But tornadoes are so small, relatively, that they are still too small for the models to see. The increased power of these computers have made it easier to spot storms systems that could spawn tornadoes.
New research may increase the window of prediction from the current seven or eight days to 10 to 12 days before the event, Sobel said.
NOAA is also working with several institutions to increase warning lead times for tornadoes and other severe weather. Known as "warn-on-forecasts," the new methodology would issue warnings based on forecasts rather than observations, said Jeff Trapp, a professor of atmospheric science at Purdue University in Indiana.
The new method is promising, he said, but it is still at an experimental stage. It might allow forecasters to provide cones of uncertainty for a tornado, similar to those used to predict where hurricanes are headed. These warnings for tornadoes could come one to six hours before the tornado, as opposed to the current 15- to 30-minute warnings, Trapp said.
Another innovation with the new research could result in forecasters providing the strength of a tornado at the time it is formed, instead of after the fact, as is currently the case. Residents may react differently if they know the intensity of the tornado heading toward them.
The challenge, Trapp said, is the same one that all forecasters face: A forecast depends on the data available.