Will we know when a twister is coming?

A tornado left a swath of damage on Johns Island in September.

Tornadoes in the South can come out of nowhere, it seems, hidden by the terrain or swallowed in clouds. In the Lowcountry, they can form suddenly along the coast from storms spinning offshore, like the one that tore up homes on Johns Island last fall.

That means there’s less time to alert people and even less time for them to react. A newly announced National Severe Storms Laboratory study will try to improve on that.

About 40 scientists from around the nation are expected to take part in VORTEX Southeast.

Like earlier studies in the Great Plains, the research based in Huntsville, Ala., will include mobile radars, drones and other equipment that can measure tornado intensity.

It is set to run through March and April.

The laboratory is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Tornado Alley” storms in the Great Plains tend to form from supercells, huge storm fronts that are better understood meteorologically and are easier to detect sooner because of their massive size and relative flatness of the landscape, said Frank Alsheimer, National Weather Service, Charleston, science officer.

In that region, forecasters often have 30 minutes or more “lead time” to warn people a tornado is coming.

In the Lowcountry, it’s 15 minutes or less, he said. “We’d certainly like to see as much lead time as possible.”

Just one of the points researchers will focus on is how tornadoes in this region appear to emerge sometimes from small pockets of storm air that don’t stand out on monitoring equipment, said Erik Rasmussen, project manager. “Maybe something really is there and we’re just not seeing it, or maybe it’s developing very rapidly,” he said.

Researchers hope to use supercomputer capacity to find out and to forecast.

The coastal twisters of the Lowcountry could certainly be part of the study, Rasmussen said.

A new wrinkle to the study in this region is the inclusion of social scientists conducting interviews to find out more about how people respond to tornado threats in Southern states, to figure out ways to get the message out quicker and make people aware they have little time to react, particularly at night.

“Even with the improvements we probably won’t have the same lead time (as Tornado Alley),” Alsheimer said.

It’s human nature to seek “secondary confirmation” when tornado warnings are issued, but the nature of Southern tornadoes often prevents people from getting that, researchers say.

On the wide-open plains in the middle of the country, “people can just look out their window and see it coming from miles away and still have time to take action,” said one of the researchers, Laura Myers, executive director of the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama.

But in the South, “we can’t see them coming because of the terrain, the trees and they’re often rain-wrapped,” she said. “We can’t rely on that secondary confirmation. By the time we see it, it could be right on top of us.”

VORTEX, an acronym for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment, began in the mid-1990s with a large tornado study that helped inspire the Hollywood film “Twister.” Another large study, VORTEX 2, took place from 2009 to 2010.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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