AMES, Iowa – Iowa State University’s tornado simulator caught the attention of scientists and students around the world when it was introduced in 2004.

Now, some of the same architects of the first tornado simulator are dreaming bigger. Much bigger.

A group of Iowa State engineers and meteorologists recently got approval for the second step in constructing a massive, full-sized tornado simulator the size of six large grocery stores.

Partha Sarkar, an aerospace engineering professor at Iowa State, says that the current tornado simulator allows researchers to test wind loads on scale models. It produces a tornado about four feet across. A new, life-sized tornado simulator would generate a vortex about 70 feet across. With a vortex that large, researchers could observe how wind interacts with full-sized buildings, seeing how they respond and what fails first in the wind.

Experts hope this will lead to designing buildings that are able to better withstand tornadoes. Bill Gallus, a meteorology professor at Iowa State, feels relatively small changes in construction may mean a time in the future where people no longer have to seek shelter from tornadoes.

Iowa State was given approval to design the new facility in late September 2023 through a National Science Foundation grant. That process will take about four years. After that, researchers will wait for approval and additional funding from the National Science Foundation to build the full-sized simulator. The simulator would be complete in the early 2030s.