Facebook May Help Create Better Tornado Debris Warnings

First Posted: Mar 18, 2013 09:52 AM EDT

Facebook may allow scientists to better predict the fallout from tornado outbreaks--at least in part. Using publicly available information found on the "Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes" Facebook page, researchers have created a database that could allow scientists to save the public from hazardous, flying debris.

In 2011, a massive tornado outbreak swept across Alabama and other southern states. Photos and mementos were blown for hundreds of miles as tornadoes tore across the states.  In fact, one photo traveled nearly 220 miles through the atmosphere over Alabama and Tennessee, eventually landing in the town of Lenoir City. In order to better understand how this debris travelled, scientists at the University of Georgia decided to employ Facebook.

In total, the scientists examined 1700 found-and-returned objects that were whipped across the southern states by high winds. They then analyzed the takeoff and landing points of these objects using GIS and high-resolution numerical trajectory modeling techniques. Eventually, the researchers created a database of 934 objects that were lofted by at least 15 different tornadoes during the period.

So what did they find? The researchers noted that they discovered that some objects travelled hundreds of miles and exceeded the previous record for the longest documented tornado debris trajectory. They also found that while the majority of the debris trajectories were 10 degrees to the left of the average tornado track vector, the longest trajectories seemed to tend toward the right of the average tornado track vector.

The discoveries may be able to help scientists track tornado debris, and could even be used to help warn the public of falling items. The model that they created could be especially useful if a tornado were to hit an unsafe site.

"We need to get enough understanding, so we can get fairly reasonable predictions of where the stuff goes," said John Snow, a Professor of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, in an interview with the French Tribune.

The findings are published online by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

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