An Indiana University geophysical experiment detected unusual seismic signals associated with tornadoes that recently struck regions across the Midwest — information that may have value for meteorologists studying the atmospheric activity that precedes tornado disasters.
The experiment by IU researchers involves deployment of more than 100 state-of-the-art digital seismographs in a broad swath of the U.S. midcontinent. One of the twisters that struck southeastern Missouri and southern Illinois on Feb. 29 passed through the seismic detection array.
“In examining the seismograms, we recorded unusual seismic signals on three of our stations in southern Illinois,” said Michael Hamburger, professor in the department of geological sciences at IU Bloomington and one of the researchers conducting the experiment.
“The seismograms show a strong, low-frequency pulse beginning around 4:45 a.m. on Feb. 29. Our preliminary interpretation, based on other seismic records of tornadoes, suggests that we were recording not the tornado itself, but a large atmospheric pressure transient related to the large thunderstorms that spawned the tornadoes.”
Hamburger said a seismic pressure gradient associated with the tornado produced a slow, minute tilting of the seismograph that lasted for several minutes. He said this sort of pressure-related signal may help scientists better understand atmospheric activity that takes place right before tornadoes touch down. The IU researchers are working with colleagues at the University of California San Diego to try to compare recordings with other tornado-related signals and to dig deeper into the analysis.
While seismographs have been known to detect seismic activity related to tornadoes, it is highly unusual to have state-of-the-art digital instruments recording information in such close proximity to a tornado, the researchers say.