A group of scientists have created an absolutely spectacular 3-D computer simulation of an EF-5 tornado that tore through central Oklahoma on May 24, 2011. The animations show the mesmerizing mechanics of how nature's most violent storms form and operate.
The scientists used atmospheric data from the May 24, 2011 tornado outbreak across central Oklahoma to run a model simulated supercell that produces an EF-5 tornado. The simulation depicts clouds in the supercell and the condensation funnel from the tornado, as well as wind streamlines and vorticity (rotation) within the tornado.
The real-world tornado off of which this simulation is based had winds of more than 200 MPH as it tore a 63-mile path through the towns of Calumet, El Reno, Piedmont, and western Guthrie, all west and north of Oklahoma City. Nine people died and nearly 200 people were injured when the storm hit. The tornado was so powerful that it scoured grass from the earth, debarked trees, tossed a 20,000-pound oil tanker more than a mile, and scrubbed buildings clean off of their foundations.
Here are some photos taken by the National Weather Service during their survey of the damage. The first photo shows a pole that (formerly) held high-tension wires, the second shows a building scrubbed from its foundation, and the third, surprisingly enough, shows the remnants of a small airplane mangled up with building debris.
We rarely get to see the inner-workings of a tornado—just the gray wall of clouds outside and the devastating damage they leave behind. The video is a testament to the incredible computer powers available to scientists today that allow us to see the mechanics of tornadoes. Hopefully this research will lead to a better understanding of how tornadoes form and strengthen, ultimately leading to better warning times.
To answer a couple questions: First, audio is now available, which may answer some technical questions. Visualization software includes Vapor and VisIt. Finally, this is a "highly idealized" simulation which was initialized with the May 24, 2011 background environment that was sampled from a RUC sounding near the real storm. When you do simulations like this you never know what result you will get - the majority of the time you don't get a tornado, or get a weak one (just like the real atmosphere).