When a tornado is bearing down on you, 10 minutes may not sound like much time to find shelter. Yet that’s what Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has set as its target tornado warning lead time for 60 per cent of twisters, including those that threaten populated areas.
However, research using Northern Tornadoes Project (NTP) data from 2019 to 2021 found the warning target was met only 9.5 per cent of the time. Greg Kopp, a professor of Civil Engineering at Western University in London, Ontario, and lead researcher on the NTP, wants to help change that.
Founded in 2017 by Western University with funding provided by the Toronto-based social impact fund ImpactWX, the NTP aims to better detect tornado occurrence throughout Canada, improve severe and extreme weather understanding and prediction, mitigate against harm to people and property, and investigate the implications of climate change.
Only the U.S. experiences more tornadoes than Canada, where last year more than 100 were detected. The long-term average is expected to grow as research continues to improve tornado detection in remote and sparsely populated areas, which Dr. Kopp sees as important for a number of reasons.
“To get warnings right, one needs to check, verify and improve them over time,” he says. “If we want to understand climate change, we need to keep track of this data accurately over a fairly long period and develop a good database.”
NTP’s research so far has shown that Canada is experiencing far more tornadoes than was previously known and observed, notes Dr. Kopp. “What surprised us is that we found some big outbreaks of strong tornadoes that no one knew about – they didn’t hit anything except perhaps some cabins in the forest. They were never reported.”
Early warnings are obviously important to help save lives, but understanding the destructive force of tornadoes and examining the post-tornado damage to property to help communities mitigate the impact of future tornadoes and reduce insurance claims are also part of NTP’s research.
For example, the tornado that swept through Barrie, Ontario, in July of 2021 damaged 110 houses and led to more than $100-million in insurance claims.
Changes to construction methods could help limit the damage caused by strong tornadoes, says Dr. Kopp. “When we survey the damage afterwards, we look at what was actually damaged and broken and what wasn’t. And we try to learn from that. We do a lot of work in the lab where we can test houses under extreme wind loads to understand what breaks in wood frame houses under severe events like tornadoes.”
Based on these investigations, NTP can determine better ways to protect buildings against damage. “Mitigation is actually relatively inexpensive. We can use small metal roof ties – in the U.S., they’re called hurricane straps – that don’t cost much and can hold the structure together,” says Dr. Kopp. “[This] reduces the likelihood of a house being destroyed and residents having to find alternative housing, often for several years.”
While there is currently no definitive evidence that climate change is increasing the number and severity of tornadoes, Dr. Kopp says population growth and urban sprawl mean damage caused by tornadoes is on the rise.
“Longer warm seasons could mean more tornadoes. In the U.S., there’s evidence that tornadoes are moving eastwards from the low population density region historically known as Tornado Alley to areas with higher populations – and that’s going to cause a problem,” he says. “We don’t yet know what’s going to happen in Canada, but part of what we’re trying to do is get the data to find out.”
Windeee dome advancing smart cities, sustainable development
There’s a downburst brewing in the farmlands 15 kilometres east of downtown London, Ontario. Or is it a tornado? Either way, there’s no cause for panic: the storms are under control within the walls of Canada’s only wind dome where researchers deliberately generate large weather systems to study their impact on infrastructure like buildings and bridges.
As one of three facilities affiliated with Western University’s Wind Engineering, Energy and Environment (WindEEE) Research Institute, the wind dome allows researchers to create any type of complex wind system, including tornadoes, downbursts and hurricanes, to test models of buildings, structures and flow fields in real time – and with the greatest accuracy to date, says Girma Bitsuamlak, a professor in wind engineering at Western and director of WindEEE. “If structures are built without serious consideration for wind effects, catastrophic loss both in human lives and property could occur.”
Since the establishment in 1967 of the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory (BLWTL) – now one of the three WindEEE facilities – researchers have made structures all over the world safer and more economical, including the CN Tower and the Confederation Bridge.
The third facility – affectionately named the “Three Little Pigs” in reference to what happens in the fable when the big bad wolf blows down the piggies’ flimsy houses made of straw and sticks before meeting his match in a house built of bricks – enables researchers to apply varying wind loads to full-scale houses and light-frame structures in a controlled manner.
WindEEE is now a go-to for architects, engineers, developers, building scientists and urban planners who use its research in their work, says Dr. Bitsuamlak. “We evaluate the design wind loads for them, a practice we pioneered at BLWTL for atmospheric boundary layer flows in the early sixties while working on the (New York) World Trade Center twin towers buildings.”
Earlier this year, the WindEEE research facilities received nearly $4-million through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Major Science Initiative Fund, and Dr. Bitsuamlak says this investment will help WindEEE pursue its goal of becoming a national laboratory for wind research and attracting top researchers.
WindEEE researchers are maintaining Canada’s excellence in wind engineering through innovative new modelling and testing technologies that contribute to a climate-resilient and sustainable built environment, he adds. “With a deeper understanding of the science and engineering aspects of wind-structure interaction assisted with our unique expertise – and critical mass – and research infrastructure, our vision is that tomorrow’s community will become much better off in enduring the adverse effects of wind and harnessing wind power.”
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