This page was inspired by a question which featured on the National Severe Storms Laboratory’s (NSSL) frequently asked questions – read said question and answer below.

“Does NSSL do things like they showed in the movie Twister?

The movie Twister was based upon work NSSL did in the mid-1980s using a 55-gallon drum outfitted with various meteorological sensors. It was called TOTO (TOtable Tornado Observatory). NSSL tried for several years to put it in the path of an oncoming tornado, but had minimal success. It did not have the sensors that fly up into the tornado, like in the movie. However, that is not a bad idea and with all the advances being made in computer technology, we might be able to do that someday.”

Now! Back to our regularly scheduled writing!

Much about Tornadoes remains a mystery, especially the details about what is happening inside the Tornado. Researchers have been trying to collect weather data on the ground – from inside a Tornado – since the early seventy’s.

Their mission has always been to discover new details that will help increase Tornado warning times and reducing false alarms which leads to saving lives.

Dr. Al Bedard and Carl Ramzy from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Environmental Research Laboratory (former parent organisation of the NOAA NSSL) produced the first device designed to take weather measurements in the path of the Tornado.

The TOtable Tornado Observatory (aka TOTO1) was a fifty five gallon barrel equipped with anemometers, pressure sensors and humidity sensors. Not forgetting devices which record the data.

1: Named after Dorothy’s little dog from the Wizard of Oz.

Here’s a scenario for you: a team of experts would roll TOTO out of the back of the pickup in the path of a Tornado, turn on the instruments and get out the way – heading for safety.

A handful of groups – including those led by Dr. Howie Bluestein from the University of Oklahoma and later by the NSSL – tried to deploy TOTO over the years, however never scored a direct hit. The closet TOTO ever came to a direct hit was in 1984 when it was sideswiped by the edge of a weak Tornado. A handful of years later, TOTO was retired.

“TOTO inspired” screenwriters Michael Crichton and Ann Marie Martin to develop a story around a similar device which ultimately became the 1996 blockbuster, Twister. ‘Dorothy’ was a barrel designed to release hundreds of sensors into the centre of a Tornado, sending the data back to the researchers on the ground, played by Helen Hunt and the late-great Bill Paxton.

A competing team of storm chasers attempted to deploy a similar device named ‘D.O.T.3’. Crichton and Martin along with producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy consulted with the NSSL’s Kevin Kelleher, Harold Brooks and other scientists to make sure their script was authentic, real and factually correct.

The Universal Studios production with digitally-created Tornadoes became a blockbuster, making five hundred million dollars at the box office.


Today, the NSSL and independent storm chasers have instruments that are smaller and easier to deploy in significant numbers to sample Tornadoes. In terms of the NSSL – Tornado PODs are one meter tall towers of instruments with a flat base to measure window velocity and direction at the level of the ground.

StickNets are two meter tall tripods which are designed to collect complete wind data sets and atmospheric variables. Setting these instruments in a large array increases the chances of collecting vital data should one be hit by a Tornado.

AccuWeather extreme meteorologist Reed Timmer is known to love his instruments – rocket probes, three hundred sixty degree video probes etc. Find out more about that here.

“From TOTO to PODs and StickNets, instruments designed to measure the weather in and near a tornado at the ground have the potential to add valuable pieces to the tornado puzzle, hopefully saving more lives.”