What is the single most important development in the history of tornado forecasting and warning?
Would it be Fawbush and Miller’s fortuitous forecast at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma in 1948?
Could it be the discovery of the hook echo on conventional radar in 1953?
Or would you vote for Weatheradio, which broadcasts warnings with a tone alert that activates specially equipped receivers?
Maybe it’s the internet and its flood of data.
Well…it could be argued that two of the biggest developments happened on the same date, 129 years apart.
On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse transmitted the first message via telegraph wire between Baltimore and Washington D.C. His prophetic message from Number 23:23 read: “What hath God wrought?” The telegraph made it possible for alerts about storms to be sent ahead to threatened cities. The technology made forecasts and warnings possible.
While Morse’s historic message did change the face of weather forever, an event over a century later made advance warning of developing tornadoes a reality.
In the spring of 1973, a team of scientists from the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma was preparing to attempt to intercept a tornado using their powerful experimental Doppler radar.
Conditions seemed to be right for the formation of tornadoes on May 24th, and a team of scientists were ready to try and capture a tornado on radar and in the field with an armada of instruments, video and still cameras.
Everything came together that day as an F4 tornado tore through the center of the farming community of Union City, Oklahoma that afternoon, .
Impact of the Union City tornado on tornado forecasting has been very significant. The Union City tornado would become the most intently studied storm up until that time. It would take months of research afterwards, but the scientist would discover two things: the mesocyclone and the TVS.
The Union City tornado provided researches the first opportunity to see the entire life cycle of a tornado. In addition to clearly seeing its evolution, the NSSL team discovered the tornado vortex extended some distance up into the storm. They would learn that the presence of a mesocyclone, or rotating thunderstorm often led to tornado formation.
The TVS, or Tornado Vortex Signature, was a strong radar indication that formed aloft about 25 minutes before tornado touchdown, and descended to the ground as the visible condensation funnel formed. For the first time, researchers discovered that the circulation appeared aloft before the tornado descended to the ground, and they knew they had a very good potential warning device. Researchers have since learned not all tornadoes form that way, but the radar signature is still helpful in most situations.
Doppler radar’s ability to “see” the signature of a developing tornado was a major reason the national network of NEXRAD Doppler radars was formed in 1988. These radars have been extremely successful in helping National Weather Service forecasters increase the lead time for tornadoes and ultimately save lives. The development of Doppler weather radar has had a very big impact on the way the National Weather Service operates and their success in issuing warnings for tornadoes.
Critics argue that Doppler radar has led to too many false alarms, but one tremendous benefit has been a higher success rate and real lead times for tornadoes. It forever erased any doubts about the potential value of Doppler radar as an operational warning tool. Today, we know that the presence of a mesocyclone is a precursor to tornado development in many cases and a TVS on Doppler radar data is a very strong indication that a tornado is occurring or about to occur.
This type of technology is the back bone of MyWARN. MyWARN monitors watches and warnings issued by the trained meteorologist at the National Weather Service. MyWARN uses the polygon based warning, and only notifies users if they are directly threatened. This allows for less people to be affected by the warning. That is how MyWARN has set itself apart, it follows you and will let you know that you are in a threatened area. Furthermore with each notification, MyWARN provides its users with life saving actions to take depending on the severity of the threat.
Photo c/o NSSL
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