they wanted, or if something seemed exciting. Another thing is the cameras were noisy. They make a whirring noise, and it’s fairly loud. So even with the radar going in the truck, when they were shooting their film we could hear it.

 

YOU ARE THE CHIEF SCIENTIST OF MOBILE RADAR NOXP, AND ONE OF YOUR PRIMARY RESEARCH INTERESTS IS TORNADOGENESIS (THE BIRTH OF TORNADOES). WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES OF THE SUCCESSFUL VORTEX2 DEPLOYMENT THAT’S FEATURED AT THE END OF TORNADO ALLEY?

Well, since it was our first success, I think everyone was quite excited about it. It turns out that one of the people in our radar group had never seen a tornado before. It was his first tornado. So that was kind of nice. You go through a little celebration. We didn’t get to have it that night, but we did it the next night—a steak dinner and all that. It’s sort of a tradition when someone sees their first tornado.

 

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO LEARN FROM THE DATA YOU CAPTURED DURING THAT STORM? WILL IT EVENTUALLY HELP FORECASTERS GIVE EARLIER TORNADO WARNINGS?

Well, there’s no one piece of evidence, no one shining diamond out there that you find and—eureka, that’s it!—you suddenly understand. Doing science is usually much more complicated than that. You say our goal is to increase lead time. Well, perhaps that’s the ultimate goal, but I think, really, our main goal is to understand—to better understand—this process of tornadogenesis. Even if we completely come to understand the storm you see in the movie, it may not be the only way a tornado can get born. So we need to continue to study. But it will be a great step forward if we come to a complete understanding of tornadogenesis for that particular storm.

 

IT’S A TIME-CONSUMING PROCESS?

I’ll tell you what I predict when it’s all said and done, because this is the way it’s been for the forty years I’ve been doing this, these processes are like onions—tornadogenesis, the organization of storms, or whatever—and those onions are full of layers. And you keep peeling back the layers. Every time you do, you find there’s another layer. So we’re going to increase our understanding, but that increase in understanding is not going to be absolute. It’s not going to be complete. What we gain as new knowledge will just raise questions about things that we don’t know, which means we’ll need to collect more data, do more analysis, do more numerical modeling, as time goes on. As for lengthening the warning lead times, it will probably be computer-generated warnings that help us get what we’re after there.

 

HOW WILL THAT WORK?

We have a catch phrase, if you’re looking for one. It’s called Warn On Forecast. Right now, the process is to warn on detection. We use these Doppler radars, which are great tools. We see the circulation forming inside the cloud and then we issue the warning. And that gives us a lead time of 10 to 15 minutes. But what we’re really after is a better understanding of the process, knowing what to look for in a model, making the models better, and then initializing the models with radar data earlier in the storm’s lifetime to see if the model produces a tornado. If it does, that’s when we can issue the early warning. So this warn-on-forecast process is going to try to do that. The data from VORTEX2 is very important in that research. But it may take as much as ten, fifteen, twenty years to make those kinds of things happen.