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Skilling: Supercomputer helps track tornadoes

Published: Friday, April 18, 2014 6:19 p.m. CDT

BATAVIA – When a tornado tears through a town and demolishes every building in sight, the funnel cloud and its trail of destruction is clear to the naked eye.

But when a computing data network uses a supercomputer the size of two football fields to collect the data and digitize its images, scientists learn more about what creates and sustains these destructive storms – and helps predict them.

WGN chief meteorologist Tom Skilling hosted two presentations April 5 from various scientists and meteorologists at Fermilab in Batavia during the 34th annual Tornado and Severe Weather Seminar, which included the effects of climate change on weather.

Donna Cox, leader of the Laboratory National Center for Supercomputing Applications Advanced Visualization, presented the University of Illinois’ supercomputer, Blue Waters.

Cox said Blue Waters is the fastest supercomputer of any university and also ranks as the 10th fastest in the world. 

A professor of art and design, Cox said she works with scientists to visualize their data.

“Most people do not know that numerical models permeate their everyday lives, from cars to airplanes to the very financial and economic models that forecast our economy,” Cox said. “We have worked with Argonne National Laboratories to visualize a … model of traffic in downtown Chicago and how to reroute traffic during severe storms.”

Gov. Pat Quinn spoke briefly about the deadly tornadoes the state experienced in 2012 and 2013, as well as drought and flooding. Quinn also serves on President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience to advise his administration on how the federal government can respond to the needs of communities dealing with the impact of climate change. 

“We’ve had such severe weather in the last year in Illinois,” Quinn said to a crowd of nearly 1,000 people in Fermilab’s Ramsey Auditorium. “Last April, we had the flood all across our state. We never saw anything like it in the history of Illinois since 1818. Then the killer tornado in November.”

Quinn told of going to Washington and four other communities in the state that were hard hit by severe tornadoes.

“It took lives, and in 12 seconds in Washington, Ill., it destroyed more than a thousand homes,” Quinn said. “I think it was a blessing that we have the kind of advance predictions and advice and using social media in particular. It saved lives, clearly, last November. Because folks got the warning ahead of time that something very, very dangerous was headed their way and they got to cover.”

Quinn also shared how a first-grade boy who attended his State of the State Address this year had saved his family by learning about the early warning system in school.

“His teacher told him when you hear those sirens, you have to get cover, get down in the basement,” Quinn said. “So when he heard the sirens in Washington, Ill., he told his mom, ‘You’ve got to come down now, mom. You have to get to safety right away.’ She said, ‘In a minute or two, honey.’ He said, ‘Right away, mom.’ ”

She listened to her son, and within a second or two after she went into the basement, their entire house was blown apart by a tornado.

Quinn is running for re-election and facing a Republican challenge from candidate Bruce Rauner, a wealthy North Shore businessman.

However, Quinn’s appearance at the Fermilab event is not a stop on his re-election campaign, a Fermilab spokesman said. 

Skilling and WGN, who organize the Tornado and Severe Storm Seminar at Fermilab every year, invited Quinn and his appearance was set up through Quinn’s office staff, not his campaign staff, the spokesman said.

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