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Social media sparks tornado research

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ATLANTA -

Social media has changed the way we do a lot of things these days, and it is even changing the way meteorologists do their research.

It was a little more than two years ago that we saw one of the most incredible tornado outbreaks on record devastate the southeast. It was also one of the biggest weather events to play out on social media.
    
Tuscaloosa, Alabama was hard hit during that tornado outbreak, and a Facebook page set up by Alabama resident Patty Buillon was designed to reunite tornado-scattered items to their owners.

"She was able to save something of people's lives," said UGA geography professor John Knox.

For Knox, that Facebok page triggered an idea.

"We thought you know, you could use this information to track trajectories of tornado debris." Knox said.

He did and with the help of several students, they started sifting through the virtual goldmine of data.

"We were able to find over 900 items from the Facebook site just from one day of tornadoes," said graduate student Alan Black.

They tracked where items originated, where they landed, and determined which tornado picked them up. Black says they found a few surprising things.

"We documented what we think is a record in terms of the length of travel for an item," said Black.

One photograph traveled over 220 miles from Alabama to Tennessee. Past research showed that tornado debris tends to land to the left of a tornado's path. Knox says it was UGA senior Jared Rackley who made a unique discovery. He found that items traveling the farthest landed to the right of the tornado's path.

"Because, we think, they were influenced by the jet stream winds at the very highest parts of the thunderstorm," said Knox.

The information gleaned from the research could be life-saving, especially if a tornado picks up toxic debris.

"We'll be able to give emergency management, National Weather Service, other people, a sense from our research where that debris could go," said Knox.

One of the things Knox taught the students was to respect what the tornado victims had been through. They only used data publicly available on that Facebook page. While they could have dug up even more data by contacting some of these people, they just didn't want to open any wounds so to speak. He called it "research with a heart."

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