MU researchers to study thunderstorms and better predict flash floods

Friday, March 7, 2014 | 7:19 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — It only takes a few inches of moving water to lift a car. Sometimes, through pendulum wiper blades and a foggy windshield, drivers think they see safe pavement ahead but instead lose control to the number one weather-related cause of death in America: flash flooding.

Flash flooding, which took 84 lives in 2013, causes many vehicle accidents, especially in hilly regions, said Mark Fuchs, a service hydrologist at the St. Louis branch of the National Weather Service. These fast, destructive floods often arise during thunderstorms that originate above the ground rather than at the ground, though scientists still don't have a firm understanding of the cause.

A team of MU researchers will make five two-day trips this summer to eastern Kansas and western Missouri to study these elevated convection storms and, hopefully, better predict flash floods.

“No forecast at the moment is perfect. That’s the thrust of what I’m trying to do: make a better forecast,” said Patrick Market, an MU professor of atmospheric sciences and one of the research project leaders.

The team will try to predict where these storms will be, make the trips sometime from March to September and release weather balloons into the storm area every two hours. Market said this will be the first time measurements will be taken of temperature changes and instability patterns before, during and after elevated convection events. The team will share findings with forecasters to improve predictions, which could prevent flash flooding deaths.

Flash flooding was the likely cause of seven Missouri deaths in 2013, Fuchs said. However, flash floods usually last less than 30 minutes, so the weather service advises people to wait out storms.

“You’ve got to weigh your priorities and ask if it’s worth the risk,” Fuchs said. “Don’t play games with it.”

Market said there is a potential risk for the researchers, but they won’t be releasing balloons directly into the heart of the storms. The purpose is to learn about the environment that creates them.

Elevated convection thunderstorms have a higher base than regular thunderstorms and have warm air coming from the side instead of from below. The climatology report that Market and co-leader Neil Fox, a radar expert and fellow professor of atmospheric sciences, are basing their research on was published in 1990.

“This wasn’t a new problem,” Market said. “It was a problem waiting for someone to deal with directly."


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