Scientists Try to Predict Tornadoes

They wrap cars around trees, level homes and devastate communities, but a key factor that makes tornadoes even more deadly is the element of surprise.

A powerful storm cut through the southern Illinois town of Centralia early today. Two people were killed and nine others were hospitalized with injuries after the storm system roared into town around 2:30 a.m. It was the third deadly weather system to strike southern Illinois in less than three weeks.

"We had multiple injuries, walking wounded, people couldn't get out of their houses; we had several paramedics pulling people out of the rubble," said paramedic Bill Harrell.

The National Weather Service has yet to determine whether the Centralia storm was a tornado or whether the destruction was caused by powerful winds accompanying the system.

But officials have been able to confirm that it was a tornado that hit Gallia County, Ohio, early today. Damage to the area was estimated at $6 million, said Bill Davis, president of the county commissioners.

On Wednesday, heavy storms and funnel clouds raced across central and eastern Kansas, uprooting trees and tearing roofs from houses.

There were no deaths in the Ohio and Kansas storms. But the one thing all of the storms had in common was the lack of warning.

In spite of all the technology brought to bear on tornado forecasting, the average warning the Weather Service can give of an oncoming tornado is 8.6 minutes.

But at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Hugh Christian and his colleagues are at work on new ways to catch a tornado as it forms.

Watching the Lightning

Christian and his fellow researchers have found that in the half-hour before a funnel cloud takes shape there is often a surge of lightning flashes in the clouds overhead. Then, with 10 minutes to go, the lightning stops.

And this, says Christian, could be a big help to forecasters. "We can use lightning to monitor the history of the storm, when it's intensifying, getting more dangerous, when it's weakening, getting less dangerous," he said.

If it works, in future years … and as radar improves … forecasters could double the lead time they can now give people, and potentially save lives. They could cut down on the number of false alarms — so that people take an alarm more seriously.