Thursday, December 13, 2018

Tornadoes from the Ground Up Not in the Clouds As Once Thought

Historically, scientists assumed tornado rotation began in storm clouds, creating a funnel that travels downwards. This theory matches what storm chasers commonly observe visually in the field. Viewers often report seeing funnel clouds gradually descending until they make contact with the ground.

But new research combining a new type of Doppler radar with photos and videos of tornadoes formed by supercell thunderstorms shows the opposite is true: Tornadoes materialize from the ground up.

Weather forecasters typically issue tornado warnings based on radar observations of strong rotation above the ground, but the new findings suggest forecasters must re-evaluate their warning procedure, according to the researchers.

A tornado in Galatia, Kansas on 25 May 2012 as it was decaying.

Credit: Jana Houser.

“We need to reconsider the paradigms that we have to explain tornado formation, and we especially need to communicate this to forecasters who are trying to make warnings and issue warnings,” said Jana Houser, a meteorologist at Ohio University in Athens who will present the new findings here today at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting. “You are not going to really ever be finding strong evidence of a tornado descending, so we need to stop making that a priority in our forecasting strategies.”

Research conducted in the 1970s suggested tornadoes form from rotation that starts several kilometers above Earth’s surface. The theory was that this funnel gradually sucked in air from below, descending until it touched the ground.

Most meteorologists have accepted this theory of tornado formation, but a series of new observations from rapidly scanning radars has started to change that.

One of the pivotal cases contributing to the new understanding of tornado formation occurred on May 31, 2013. On this day, the El Reno tornado formed in central Oklahoma and shattered previous tornado records. It was the widest tornado ever recorded, peaking at 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) wide, and had wind speeds of more than 480 kilometers per hour (300 miles per hour), the second-highest wind speeds recorded on Earth.

Shot of the El Reno, Oklahoma EF-3 tornado near maximum width and peak intensity on 31 May 2013.

Credit: Nick Nolte, CC-BY-3.0.

Houser and a team of researchers from the University of Oklahoma happened to be monitoring the storm with a new type of mobile Doppler radar system that collected tornado wind speeds every 30 seconds. Afterwards, Anton Seimon, a geographer at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina who had chased the El Reno storm, collected hundreds of still photos and videos of the epic twister from citizens and fellow storm chasers.

When Houser compared her radar data with images collected by Seimon, she noticed something odd. The images clearly showed a visible tornado at the ground several minutes before her radar picked it up.

Puzzled, Houser went back through her radar data and analyzed the data taken at the ground. It is typically difficult to get good radar measurements at or near the ground, but Houser and her team had deployed their instrument on a slight rise and there were no obstructions between them and the tornado, so this time, they had data good enough to work with.

Jana Houser standing next to the Rapid X-Pol radar instrument, a new type of rapidly-scanning mobile radar system, during a storm chase on 8 May 2012.

Credit: Jana Houser.

She found clear evidence of rotation at the ground before there was rotation at higher altitudes. Houser then examined other sets of tornado data and found that in many cases, tornado-strength rotation develops at or near the ground first, rather than starting in the cloud itself. In all four datasets she analyzed, none of the tornadoes formed following the classical “top-down” process.

“It emphasizes the fact that we need to have strong, low-level, basically near-ground level rotation, located in the right spot, at the right time, with respect to the larger parent storm circulations in order to form a tornado,” Houser said.



Contacts and sources:
Jana Houser / Lauren Lipuma
The American Geophysical Union 





Hubble Finds a Fast Evaporating Exoplanet


Fishermen would be puzzled if they netted only big and little fish, but few medium-sized fish. Astronomers likewise have been perplexed in conducting a census of star-hugging extrasolar planets. They have found hot Jupiter-sized planets and hot super-Earths (planets no more than 1.5 times Earth's diameter). These planets are scorching hot because they orbit very close to their star. But so-called "hot Neptunes," whose atmospheres are heated to more than 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, have been much harder to find. In fact, only about a handful of hot Neptunes have been found so far.

In fact, most of the known Neptune-sized exoplanets are merely "warm," because they orbit farther away from their star than those in the region where astronomers would expect to find hot Neptunes. The mysterious hot-Neptune deficit suggests that such alien worlds are rare, or, they were plentiful at one time, but have since disappeared.

This artist's illustration shows a giant cloud of hydrogen streaming off a warm, Neptune-sized planet just 97 light-years from Earth. The exoplanet is tiny compared to its star, a red dwarf named GJ 3470. The star's intense radiation is heating the hydrogen in the planet's upper atmosphere to a point where it escapes into space. The alien world is losing hydrogen at a rate 100 times faster than a previously observed warm Neptune whose atmosphere is also evaporating away.
Artist's Illustration of Gas Streaming from GJ 3470b
Credit:  NASA, ESA, and D. Player (STScI)

A few years ago astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope found that one of the warmest known Neptunes (GJ 436b) is losing its atmosphere. The planet isn't expected to evaporate away, but hotter Neptunes might not have been so lucky.

