How science tamed the weather, keeping us safe while we sleep

Guest essay by Larry Kummer. From the Fabius Maximus website.

Summary: Today’s post reviews a fun book about some of the systems that make us safe — but which we too often ignore or even mock. The headline is exaggeration for effect (progress has been beyond what most people would imagine a century ago, with more to come – but we’ll never fully “tame” nature).

 

Review of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.

The true story of how science tamed the weather.

By Mike Smith (2010).

 

Warnings tells a well-written and exciting story about natural disasters, the progress of science, and the workings of America’s bureaucracy. It is a story about the advances in meteorology (one of the many technologies which makes our world run) and a government service (the National Weather Service). Many Americans are oblivious or contemptuous of one — or both.

Warnings reminds us of how our world has become much safer since WWII as meteorologists provide ever-better warnings about destructive weather.

“In the 1920s, the annual death rate from tornadoes in the U.S. was approximately three per million people. In the early 1950s, with the beginning of a tornado warning system, the rate was still 1.5 deaths per million people. In the last three years, 2006 through 2009, the death rate was down to .068 deaths per million, a decrease of more than 95%! We’ve never needed a presidential “war on tornadoes,” simply because meteorologists have quietly taken care of it. They’ve brought us from seeing tornado deaths as an “inevitable part of population increase” to where we are today, with the lowest tornado-related death rates ever.”

Smith describes this progress using examples that showcase the work of a few pioneers and many skilled experts. They worked for both government agencies and private businesses, in a loose partnership that has evolved to exploit the advantages of each. At the beginning of that period, forecasting extreme weather (e.g., tornadoes) was considered too politically risk to even attempt. Now weather forecasting systems save thousands of live per year, avoiding threats some of which the public seldom even sees.
Weather forecasting tool

“Since the crash of Delta 191 in 1985, there has been only one microburst-related crash of a U.S. airliner — the July 2, 1994, crash of U.S. Airways Flight 1016 at Charlotte, North Carolina, which killed 37 people. And even that crash could have been avoided if the flight crew had followed the avoidance procedures set out in the downburst training course. Given the ever-increasing number of people and planes in the air, the number of lives saved due to Fujita’s pioneering research that eventually led to implementation of microburst avoidance procedures in the United States is well over 2,000, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of aircraft losses prevented.”

Smith describes this progress with a minimum of technical detail and many vivid stories. He describes what it feels like to chase tornadoes — accompanied by your fiancée, hoping she isn’t terrified enough to end the engagement (she didn’t). He describes the smell of a destroyed town, the struggle of innovators with hidebound bureaucrats, and the thrill of technical breakthroughs.

There are only (roughly) ten thousand practitioners of applied meteorology in the US, yet they have produced vast savings in money and lives. We grow ever more dependent on them.

“The only thing standing between the American public and huge annual death tolls from extreme weather is the weather warning system — a partnership of weather companies, the federal government, emergency managers, volunteer storm spotters, and the media. As coastal populations grow in areas vulnerable to hurricanes, as more people move into flood plains, and as megacities grow in tornado-prone areas, the warning system becomes more and more important.”

In Warnings, Smith tells us about the past in a way that gives us advice for the future. He discusses our often slow application of technical advances. For example, in nine years America put a man on the moon. It took twice that for America to build a network of Doppler radars to track tornadoes. Smith also describes decades of underfunding of our critical public infrastructure, and corporations’ weak support for that funding — even when it can save them money and prevent deaths of their customers.

Books like Warnings can help us better use the tools provided by scientists and engineers.

One reason for this underfunding is our amnesia about past progress, and how it has made our world so much safer. Probably future generations will be equally forgetful, no matter how far our tech advances. I can imagine that our descendents will read about asteroid and comet intercepts in their morning news, unaware of the devastation they would have caused in the past (the Chelyabinsk meteor was a 500 kiloton near-miss on 13 February 2013).

