Meteorology has always intrigued me; living in a metropolitan area covering 6,365 square miles and 3,615,902 residents (Census 2010) making it the 13th most populous metropolitan area in the United States makes weather prediction very difficult across the viewing area. It wasn’t until a few years ago I realized how difficult such a prediction could be. There are many days throughout the year where the northwestern Twin Cities metro region will receive large amounts of precipitation and the southern cities wouldn’t see a cloud in the sky. Meteorology, in particular severe weather, has always fascinated me and I have always been interested in the formation of severe weather and tornadoes.
I recently read meteorologist, Mike Smith’s books titled, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Time the Weather (2010) and When the Sirens Were Silent: How the Warning System Failed a Community (2012). Both of Smith’s books discuss the evolution in warning the public of weather warnings in the last fifty years to today. If you haven’t already, read both of Smith’s books – you will not be disappointed.
One of the reoccurring themes in both of Smith’s books is the Forecaster’s Lament from an anonymous writer (113):“And now among the fading embers;
These in the main are my regrets,
When I am right no one remembers;
When I am wrong no one forgets.”
It is very much true in Minnesota where weather is dynamic and can change in the matter of hours. Minnesotans have coined the phrase, “if you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes and it will change.” Often time’s meteorologists take the blame for the dynamic weather seen across the Midwest. There are times when I see the variations across the metropolitan region where I wish I could send a direct response to the local meteorologists to show my support of them because they are accurate more than the public gives them credit for and they have saved many lives throughout their careers.
The top three things I took away from Smith’s books were:
2. Communication; and
Smith mentions the time it took to perfect the warning system in the United States. “It was only nine years after President Kennedy had committed America to putting a man on the moon that Neil Armstrong took his first lunar steps. It took double that amount of time to get a network of Doppler radars running in the United States” (187).
We cannot expect overnight results, no matter the urgency. Some things take time despite their needs today.
Things have certainly changed in the last 100 years. Tornadoes continue to strike as they always have destroying homes and towns along the way but deaths and injuries are on the decline. Why? The National Weather Service technologies, including NOAA weather radios, as well as broadcast meteorologists have been able to warn residents of danger hours and in some cases prepare days in advance.
For instance, as Smith writes, “The Greensburg (May 4, 2007) and Udall (May 25, 1955) tornadoes were as identical as two tornadoes could possibly be. Both occurred in the same state – Kansas – so there is similarity in the building codes governing the two towns. Both occurred well after dark. The two tornadoes approached from the south, rather than the much more common southwest. And because of the southern approach, the tornadoes themselves were obscured by rain and hail…In both cases, 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed, and the other 5 percent were damaged. Both tornadoes were F5 intensity…The two supercells [from radar] are virtually identical. In the Udall (1955) tornado, eighty-two people were killed and 260 were injured. The casualty rate in the town was 68 percent. In Greensburg (2007), with triple the population, nine people were killed and fifty-nine were injured. The casualty rate in Greensburg was less than one-fourteenth that of Udall’s” (275-6). “Two hundred thirty-two lives saved in a single evening. Meteorology has come a long way since my dad came running into the house shouting ‘Here it comes!’” (279).
There is, unfortunately, the Joplin tragedy. Due to many factors, warnings were not provided in either a timely or accurate fashion to the city of Joplin. There were “too many tornado warnings with no tornado. Too many siren activations. People learn from experience. Sometimes they learn the wrong thing. The citizens of Joplin were unwittingly being trained not to act when the sirens sounded” (14). “[The National Weather Service] were behind the curve. But May 22, 2011, was an extraordinarily busy day. For example, a fatal tornado, EF-2 in intensity, struck Minneapolis two and a half hours before the Joplin tornado…Forecasters were behind events and confused about the location of the threat. Their warnings included incorrect locations of the tornado; incorrect directions of movement, focusing on Galena when the threat had shifted to Joplin; and incorrect threat emphasis, with discussions of golf-ball and then baseball-size hail as the tornado was about to move into and through Joplin. These issues only served to confuse what should have been an urgent and straightforward message: Take cover Joplin” (42-3).
This is why, to this day, even as technologies have altered the way we can predict the weather – we still need to remember to deliver clear, concise reports to residents. One message delivered a minute earlier could save a life.
Both time and communication are key but one of the most important takeaways from Smith’s books is innovation. As Smith writes, “Good science does not have to take billions of dollars. It requires dedication, outside-the-box thinking, and a willingness to go where the data and experimental results might take you” (284).
I believe this is not only true for science but in everything we do every day. We should never go “through the motions” but rather learn something new every day and apply our knowledge elsewhere in our lives.