Scientists try to understand tornadoes

(NBC) - It is considered the largest and most ambitious effort ever to understand tornadoes. More than 150 scientists are embarking on a six-week project called "Vortex 2."

A group of scientists has been putting the finishing touches on their instruments over the last six weeks at the Boulder Municipal Airport.

"My wife is starting to miss me," said Justin, an engineer.

The group has three mobile radars, four instrumented vehicles and 16 tornado pods.

"They're instrumented weather stations, which are going to be deployed in the path of the tornado. What we're trying to do here is gather low-level information inside the tornado, like the wind speeds and temperature one-meter off the ground," Karen Kosiba, a research scientist, said.

Perhaps the most interesting toys the Vortex team has are its four instrumented vehicles. They will be able to collect scientific data that has never been collected before.

"They're dual-polarization, dual-frequency systems, which is a lot of jargon for saying we can understand the difference between rain and hail. It will take a lot of measurements, but it can also scan very fast through tornadic thunderstorms," Joshua Wurman, the project director, said.

The importance of measuring the difference between rain and hail will allow the team to better understand how tornados form.

"It's a question you think we may have had answers to by now, but they're actually very difficult questions," Kosiba said.

With the data they collect, the team hopes it will be able to make better prediction times. The average warning time is about 13 minutes right now.

"If we can get that to 20 minutes, 30 minutes, then people would have more time to seek shelter and fewer people would get injured or die," Wurman said.

Because this project is so unique, an IMAX film crew is following the team's progress. The team will travel through a hand-full of states, including Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma.

"Anytime there's a severe storm, we have to decide which one we're going to target," Wurman said.

The storm-chasing part of the project should be complete by mid-June.

The $10 million project was mostly funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Copyright 2010 NBC. All rights reserved.