Published: Sept. 1, 2009 By

tornado in field

The whirling winds of a tornado can reach 300 miles per hour, leaving damage paths that can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. © Eric Nguyen/Corbis

It’s doubtful even a tornado could have pulled 9-year-old Brian Argrow away from flickering black-and-white images of a man walking on the moon.

As he lay on his living room floor in tiny Stroud, Okla., he was mesmerized by the extraordinary event on that July day in 1969.

“I was completely fascinated and focused . . . It continues to influence me today,” Argrow says.

Influence, yes, a perfect word.

Argrow’s fate in the aerospace engineering sciences may very well have been sealed that day in his living room.

Today, 40 years later, Argrow is an aerospace engineering professor at CU-Boulder, focusing on tornadoes. His hometown of Stroud sits squarely in tornado alley. In 1999 a tornado killed 40 people and ripped out Stroud’s economic heart when it destroyed the city’s 50-store outlet mall and a food service distribution center. Neither was rebuilt.

Fittingly, Argrow is a leader in the largest scientific study of twisters in history that began this summer and involves more than 50 scientists.

His work could have strong implications. At least 120 people died in the U.S. from an estimated 1,600 tornadoes through the first nine months of 2008, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Inside Mother Nature’s brain

The project, called Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2, or VORTEX2 (V2), sent Argrow and dozens of other scientists scurrying through the central Great Plains this summer to peer inside Mother Nature’s brain to see exactly how she forms tornados. Scientists understand tornado basics — that they typically appear after warm and cold air collide — but they still don’t know exactly under what conditions they develop or what goes on inside them. Knowing this could help scientists get better at predicting when and where they will strike to increase warning times.

CU-Boulder has two teams playing key roles in the study. Katja Friedrich, assistant professor in atmospheric and oceanic sciences, is overseeing work with lasers that measure temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed, sizes of raindrops and hail and how fast they fall to Earth.

And Argrow’s team has built its very own Apollo 11, an unmanned aerial vehicle, a kind of super-high-tech remote control plane to go where no unmanned craft has gone before — into brewing storms, specifically into the “rear flank downdraft,” a region where meteorologists believe new clues lie to explain why some storms make tornadoes.

Creating the unmanned plane wasn’t easy. And Argrow says getting the Federal Aviation Administration’s okay to fly was troublesome, too. Argrow began working on it in the late 1990s with Erik Rasmussen, an organizer of the original VORTEX program held in 1994-95 and an advocate for CU’s development of the plane. This first VORTEX documented the entire life cycle of a tornado for the first time in history.

Learning to fly

Nevertheless, the plane is done — a 12-pounder with a 10-foot-plus wingspan. But another obvious difficulty for V2 researchers is finding, and then getting near, storms that might yield tornados. As a result, this summer Argrow and his team of graduate students, a research assistant and assistant professor Eric Frew spent hundreds of hours driving thousands of miles on the flatlands, chasing dark clouds. Ironically, while Argrow’s team was testing equipment in Nebraska on June 7, five tornados hit Colorado.

However, they did spot two severe storms and found themselves directly beneath what’s called a mesocyclone, a spine of wind that spins more and more fiercely as it moves vertically through storms and sometimes churns out tornados.

The storms gave Argrow and his students an opportunity to test their communications and navigation strategies, gathering key details on how best to navigate the plane in storms. This information will prepare them for spring 2010 when they will fully deploy the plane.

“In both cases there was tremendous rotation in the mesocyclones and they did everything but drop a tornado,” Argrow says. “The students were jazzed, but they were also a bit bummed at the irony that we were 500 miles away from the tornado that struck Aurora, Colo, . . . [but] the chase . . . was exhilarating for them.”

Argrow’s plane and his tornado work symbolize the kind of practical tasks in which Argrow thrives and where he helps his students most — with hands-on work. In fact, he helped overhaul the aerospace engineering curricula to stress active learning.

Engineering with heart

“Hands-on and experiential learning have been a passion,” Argrow says. “CU was the right place at the right time to make that [the curricula change] happen.”

He, other faculty members and department heads developed what they called the integrated teaching and learning program. Then they collectively completely changed the way aerospace engineering handled undergraduate education.

Jack Elston, who is completing his doctorate, has worked with Argrow since 2002.

“His greatest trait is his personality,” Elston says of Argrow. “He’ll challenge students to basketball and invite them over for barbecue.”

Elston also unveils an interesting quirk: “Argrow likes e-mails with the entire message in the subject line. He’s on so many committees and does so many things that he’s constantly swamped by e-mail.”

A busy guy. But not too busy for students.

Not surprisingly Argrow says the most gratifying parts of his work is watching students savor all the science.

“Some of them have worked for most of a decade to keep alive our dream of flying unmanned aircraft into storms and finally get the opportunity to make it happen,” he says.

He then extends that thought beyond the tornado study.

“I want them to realize engineers have a global responsibility,” he says. “As an engineer, you’re part of a global community . . . There are consequences for everything you do, and they can be far-reaching. There’s also a great ability to do good. You really can make a difference.”

Lives will be saved. Who knows? Maybe even the life of a little boy watching TV in Stroud.

Doug McPherson is a freelance writer in Centennial, Colo. He says he narrowly dodged the tornados that swirled over the city in June.