TODAY   |  March 26, 2013

Researchers use Facebook to map tornado paths

In the first study of its kind, researchers at the University of Georgia now have a better understanding of just how far items sucked into a tornado can travel, all thanks to Facebook. NBC’s Kerry Sanders reports.

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>>> date with our friends, but did you know it may also hold the key to make sense of tornados? kerry sanders is here to explain.

>> even our grandmothers know that facebook is unique. facebook has connected people in so many different ways, but now scientists have discovered those connections can help them understand one of nature's most powerful forces.

>> oh, my god, that's it! oh, my god.

>> reporter: april 27th , 2011 , a day of historic proportions. on that one day, more than 120 torld tornados touched down, leaving behind a virtual war zone, with 315 dead. now for the first time, we have an accurate picture of just how tornados carry and then spit out debris hundreds of miles away . and researchers figured it out with facebook , using a page created by patty bouillon of athens, alabama . all she wanted to do was get keepsakes lost in the storm back to their owners.

>> i started the page just hoping, you know, to get those few pictures back home. never dreaming that it would get as big as it did. i think it's amazing that facebook became part of that, that it could be used in research.

>> reporter: patty's page connected a cheerleading jacket found in elkmont, alabama , with its owner 66 miles away . and this photo in northwest alabama landing more than 220 miles away in east tennessee . and this five-foot-high metal memorial from the football field in smithville, mississippi, found 69 miles away in russellville, alabama . all of it hard data with accurate measurements, never before available in such grand scale .

>> what we hope to have been able to do is to help understand tornados and what tornados do to houses and buildings and so forth a little bit better and understand how far the debris can go. we feel certain that in the long run, it will be useful to understand tornado debris and where it can go.

>> the research was done at the university of georgia . the scientists say while a tornado is spinning 360 degrees, most of the degree falls ten degrees to the right and five degrees to the right of a tornado's path.

>> that's fascinating. kerry sanders , thanks for the story. appreciate it.