Warnings is on my list of recommended books and films. Take a look; it might give you a few ideas for you Holiday shopping.


Mike SmithAbout the author

Michael Smith, SVP and Chief Innovation Executive, leads advanced research in severe weather detection for AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions. Mike is one of America’s leading authorities in the field of extreme weather and its effects on society and business. He has received 21 patents in the fields of weather science, emergency management, and search and rescue. A Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, Mike received the AMS award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advance of Applied Meteorology and, twice, their award for Outstanding Service to Meteorology by a Corporation.

In 1981, Mike founded WeatherData, Inc. It pioneered pinpoint severe-weather warning services and technologies serving businesses and governments. WeatherData was acquired by AccuWeather in 2006, becoming AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions.
Mike is the author of two books, Warnings and When the Sirens Were Silent. He is a frequent speaker and writer on both popular and technical weather-related topics. He has appeared on The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, Fox News, and the major networks. {From his bio at Accuweather.}
See his website and his blog.

For More Information

See The keys to understanding climate change, my posts about NOAA, about weather, and especially these…

  1. An important letter sent to the President about the danger of climate change.
  2. NOAA debunks the hysteria about this El Niño. Why don’t we listen?
  3. Look at the trends in extreme weather & see the state of the world.
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17 thoughts on “How science tamed the weather, keeping us safe while we sleep

  1. NOAA and NWS almost went bust because of all the corruption when they first installed Doppler….thankfully they finally got it though

  2. I’ve seen the effect in my own lifetime. When I was younger, we’d get hurricane tracking charts at the beginning of the season and plot the hurricane location as the bulletins came in. All the TV and radio stations would distribute these tracking charts. Now, who bothers? We can turn on the TV and see satellite images of where the hurricanes are on a minute by minute basis – the meteorologists tell us where the cone of probability is, etc. In my Dad’s day, they hover around the radio hoping to hear reports from ships at sea to get an idea of where the hurricanes were.

  3. In airline service, we’ve had a lot of windshear/microburst training. Every simulator ride, you could count on one of your approaches encountering a windshear warning and go-around. Houston Intercontinental deployed windshear sensors all around the field years ago, and they’d pick up a microburst just as soon as it began. Our B-777’s would have the aircraft radar come on in windshear mode automatically when you rolled onto the runway. I’ve aborted one takeoff due to a windshear warning and delayed takeoff several times when the radar was picking up shear.

    The danger of microbursts when you’re landing is that the burst hits the ground and spreads out, so that you first run into headwinds that push you up above the approach path. You have to back off the power to compensate, then you hit the downburst, which drives you toward the ground. You need power to pull up from that, but your engines are back at low power settings and take time to spool back up to high thrust. It’s tough to recover, but all airline pilots get a lot of simulator practice every year.

  4. Is this a re-issue of a review? It seems to me you have reviewed it before and I went out and got it right away. Yes, it is a good read. With the NWS, the government has gotten the biggest bang for its buck than any other program. I found the author’s analysis of why people go into weather forecasting, spot on. At least that was the reason that I became a ‘weather guesser’ (Navy nick-name)

  5. “He has appeared on The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, Fox News, and the major networks.”

    Fox News is not one of the “major networks”?

    • George,

      “Fox News is not one of the “major networks”?”

      It’s a generational thing. Boomers grew up with CBS, NBC, and ABC being major networks — and others being low-budget sideshows. That time is long gone, but many of us still use that terminology.

  6. Advances in predictions and warnings have been very important and dramatic, but so too have been advances in television and broadcasting in general.
    Along with that are improved building codes, which are no doubt responsible for saving many many lives.
    I just rode out a storm that was the worst to hit this part of SW Florida in decades, and my modest house did not even creak, and held fast when a huge palm tree landed on the roof. The eyewall went over my house, and a small tornado went by within about 50 feet, and I slept through that part of the storm. Never heard a sound.
    And I think people today have more awareness of things that can be done even in a worst case of being in a house hit directly with a tornado…go to the most interior room in the lowest part of the house.
    Even when tornados have hit directly in the middle of the night and wrecked entire neighborhoods and even towns while most people were in their house, relatively few die.
    There are many reasons why weather disasters are less deadly.
    Not to take anything away from the experts and improvements in detection, forecasting, and getting out timely warnings.
    Just sayin’.

