July 22, 2003
The Tornado Debris Project is no longer active. This information is not updated but has been made available for anyone interested in reading about the project. The contact information is no longer current.
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The Tornado Debris Project, administered through the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, aims to study debris transported long distances by tornadic thunderstorms. Historical records have documented many instances in which tornadic debris has been lofted into and carried by the parent thunderstorm and then deposited remarkable distances away from the source location. (For a review of the historical records, go to Fallout of Debris from Tornadic Thunderstorms1: An Historical Perspective.) Until now, little effort has been made to collect and analyze such information scientifically. Indeed, most of our knowledge of such phenomena is anectodal, commonly appearing as human interest stories in newspapers.
By locating "traceable" debris, such as cancelled checks, photographs with names, bank papers, legal documents, invoices, etc., soon after a tornado event occurs, we can further our understanding of the lofting and deposition process. The debris acts as a "tracer" through the storm. The starting and ending points of debris can be used along with radar, sattellite, and numerical model information to explore possible trajectories through the storm.
Unlike meteorological data being collected by other researchers, the debris-related data for this project can be most efficiently found by the general public. Prior to the start of the spring storm season, contact letters are sent to law enforcement, emergency management and news media personnel in order to acquaint them with the project and ask for their assistance should a tornado strike in their area.
If a tornado does strike, a press release is sent by facsimile to the contact persons in counties downstream from where the tornado struck. The press release asks the public to be on the lookout for debris which may have been transported by the tornado. Debris reports are directed to the project via the Tornado Debris Hotline (1-800-3DEBRIS) or by mail (Tornado Debris Project, Sarkeys Energy Center Suite 1310, 100 East Boyd St., Norman, OK 73019-0628). Persons who discover debris area asked to note what the item is, the specific location where it was found, the time it was found, and if there are any identifying marks or writing that might indicate its origin. Most debris items are then sent to the Tornado Debris Project for further study and an attempt to return the items to their owners.
The operation of the Tornado Debris Project during the spring of 1994 yielded several debris reports from two tornadoes in the southern plains. An F2 tornado which struck near Tuskahoma, Oklahoma, on April 25, 1994, led to three reports of canceled checks and an invoice found far downstream from the tornado. The documents, which had been in a storage shed near Tuskahoma that was demolished by the tornado, were found in and around Fort Smith, Arkansas, a distance of approximately 70 miles from the source.
On April 26, 1994, two F2 tornadoes hit Gainesville, Texas, and the public responded with six reports of debris. Four of the debris items, which landed at three separate locations, were traced to a ranch site about four miles north-northeast of downtown Gainesville. A canceled check and a page from a bank statement were both found on property four miles northeast of the source location. A title deed from the sale of property was found near Lake Texoma in Bryan County, Oklahoma, a distance of nearly 40 miles from the source. A second canceled check was found in Caddo, Oklahoma, nearly 60 miles from the source.
For more detailed information about these storms, go to Fallout of Debris from Tornadic Thunderstorms: An Historical Perspective and Two Examples from VORTEX, an article published in the October 1995 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
In the spring of 1995, the Tornado Debris Project collected data from three tornado-producing thunderstorms in southern Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. We also received information about other debris-lofting events in Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts and Missouri, due to the efforts of concerned weather-watchers in these areas.
The F3 tornado which struck north-central Texas and south-central Oklahoma on May 7, 1995 yielded over 50 reports of transported debris, many of which were reports of multiple items. More than forty of the items have been traced back to their original location. Debris from this storm was found in eight counties in Oklahoma, some as far away as 100 miles. Some reports of interest include a man's jacket, transported nearly 20 miles from its source; a flag from a golf course, lofted 43 miles; and a canceled check lofted 125 miles. For more information about this storm, go to Long-Distance Debris Transport by Tornadic Thunderstorms: Part I-The 7 May 1995 Supercell Thunderstorm .
On June 2, 1995, an F4 tornado struck the town of Friona, in the Texas panhandle. Following this storm, we received reports of about 60 debris items being found at 19 different locations. Most items were paper, including numerous canceled checks and receipts. Light debris, such as a floppy disk, shingles, a cassette tape and plastic flowers (perhaps from the cemetery northeast of Friona) were also found. The few heavy items found included pieces of sheet metal, a 5-by-3 foot sign, and a piece of wood from an airplane. Many items were found more than 40 miles from their source locations.
On June 8, 1995, a family of tornadoes, some rated as high as F4, struck the Texas panhandles towns of Pampa, Kellerville, and Allison. Paper items such as canceled checks, receipts, photographs and business forms were found from all three locations. Other items found include large pieces of styrofoam, insulation, and plywood. Several items were found more than 60 miles away from their sources.
For more information about these and other storms from 1994 and 1995, go to Fallout of Debris from Tornadic Thunderstorms 2: Examples from 1994 and 1995.
The large number of cases found in the two year study has shown the occurrence of long-range debris transport by tornadic thunderstorms is much more common than the historical records show. While the 7 May 1995 event has been studied in detail, the other datasets are being analyzed to discover similarities and differences between events. Following the detailed documentation phase of the Tornado Debris Project, future plans include numerical modeling of the thunderstorms associated with the collected datasets. Another area to be explored is the potential risk of the long-range transport of hazardous materials by tornadic thunderstorms.
Exposure of the project has been one of the keys to its success. We know that long-distance transport of tornadic debris does occur, but it does not always get reported. Of particular use have been reports of accurate times which tracable debris has been seen falling to the ground. We are still very interested in collecting detailed accounts of timed debris fall. Through the assistance of conscientious citizens, we can increase our collection of the more rare datasets which can be used to document exactly where the debris is travelling through the storm. Please pass the word about this project. If you live in a tornado-prone area, be on the lookout for debris or reports of debris (look in your local newspaper). If you see or hear of anything you think we should know about, contact us by phone, mail, or e-mail (email@example.com). Your help will be greatly appreciated!
A paper over the 7 May 1995 event has been submitted to the meteorological journal, Monthly Weather Review. To see an online version of this document click on Long-Distance Debris Transport by Tornadic Thunderstorms: Part I-The 7 May 1995 Supercell Thunderstorm. Please note this submission is under peer review and has not yet been accepted for publication. Ongoing research for the future Part II is focusing on characteristics of all the events collected from 1994-1996.