New research center addresses extreme wind events

2/14/2022 10:06:27 AM

The deadly tornado outbreak that struck the central and southern United States in December 2021 killed 93 people and caused an estimated $3.9 billion in damages across eight states. In size and severity, the storms were unusual – but, experts say, getting less so. A new, multi-disciplinary research center announced this month at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will work to mitigate the impact of such extreme wind events and build community resilience to the disasters they cause.

Frank Lombardo
Frank Lombardo
Robert Trapp
Robert Trapp

Extreme wind events, including tornadoes, hurricanes and derechos, account for more than 80 percent of all inflation-adjusted losses caused by natural and human-caused hazards in the U.S. Despite significant advances in weather prediction and detection, the number of billion-dollar weather disasters due to windstorms has increased from an average of two events per year in 1991 to more than 12 per year in 2021, according to the co-directors of the new center, Robert Trapp, professor of atmospheric science, and Frank Lombardo, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“Contrary to popular belief, we are not making a significant impact in reducing losses from the most extreme wind events,” Trapp said. “Losses will escalate due to increased exposure and exacerbations from climate change.”

The newly established Extreme Wind Resilience Center (EWRC) will bring together the necessary expertise to reduce those losses, organizers said. A joint effort between UIUC’s departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Atmospheric Sciences, the center will leverage world-class expertise from multiple disciplines.

“Our two departments are well suited to lead this effort,” Lombardo said. “We bring internationally recognized expertise in atmospheric science, wind science and engineering, and structural engineering.”

Damage to University of Kentucky agricultural research facility and surrounding environment in Princeton, KY
Damage to University of Kentucky agricultural research facility and surrounding environment in Princeton, KY (December 2021)
Freight train cars derailed and surrounding damage near Earlington, KY
Freight train cars derailed and surrounding damage near Earlington, KY (December 2021)

Activities are already underway in support of the EWRC mission, including a post-disaster reconnaissance mission to evaluate the damage from the December tornado outbreak. A group of graduate and undergraduate students from CEE and ATMS, under Lombardo’s supervision, spent three days in Kentucky investigating tornado damage in multiple areas along a 160-mile tornado track. The assessment provided key observations regarding tornadoes that will spur additional EWRC investigation and research.

 One of these insights, Lombardo said, is that the overall risk from tornadoes is not well understood. The scope of the risk depends on prediction and preparedness before the storm, intensity during the storm, and recovery after the storm. The new center will deploy an end-to-end approach that considers this full scope of risk. The risk also spans all spatial scales from individual homes to community and regional levels. Some damage and loss of life is preventable even in the most extreme events through better building practices and proactive approaches to safety, such as storm shelters, Lombardo said.

Researchers from EWRC also will participate in the upcoming PERiLS project, a multi-institution field campaign designed to study tornadoes in the southeastern United States beginning on March 1. The aim of PERiLS (Propagation, Evolution and Rotation in Linear Storms) is to understand how “quasi-linear convective systems,” sometimes called squall lines, generate tornadoes. These systems are common to the U.S. southeast and Midwest, and are known to behave differently and present significantly greater forecasting challenges than “supercell storms.”

Deployment of CEE instruments in front of a thunderstorm in Texas. 
Deployment of CEE instruments in front of a thunderstorm in Texas. 

The ATMS team in collaboration with other universities and research laboratories will deploy several mobile weather radars, including Doppler On Wheels (DOWs) and the C-Band on Wheels (COW) from the new University of Illinois Flexible Array of Radars and Mesonets (FARM). FARM also includes an array of truck-borne mobile weather stations and arrays of quickly-deployable, targetable, weather stations which will be deployed ahead of, and into, potentially tornadic storms. 

The CEE team, in collaboration with NOAA, will utilize the information collected by the ATMS team and others to assess the damage caused to the natural and built environment on the ground and through the air. From this damage, the team will determine tornado occurrence and estimate their near-surface wind speeds and characteristics.

Faculty and students in CEE and ATMS will utilize this information to improve the understanding of multi-faceted tornado risk. 

Robert Trapp is Professor and Head of UIUC’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences. Trapp's research interests include the dynamics and observations of mesoscale convective systems, severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes; mesoscale modeling and predictability.

Frank Lombardo joined the faculty of UIUC’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2015. He is also a faculty affiliate in atmospheric sciences. His research interests are wind engineering, extreme wind characterization, bluff body aerodynamics, resilience and structural damage.

For more about Lombardo's research and plans for the EWRC, watch his presentation below: