Tornadoes Make Inaudible Sounds Before They Form, Detection Could Help With Storm Warnings

A tornado reportedly touched down in Pennsylvania Wednesday night, causing structural damage and power outages. There was little proper warning issued for this severe weather and potential tornado, but new research on storm sounds could change this and make tornado warnings more accurate.

There are certain sounds that not only warn of an incoming tornado, but also give information on the storm's size, wind speed and core pressure, Brian Elbing who teaches mechanical and aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University told NPR. The only problem is, these sounds are inaudible by human ears. However, Elbing and his team of students were able to pick up the sounds in May. Although still in its early stages, Elbing suggested that further refinement could help make this sound test a reliable way to predict tornadoes.

"We could look at radar data of the larger storm system, and when the rotation there was really strong, it produced almost no infrasound," Elbing told NPR. "And then 10 minutes before the tornado itself formed is when you start seeing this big increase in the sound levels. And then it lasted the duration of the tornado."

A tornado is seen south of Dodge City, Kansas, moving north on May 24, 2016. About 30 tornadoes were reported on Tuesday in five different states, from Michigan to Texas. New technology could hear tornado storms hours before they start and potentially save lives. Brian Davidson/Getty Images

According to The National Severe Storms Laboratory, meteorologists often use computer programs that rely on mathematical equations to predict if the conditions are right to form a tornado. These programs use factors such as atmosphere conditions and information from weather balloons and satellites to predict tornadoes. However, this process is still not perfected.

"It's still a mystery, though. We don't know everything," Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Norman, Oklahoma, told NPR. "So the science is certainly helping us issue better warnings, but the science is not to the point yet where we can definitively say, storm A definitely will have a tornado, storm B definitely won't."

A tornado is defined as a narrow rotating column of air that touches the ground, The National Severe Storms Laboratory reported. These are described as the most violent type of atmospheric storms, and normally about 1,200 hit the U.S. each year.

Yesterday's suspected tornado in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, caused significant damage to buildings in the area, WPMT reported. Photos from the aftermath show cars flipped over throughout the area, RedCrossEasternPA tweeted.

Elbing's project needs just $50,000 to help get it off the ground. He predicts it would become functional in Oklahoma within five years, and perhaps to other states not long after.