  7. I was chief meteorologist for WEHT in Evansville Indiana for 11 years and had the opportunity to do a story on the 65th anniversary of the Great Tri-State Tornado that occurred on March 18, 1925 and destroyed some communities in our viewing area.

    That particular tornado is the most powerful in recorded history……by a wide margin. The strength(F-5, estimated to have 300 mph winds), size(1 mile at times), length of path(235 miles), fatalities(695) and injuries(2,000+) put it in a league of its own.

    I interviewed numerous survivors from Griffin IN, a town that was completely destroyed. In 1990, they were pretty old but all had vivid details of that late afternoon.

    Obviously nobody had a clue it was coming. Most of them were still in school at the time. They recalled all the buildings left looking like giant wood splinters and lumber. People in the town were just running around aimlessly and screaming/crying. One had a story that always stuck in my mind. She said there were several people that she thought were negroes(that was the term back then and this is a red neck town) but it turned out that they were just covered in mud from the river bottoms of the Wabash River just over 2 miles to the west.

    A similar long track tornado today would have warnings issued for it more than 30 minutes in advance along much of the path. Fatalities would be far less but still possibly in the triple digits. With a tornado like this, there is no safe place.

    With today’s technology able to warn folks over 30 minutes ahead of the potential impact, while local tv stations pinpoint the exact track on their dopplar radars within a mile and time of arrival within minutes, the best thing for those in the direct path of a violent tornado similar to this would be to get into their car and drive a few miles southeast or northwest………..but be sure you are crystal clear on that tornado path that you see. Know where you are located with respect to that path and where you are driving(perpendicular) to put some distance between you and the projected track.

    With regards to people living in mobile homes. This is always the best thing to do in most situations when a tornado warning is issued. Ideally, you’re taking advantage of the technology which usually provides ample time to do so.

    People living in 1925 could never fathom

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tri-State_Tornado

    Despite this life saving advice for most people, off duty meteorologists, storm chasers and weather nuts will often do the exact opposite………drive TO the tornado.

    Technology also provides comprehensive guidance to maximize opportunities to partake in such risk taking activities.

    • With regards to most tornado warnings, if you live in a permanent structure, its best to go to the lowest level(basement?) and put as many walls between the potential tornado and you. Get under a sturdy piece of furniture if possible and protect your head! Wear a helmet if you have one or cover your head.
      If its dark, have a flashlight ready as well as shoes, in case you lose power and especially if the tornado hits and there’s broken glass everywhere.

    • Mike,

      Thanks for the info about that event! Mike Smith mentions it briefly (page 50). I didn’t realize that it was such an outlier in size.

      Consider what a small area of the earth we have records for — and for such a brief moment in time. What are the largest tornadoes — the top 1% in size and strength over a thousand-year period? In 1017 they had low odds of hitting a city (most of which we’d call towns today), with a world population of about 300 million. With a world population of almost 8 billion, the odds of such an event causing big damage are higher today.

  8. How science tamed the weather, keeping us safe while we sleep

    The title does grab one’s attention.
    But genuine science hasn’t “tamed” the weather. It has advanced in the ability to forecast dangerous weather patterns and the ability to prepare for it.
    “Taming” implies “control”.
    Man doesn’t “control” the weather. That Man even can influence the weather is open to question, let alone “Climate”.

    • Gunga,

      Please see the Summary. It is the paragraph at the top of the post. It seems pretty clear to me.

      “The headline is exaggeration for effect (progress has been beyond what most people would imagine a century ago, with more to come – but we’ll never fully “tame” nature).”

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