NASA's New Instrument Shows Never-Before-Seen Characteristics of Tornadoes

NASA's Latest Instrument Provides Unprecedented Data on Tornadoes

Exploding the Myths About Twisters

It's a common notion that tornadoes are merely columns of spinning air, reaching up into the clouds and extending down to the ground. While this description isn't wrong, it doesn't paint the full picture. Scientists have long known that tornadoes are far more complex and have sought new tools to reveal the true nature of these devastating meteorological phenomena. Fortunately, a new instrument, the Scanning Lightning Imager (SLI), aboard the International Space Station (ISS) provides a novel look at these mysterious weather events. Designed and built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, the SLI recently captured footage of a tornado-producing storm in Kansas, revealing vivid details about the storm's structure and dynamics, as well as insights on how tornadoes form and develop.

A Multifaceted Storm System

The storm system, which lasted for over four hours on the evening of August 24, 2022, produced a plethora of severe weather phenomena, including powerful thunderstorms, golfball-sized hail, destructive winds, and at least one confirmed tornado. The SLI captured pristine footage of this dynamic event, providing invaluable data on the storm's evolution. The instrument utilizes an advanced camera and sensor system to detect both lightning and the wide range of colors emitted by clouds and precipitation. This enables the SLI to map the structure of storms and atmospheric dynamics in ways never before possible.

The Lifecycle of a Tornado

The footage from the SLI, combined with complementary data from the Cloud Physics Lidar, a complementary JPL technology also aboard the ISS, provides a comprehensive look at the formation and lifecycle of tornadoes. Such insights are crucial for improving weather forecasting and warnings. The data may also help disclose key vulnerabilities in our infrastructure and point to where and how tornadoes interact with their surroundings. This knowledge could ultimately help policymakers and planners make more informed decisions on how to prepare and strengthen vulnerable areas.

Breaking the Mold

Historically, studying tornadoes has been challenging for scientists, owing to their brief existence and relatively small size. They are often a few meters in width, sometimes reaching widths of 100 meters or more, but they usually last only a few minutes. Tornadoes also frequently occur in remote areas and at night, making them difficult to study and observe. Furthermore, they tend to develop so rapidly that researchers must be at the right place at the right time to observe them, making it extremely difficult to understand how they form and develop.

The data from the SLI and Cloud Physics Lidar on the ISS provide valuable information that is impossible to acquire on a conventional research aircraft. Collected roughly 250 miles overhead, the data is free from the biases introduced by the proximity to the ground and local topography that can impede observations made close to the surface. This novel insight may lead to improved weather forecasting and help us better understand the dynamics and behaviors of these destructive weather events.

The Road Ahead

The data from these instruments, among others aboard the ISS, is a goldmine for scientists seeking to improve severe weather forecasting and gain revolutionary insights into the inner workings of tornadoes and other severe meteorological phenomena. The SLI and Cloud Physics Lidar will continue to provide invaluable data on these complex storms, and the information they reveal will help shape the strategies used to forecast and mitigate the impacts of these sometimes deadly events. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and this new insight into tornadoes and severe storms could empower us to safer withstand these unpredictable and powerful natural events.


  1. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (2023, January 10). NASA's new instrument shows never-before-seen characteristics of tornadoes.

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