Todd Murphy from ULM, 4 students on a data collection mission for the PERiLS weather campaign

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Posted on March 21, 2022

University of Louisiana Monroe Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Dr. Todd Murphy, right, standing, and four students left campus Monday, March 21 to collect data on an approaching storm system. Murphy received a $276,000 PERiLS grant to study how tornadoes form from squall lines. Atmospheric science students participating in the field mission are, left to right, seated, Emily Allen and Haniston Holloway, and standing, Isaiah Montgomery and Jacob Zeringue.

Photo services Lanaya Bolden/ULM


$267,000 grant to study tornado development from squall lines could lead to better weather warnings

March was a calm month, weather-wise, until Monday, March 21.

A severe weather line stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico is heading east and is expected to set up camp in northeast Louisiana later today. The National Weather Service predicts threats of heavy rain and flooding, hail, high winds and tornadoes.

It’s a scenario that Todd Murphy, Ph.D., assistant professor of atmospheric science at Louisiana Monroe University, is familiar with. And he and atmospheric science students Emily Allen, Haniston Holloway, Isaiah Montgomery and Jacob Zeringue are ready.

At 1 p.m. Monday, Murphy and the students left the ULM in a truck full of university weather instruments, including weather balloons and portable Light Detecting and Range (LIDAR) equipment.

LIDAR uses lasers to measure wind components before a storm. Data on wind direction, speed and other variables can be used to better predict severe weather events.

Supported by a three-year, $276,000 PERiLS grant to study tornadoes born from squall lines, Murphy and his team traveled to Meridian, Mississippi, to ride out the storms.

“Our first PERiLS mission is this event. We chose a subdomain south of the Starkville, Mississippi area,” Murphy said.

“The project is particularly interested in examining severe tornadic squall lines. Not just any type of thunderstorm or supercell that other projects have focused on,” Murphy said.

PERiLS is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Science Foundation project to study “propagation, evolution, and rotation in linear storms.”

“A gust is a line of thunderstorms. It’s linear, not just-formed thunderstorms. Usually when a cold front passes, there’s a squall line,” Murphy said.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions from the scientific side about why tornadoes form in squall lines. Some parts can form a tornado, and some parts can’t when everything else looks the same,” Murphy said.

After spending the night in Meridian, Murphy and his team will travel to western Alabama to settle down. Microlight LIDAR and weather balloons will monitor the squall line as they approach their site in Demopolis, Ala. Teams from other PERiLS partners will be at different locations along the squall line.

LIDAR uses a laser to produce wind shear readings every five minutes compared to a weather balloon, which can take an hour or more to report the data.

“Some of our science goals on the ULM side are that we’re particularly interested in seeing how quickly the wind shear changes in the lowest 1-3 kilometers of the atmosphere as it approaches the squall line,” said he declared.

“LIDAR will allow us to trace the wind in the atmosphere at a fairly high resolution. We will have a new wind profile about every five minutes, like when we launch a weather balloon. We get the same kind of data; we get a wind profile, but it takes about an hour for this weather balloon to rise through the atmosphere,” Murphy said.

“During this hour, the environment changes, especially ahead of these squall lines. We hypothesize that the environment is changing very rapidly. We don’t exactly get the best low-level data on how quickly the weather changes with weather balloons.

Using LIDAR and other meteorological instruments, Murphy said they would be “able to determine how quickly these squall lines are changing in time and space.”

Ultimately, all research is devoted to improving weather alerts issued by the National Weather Service.

“If we can see something interesting in our science data that we can report to the National Weather Service about where you should be looking at squall lines, then maybe they can issue better warnings,” said said Murphy.

Murphy received the PERiLS Fellowship in October. The three-year grant includes two years of fieldwork and one year of data compilation and research. In 2022, the grant will fund six to seven missions and in 2023, eight to nine missions. PERiLS territory extends from the Missouri Stand to the Gulf Coast and from the middle and lower Mississippi Valley to the Appalachian foothills.

Universities that have received PERiLS funding in addition to ULM include University of Oklahoma, University of Alabama, Huntsville, Purdue, Texas Tech, Pennsylvania State University, SUNY Stony Brook , University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and North Carolina State.

Under NOAA and NSF direction, 60 to 70 researchers could be on the ground for each mission.

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