Meet Ontario’s tornado detectives

A new project led by researchers at Western University aims to collect data on every tornado in Ontario this year. We talk to Professor Gregory Kopp about his team’s unique New Year’s resolution — and about the risks and rewards of storm-tracking
By Adam McDowell - Published on Jan 14, 2019
A cluster of six powerful tornadoes hit the Ottawa area last September, destroying this house in Dunrobin. (Western University)



Between the towering, twisting funnel cloud and the powerful winds, tornadoes may seem like difficult things to miss. But extreme-weather researchers believe that as many as 70 per cent of them go undetected in Canada. 


Enter the Northern Tornadoes Project, a Western University-led team that has been working since 2017 to identify and collect data on tornadoes that would otherwise be missed. Last year, it logged information on 12 previously undetected tornadoes across the country (nine of them in Ontario). Its resolution for 2019? To collect data on every tornado in Canada.


Gregory Kopp, the project leader and an engineering professor at Western, talks to about the pioneering initiative, the science behind it, and why it’s important to determine that a  tornado has occurred — even if no one was around to see it.  


Does Ontario experience a lot of tornadoes?

Tornadoes are relatively rare. They’re extreme events of nature. About 60 per year, on average, are identified in Canada and on the order of 12 or so in Ontario. There are places in Ontario that have had none, and are not likely to have any, and places that are much more prone to have them. From Windsor up the 401 corridor a ways is one alley, and north along the line of Goderich, through Orangeville, on to north of Barrie is kind of a second. But don’t ask me to prove that statistically.

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Tornadoes form during thunderstorms, so are they more common in the summer?

Yes, but you can have them in any month of the year. A few years back [in 2005], there was a tornado in November in Hamilton.


Why do so many tornadoes go unverified?

There are two main reasons. One is that many of them are happening where there aren’t any people. And the other reason is nobody is trying to systematically identify them all. We’re trying to fill that gap.


If a tornado occurs where there aren’t any people, won’t a weather station detect it?

No. I have huge respect for Environment Canada, but they run on a shoestring. If you go to their website and look at their map of Canada showing where their radar stations are, their radius of coverage is kind of around where the people are — along the border with the United States, where most of us live. Farther north, there’s much, much less. There’s lots of places where there’s nothing.


So how does your project find tornadoes?

We subscribe to a satellite-imagery service that gives us an image resolution of about two metres. We look on the days before a storm, and we look on the days after a storm, and with a resolution of two metres, you can see the scars left on vegetation and other things. If we see any hint of tornado damage, we hire an aerial-photography company that will fly over those areas and take imagery for us with a resolution of about five centimetres. With that kind of resolution, we can identify individual damaged trees and the branches, sometimes. We get that data for the whole track of the storm. We use the details of the trees to try to estimate the intensity of the tornado, as well.


We use social media, also, to determine where a tornado has occurred, and that’s typically in populated areas. There are lots of instances where people have seen it and photographed it and put it on social media.


Is anyone else trying to count every tornado?

We don’t have competitors in Canada. In the U.S., the National Weather Service is tasked with identifying tornadoes. I should add that we’re trying to capture all the information we can gather for every tornado. It’s not just that we want to identify every tornado — we want to capture data in detail. That is unique in the world right now. And we’re creating a digital record, which we’re going to try to house at our library forever and make available to the public forever.


Your techniques don’t give advance warning of tornadoes. What’s the point of knowing about them after the fact?

Two things. In construction, nuclear reactors are designed for tornadoes but not much else is. In a changing climate, we’re expecting to see more severe weather. A large part of our research at Western over the past decade has been looking at how to make houses more resilient. We believe we can make houses that would stand up to 90 to 95 per cent of all tornadoes.


And it sounds kind of funny to say, “If there’s a tornado in the boreal forest and the only thing out there is trees and bears and maybe loggers, then why do we care?” Well, Environment Canada are the ones who issue warnings. Their mandate is to help protect us from severe weather. They need to know after the fact how their predictions compared with what they had forecast. Our detailed data will help them analyze that better. Before, they didn’t know what happened after the fact. Nobody could go out and check it.


How will you know that you’ve captured every tornado in Canada in 2019? If you miss some, won’t you be unaware you’ve missed them?
I would say it’s an aspirational goal at this stage. I’m expecting that we can increase the number identified to see 50 per cent more. We typically haven’t been in the storm-chasing business, but I think we may have to engage with storm chasers and work to be closer to the storms during the significant parts of the season. That’s a big change in our methodology. We’re at a university, and universities are risk-averse — and we’re taking students out, so that’s a risk, too.


Have you personally experienced a tornado up close?

I’ve never been in a tornado. I think in the future I’m going to be out in the field much more, so that’s going to be likely to happen. I’m a little nervous about it.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


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