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UH research to help better predict dangerous storms

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A long-term partnership between the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and philanthropist Jonathan Merage is expanding to help meteorologists better understand and predict dangerous severe weather.

Support for two groundbreaking studies on torrential rainfall, lightning and severe thunderstorms in Hawaiʻi and Colorado is being boosted with more than $200,000 from Merage.

Large tornadic supercell and mesocyclone with striations in the upper Texas Panhandle. Photos courtesy of University of Hawaiʻi.

The philanthropist with a passion for severe weather phenomena is expanding his support to help meteorologists better understand the structures and processes of destructive supercell thunderstorms and the role terrain can play in the generation of mesocyclones, persistent, rotating updrafts that characterize supercell thunderstorms and a precursor to most deadly tornadoes.

“The overarching goal of Merage’s support is to improve forecasting of supercell thunderstorms, through careful deployment of novel observing systems, through analytical work to see what factors are important, and then through application of a numerical model with idealized terrain to evaluate these factors,” Steven Businger, professor in the UH-Mānoa Department of Atmospheric Sciences and the projects’ lead, said in a press release.

From left, Mingyue Tang, Matt Miller and Jonathan Merage check SUV-mounted instruments that measure weather conditions in real-time.

Businger and his associates conducted field experiments in Colorado, where Merage has a ranch south of Denver. Their latest investigation, “The anatomy of a series of cloud bursts that eclipsed the U.S. rainfall record,” was published in April in Monthly Weather Review and detailed the essential role of steep mountainous terrain in producing a series of supercell thunderstorms that stalled out over Kauaʻi in April 2018.

“Step by step, we gradually build up our understanding of the interaction of thunderstorms and mountains so that eventually, we have a full-physics weather model that is better able to predict evolving supercell thunderstorms,” Businger said in the press release. “That’s a pretty far-reaching goal. It could save lives.”

The other new grant Merage funded takes a novel approach to studying supercells by analyzing the isotopic composition of rainwater. By measuring the changing chemistry in supercells, scientists hope to trace the history and intrinsic properties of air currents as they traverse through different areas of the storm. Data collected by the team in May will be used to investigate how wind shear evolves and eventually leads to tornado genesis.


Six years ago, Merage began a partnership with the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology to fund research into how long-range lightning data can potentially improve storm forecasting. His latest gifts will boost the total he has given to the school to more than $800,000.

“I have always been fascinated by supercell thunderstorms and tornadoes, and it’s been a privilege to be able to work together with (School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology) scientists and students in conducting research in the field and furthering our mutual interests,” Merage said in the press release.

Tornado over the Texas panhandle during data collection in the field by the team.

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