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Monday, March 11, 2013 - 1:00am

Using Facebook To Track Tornado Debris

Can scientists use Facebook as a research tool? A University of Georgia geographer and his students followed the Facebook page set up by an Alabama woman. She was working to return items scattered by 15 deadly tornadoes in April of 2011. The storms killed 15 Georgians. The hardest hit area in Georgia was in Ringgold.

UGA geographer John Knox and his students followed the return of nearly a thousand items to their owners to determine the debris path. One photograph traveled a record distance.

“The longest object that we found traveled 353 kilometers, about 220 miles. Which is longer than any other object that’s been documented to have been flung by a tornado.”he says.

Knox says that helps scientists predict where harmful tornado debris may go.

“Someday we might have a tornado that will hit a toxic waste dump, or even a nuclear power plant. And so someday we may be worried about material falling from the skies that could cause harm. And we want to know in advance, where in the past these sorts of objects have landed. How far did they go and where did they land with respect to the tornado.”he says.

Knox says he believes social media can be a good tool for scientific research because so many people are using it to provide information. He says they have confidence in numbers.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd is president of the American Meteorological Society and director of Atmospheric Science at UGA. He says this shows the scientific value of social media. Shepherd says “We can start to really think outside of the box, beyond traditional data sets for scientific research in meteorology.”

Shepherd says this study also shows tornadoes can fling debris much farther than first thought.

He says they typically track tornado debris using satellites. Shepherd says this study shows those surveys may have been too narrow.
“We may need to expand the footprint of the area of the survey when we’re looking at debris scattering. Because clearly this study shows that debris from the tornadoes in Alabama perhaps have had a much larger extent than we knew from traditional studies in the past.”he says.

The UGA study will be published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.