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OU researchers create simulator that shows how tornadoes scatter debris

An OU science researcher demonstrates the tornado debris simulation. (KOKH/Jordann Lucero)

Research scientists at the Radar Innovations Laboratory at the University of Oklahoma just unveiled a new simulator that shows how debris is scattered in a tornado.

"Whenever you have debris particles like leaves, even just simple leaves, then the signal signature is very different," research scientist Boon Leng Cheong said. "So that's what we're trying to learn in this project. What happens when we have wood boards, if we have building materials-- what sort of signals, characteristics are we going to see from the prospective of a radar."

In the simulation video released Monday, green leaves, pink shingles, and orange boards get picked up and thrown from a tornado.

It took more than three years of work. It required math and computer programming, field studies, and careful documentation of how debris can move.

The simulator can have a lot of applications.

"You [could] identify a strong tornado that's causing a lot of damage as its happening which is a capability we haven't had before the tornado debris signature," David Bodine, another research scientist, said.

If the radar looks like a simulation they've run before, Bodine said, scientists could figure out how violent a tornado is. He said they could even figure out if a tornado is happening, based on debris scatter, without someone having to spot it.

"It's a way for very realistically creating a simulated environment in a computer of what a polarimetric radar would see," Robert Palmer said.

Palmer is the executive director of the Advanced Radar Research Center.

He said the simulator can help scientists develop new, better radar technology.

Bodine said it could even help determine building codes that would stand up to tornado debris scatter.

He said researchers can now take radar images and damage surveys from real storms, like the tornado that hit near Dallas on April 29, to see if their simulations run true.

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