BOISE -- While people continue to clean up after the devastating tornadoes in the south, meteorologists are refining their forecasting tools.
This week, Idaho's Chief Meteorologist Rick Lantz is giving us a behind-the-scenes tour of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman Oklahoma.
While in Oklahoma, he learned how tornadoes are monitored and learned if it is possible for Idaho to see a big tornado.
Last week, an estimated 305 tornadoes ripped through the southern states, killing 340 people. It was the deadliest windstorm outbreak in nearly 40 years in the United States.
The Storm Prediction Center tracked those storms and sent life-saving tornado warnings to people in danger. It was the largest number of tornadoes on record, in a 24 hour period.
The biggest part of my research involves the where and when of thunderstorms and tornadoes, said Dr. Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist. So, in what conditions do they occur? Where do they occur and when do they occur? All around the world.
Large tornadoes typically occur east of the Rockies where conditions are ideal for tornado-producing thunderstorms.
The central part of the United States is almost a perfect laboratory for creating severe thunderstorms, said Dr. Brooks. When we get the warm, moist air at low levels, that means that air is coming from the south, off of the Gulf of Mexico, and the cold, dry air comes from over the Rocky Mountains.
That cold, dry air mixes with the warm, moist air to create those large storms. But do not rule out tornadoes here in Idaho. Since 1990, we've averaged six of them each year.
What can really happen to create tornadic conditions in southern Idaho is you can get the warm, moist air at low levels in the valley. Then you've still got mountains around you that relatively cold air aloft can come down, get the right temperature conditions, and if the winds are just right, things can come together, Dr. Brooks explained. It's possible for the atmosphere to make the right kinds of conditions, but the atmosphere has to work a lot harder than it has to work in the middle part of the country.
Records indicate that most tornadoes in Idaho are typically smaller than those in the Midwest. But there have been large tornadoes in Idaho. Most recently, in June of 2006, an F2 tornado leveled 5,000 acres of forest near Bear, Idaho.
Although rare, tornadoes can occur anywhere. It is one reason all Doppler radar towers in the country will be upgraded to dual polarization in the next two year. It will allow forecasters to see debris picked up by tornadoes so we can warn you ahead of the storm.
Advances in radar are helping meteorologists locate and track more tornadoes than ever before.
Back in the 1950s we only got about 500 to 600 reports of tornadoes a year, and that number's gone up a lot over the years, said Dr. Brooks. To where now we think that probably on average we'd expect to have about 1300 tornadoes in the United States in a given year.
As radar technology improves, so will the severe weather warnings ahead of the storms which keep you safe.
In the future, scientists believe technology will advance so far, it will allow them to calculate and pinpoint tornadoes before storms even develop.