Now, astronomers have used Hubble to nab a second "very warm" Neptune (GJ 3470b) that is losing its atmosphere at a rate 100 times faster than that of GJ 436b. Both planets reside about 3.7 million miles from their star. That's one-tenth the distance between our solar system's innermost planet, Mercury, and the Sun.

"I think this is the first case where this is so dramatic in terms of planetary evolution," said lead researcher Vincent Bourrier of the University of Geneva in Sauverny, Switzerland. "It's one of the most extreme examples of a planet undergoing a major mass-loss over its lifetime. This sizable mass loss has major consequences for its evolution, and it impacts our understanding of the origin and fate of the population of exoplanets close to their stars."

As with the previously discovered evaporating planets, the star's intense radiation heats the atmosphere to a point where it escapes the planet's gravitational pull like an untethered hot air balloon. The escaping gas forms a giant cloud around the planet that dissipates into space. One reason why GJ 3470b may be evaporating faster than GJ 436b is that it is not as dense, so it is less able to gravitationally hang on to the heated atmosphere.

What's more, the star hosting GJ 3470b is only 2 billion years old, compared to the 4-billion- to 8-billion-year-old star that planet GJ 436b orbits. The younger star is more energetic, so it bombards the planet with more blistering radiation than GJ 436b receives. Both are red dwarf stars, which are smaller and longer-lived than our Sun.

Uncovering two evaporating warm Neptunes reinforces the idea that the hotter version of these distant worlds may be a class of transitory planet whose ultimate fate is to shrink down to the most common type of known exoplanet, mini-Neptunes — planets with heavy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres that are larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. Eventually, these planets may downsize even further to become super-Earths, more massive, rocky versions of Earth.

"The question has been, where have the hot Neptunes gone?" said Bourrier. "If we plot planetary size and distance from the star, there's a desert, a hole, in that distribution. That's been a puzzle. We don't really know how much the evaporation of the atmospheres played in forming this desert. But our Hubble observations, which show a large amount of mass loss from a warm Neptune at the edge of the desert, is a direct confirmation that atmospheric escape plays a major role in forming this desert."

The researchers used Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to detect the ultraviolet-light signature of hydrogen in a huge cocoon surrounding the planet as it passed in front of its star. The intervening cocoon of hydrogen filters out some of the starlight. These results are interpreted as evidence of the planet's atmosphere bleeding off into space.

The team estimates that the planet has lost as much as 35 percent of its material over its lifetime, because it was probably losing mass at a faster rate when its red-dwarf star was younger and emitting even more radiation. If the planet continues to rapidly lose material, it will shrink down to a mini-Neptune in a few billion years.

Hydrogen probably isn't the only element evaporating away: it may be a tracer for other material streaming off into space. The researchers plan to use Hubble to hunt for elements heavier than hydrogen and helium that have hitched a ride with the hydrogen gas to escape the planet. "We think that the hydrogen gas could be dragging heavy elements such as carbon, which reside deeper in the atmosphere, upward and out into space," Bourrier said.


This graphic plots exoplanets based on their size and distance from their star. Each dot represents an exoplanet. Planets the size of Jupiter (located at the top of the graphic) and planets the size of Earth and so-called super-Earths (at the bottom) are found both close to and far from their star. But planets the size of Neptune (in the middle of the plot) are scarce close to their star. This so-called desert of hot Neptunes shows that such alien worlds are rare, or, they were plentiful at one time, but have since disappeared. The detection that GJ 3470b, a warm Neptune at the border of the desert, is fast losing its atmosphere suggests that hotter Neptunes may have eroded down to smaller, rocky super-Earths.
Exoplanet Radius vs. Distance from Star
Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

The observations are part of the Panchromatic Comparative Exoplanet Treasury (PanCET) survey, a Hubble program to look at 20 exoplanets, mostly hot Jupiters, in the first large-scale ultraviolet, visible, and infrared comparative study of distant worlds.

Observing the evaporation of these two warm Neptunes is encouraging, but team members know they need to study more of them to confirm predictions. Unfortunately, there may be no other planets of this class residing close enough to Earth to observe. The problem is that hydrogen gas cannot be detected in warm Neptunes farther away than 150 light-years from Earth because it is obscured by interstellar gas. GJ 3470b resides 97 light-years away.

However, helium is another tracer for material escaping a warm Neptune's atmosphere. Astronomers could use Hubble and the upcoming NASA James Webb Space Telescope to search in infrared light for helium, because it is not blocked by interstellar material in space.

"Looking for helium could expand our survey range," Bourrier said. "Webb will have incredible sensitivity, so we would be able to detect helium escaping from smaller planets, such as mini-Neptunes."

The researcher's paper will appear in the Dec. 13 issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

Contacts and sources:

Citation: