Fox News Weather Center

Kansas Town Devastated by 2007 Tornado Aims to Host Research of Dangerous Nighttime Severe Storms

Greensburg, Kansas, City Council could vote as early as Monday on a lease to allow scientists to conduct important severe weather research that could help improve the understanding and thus forecasts of dangerous nighttime outbreaks.

An EF5 tornado devastated Greensburg during the night of May 4, 2007, killing 11 people and leveling 95 percent of the city. Since the tornado, Greensburg has rebuilt itself as one of the "greenest" communities in the United States.

Greensburg sits in a nearly ideal area with flat land available to be a part of a multi-site project to investigate nighttime severe weather on the southern Great Plains. Council is expected to approve a lease in its business park with NASA and the U.S. Department of the Navy as part of the PECAN project, Plains Elevated Convection at Night, according to the Kiowa County Signal.

The research at Greensburg is expected to be conducted between June 1 and July 15, 2015. It will explore three major severe weather aspects that tend to converge over the southern Great Plains: stable boundary layer, nighttime low-level jet stream and potential energy available for thunderstorms.

While years of experience allow a meteorologist to learn to forecast these thunderstorms, the scientific tools fail surprisingly often, Enterprise Solution Senior Vice President Mike Smith said.

"That is because the low-level jet stream can be very narrow and difficult to detect with our current network of weather balloon stations that average 250 miles in spacing," Smith said. "At night, there are few weather instrument-equipped aircraft. So, the processes that lead to these thunderstorms can fall through the cracks."

Tornadoes sometimes occur with these nighttime storms, Smith said.

The Greensburg tornado and other twisters that touched down that night are examples. Forecasting those is critical to saving lives because they occur in darkness, Smith said.

"The more frequent problem [in these dangerous nighttime severe storms] is very large hail and damaging winds along with torrential rains. Meteorologists need to learn what data sets make the difference and what improvements in computer models are necessary to improve the quality of our forecasts of these overnight storms," he said.

Aircraft and ground radar will be used as part of the work from Greensburg and five other locations in Kansas and Oklahoma. More than 20 universities and federal agencies will be conducting the research, according to PECAN.

"The town could use more jobs and businesses," Smith said. "Hopefully, the scientists and media will bring favorable exposure [rather than showing ruins] to the town's recovery and will help encourage the process of growth."