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Interview with Tornado Expert Dr. Joshua Wurman

“It’s not the wind that hurts, it’s the bricks that fly by in the wind,” quips Dr. Josh Wurman.

He should know. For more than a decade—since around the time "Twister" hit theaters—Wurman has led major research projects to better understand why some storms produce tornadoes and others don’t. The hope is that with these findings, the National Weather Service will be able to provide tornado warnings further in advance and with greater accuracy (Currently, the average warning time is 13 minutes with a 70% false alarm rate).

“Every minute counts,” he says, adding that he has seen the worst devastation in low income areas. “Because of their construction, lower class homes get so much more damage than wealthier, newer homes.”

From 2009-2010, Wurman led the VORTEX 2 project—an effort widely held as the largest and most ambitious tornado study ever completed. VORTEX (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment) brought together more than 100 scientists, ten mobile radars, and dozens of other science and support vehicles to surround tornadoes and the supercell thunderstorms that form them.

This groundbreaking endeavor is featured in “Tornado Alley,” a new IMAX film that opens this Friday, March 18, at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

The film is both entertaining and educational, mixing heart-pumping moments with recreational storm chasers with footage of respected researchers like Wurman talking about tornado science. DOW

Through funding from the National Science Foundation, Wurman came to the Fleet on Tuesday night for the premiere of “Tornado Alley,” and he’ll be back on Saturday for the park-wide Science Family Day festival. He doesn’t pack lightly; visit the park on Saturday and you’ll be able to see one of his massive Doppler on Wheels vehicles parked outside the Fleet (pictured).

The DOWs have been used to collect high resolution data on more than 100 tornadoes and other weather phenomena. While most of Wurman’s research has been conducted in parts of the South and the Midwest, he says that the DOWs could also be used in our region for wildfires. “With it, we can map inside the smoke cloud: where it’s hot, where it’s cooler, where there are big updrafts of wind. There are still big unknowns.”

In addition to leading field research and writing papers, Wurman has participated in multiple seasons of the Discover Channel series “Storm Chasers.” He learned that his true passion is research-- not reality television. According to Wurman, the TV people “don’t really like scientists because we don’t act. Scientists aren’t generally willing to whoop it up or have this interpersonal drama.”

He says that younger scientists are even less willing to put on a show, particularly if they’re planning to apply for faculty positions.

“They can’t look silly, arrogant, or rude. Would you want to hire someone like that?”

Despite his less-than-rosy reality TV experience, Wurman is enthusiastic about “Tornado Alley” and the opportunity to use the IMAX film to excite youth about science.

To hear more from Wurman, watch the video clips (below) from an interview at the Fleet. Don't miss these exciting upcoming events in the Park:

Saturday, March 19: Balboa Park Science Family Day
Participate in kid-friendly activities across the park from 11am-3pm. At the Fleet, meet Dr. Wurman and see the famous Doppler on Wheels.

Thursday, March 24 from 5-7pm: Tornado Thursday
See a special screening of "Tornado Alley" with a special presentation by the films' storm-chasing meteorologist, Dr. Karen Kosiba.

Friday, March 25 from 5-7pm: Richard Alley & "Tornado Alley"
Meet Dr. Richard Alley, one of the world's leading climate researchers and host of the soon-to-be-released "EARTH: The Operators’ Manual", set to premiere on April 10. Guests will get a sneak peek at clips from the upcoming special projected onto the 76-foot dome screen.

Dr. Joshua Wurman, on engaging kids with science


Dr. Joshua Wurman, on why he does movies and TV