JOHN PARK FINLEY: EARLY TORNADO FORECASTS Part 1: The Early Years
To know when severe weather approaches has long been one of the prime goals of weather forecasting. As the science of meteorology has advanced, the ability to predict a severe storm has made rapid advances. Today, with modern observational techniques and forecasting tools, hurricanes and blizzards no longer surprise those in their path. Smaller storms are also rather well forecast and, through the use of alerts, watches and warnings, are less likely to catch most residents unaware. The one remaining killer in the storm gallery that can surprise even those most weatherwise is the tornado. Though we can forecast the conditions under which a tornado may form, pinpointing the time and place of a tornadic event with a long lead time remains elusive. In most cases, a tornado must form and be spotted before warnings can be issued to those ahead of the storm.
The first American to fully focus his attention on the meteorology and climatology of tornadoes for the purpose of forecasting them was John Park Finley of the US Army Signal Service, the group to which the task of American weather forecasting was first assigned in 1870. By the 1880s, Finley had become the acknowledged tornado expert within the Signal Service. He firmly believed forecasts could be issued for tornadoes. Although Finley would never be allowed to issue an official tornado forecast, he did have a measure of success in trial forecasts. Excluding a stretch of active military duties, Finley continued his career in meteorology until the 1940s as a soldier and later a private consultant.
The son of a successful Ypsilanti, Michigan farmer, John Park Finley was born in nearby Ann Arbor on 11 April 1854. John studied at the Michigan State Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Michigan State University), specializing in weather and climate impacts on agriculture, and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1873. After a few years working on the family farm and a postgraduate course at the University of Michigan, he enlisted in the US Army Signal Service in 1877. Despite a long list of candidates for the Service's Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce, the official name of the weather service branch from 1870 to 1890, Finley parleyed strong recommendations from government officials and professors from his alma mater into an assignment to the Division. Finley reported for duty on 8 March 1877.
The army assigned Finley to the Signal Service school at Ft. Whipple, Virginia (now Fort Myer) where he received instruction in military tactics, signalling and telegraphic sciences, meteorology, and practical work in meteorological observation. As part of his studies, Finley learned to take weather observations, to compute and encode weather data, and to telegraph a flawless report to the Service's central weather office in Washington DC. Afterward, he was assigned to the Signal Service station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as assistant to the sergeant in charge of that station.
Quarters of the Commanding Officer of Fort Whipple (Fort Myer), Virginia (1876).
While stationed in Philadelphia, Finley became interested in storms and tornadoes, starting "a systematic study of storms in the United States, especially those of a violent character, namely, tornadoes" in his spare time. In 1878, he wrote his first paper on the subject and submitted it to the chief signal officer. Although the paper was never published, Cleveland Abbe, chief scientist to the Signal Service, would later cite it before a congressional committee stating that the report was "in fact approved for publications, but in some way, this manuscript was mysteriously and suspiciously lost...." (Allison Commission, 1886).
After several months in Philadelphia, the chief signal officer ordered Finley to Washington to work in the "Fact Room," the office where the Monthly Weather Review and the Weekly Weather Chronicle were prepared. Here, Finley recalled he "came under the supervision of Prof. Abbe. While working with him, my attention was called to a book by Prof. William Blasius, entitled, "Storms, Their Nature, Classification and Laws," published at Philadelphia, May 10th, 1875."
At the time, the Signal Service routinely sent an observer into an area devastated by tornadoes to extensively survey the damage. In late May 1879, Finley was ordered to survey damage from a tornado outbreak that occurred in the Central Plains states of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa. Travelling cross country via horse and buggy, he interviewed eyewitnesses and gathered facts and observations of the damage.
Earliest Known Photograph of a Tornado, 1884
From the eyewitness accounts, Finley established the sequence of weather conditions before, during, and after the tornado passage. By studying tree fall patterns, he determined the wind direction at the time the trees fell. He also analyzed the construction of buildings and found that those not well anchored were more likely to be damaged by high winds.
From his data analyses, Finley produced a general tornado weather scenario:
"As an area of low barometer advances to the Lower Missouri Valley, warm and cold currents set in towards it from the north and south, respectively. Warm and moist regions emanate from the Gulf and the cold and comparatively dry air from regions of the British Possessions [Canada]. The marked contrasts of temperature and moisture, invariably fortell an atmospheric disturbance of unusual violence, for which this region is peculiarly fitted...."
This report was completed in the autumn of 1879 and published as a Signal Service Professional Paper in 1881.
The work and his strong interest in tornadoes impressed his superiors, and they promoted Finley to private first class by the end of the year. More importantly they gave him permission to continue his tornado studies.
The Tornado Climatologies
While surveying the devastation, Finley saw that much more information was needed to determine the weather conditions favorable for producing tornadoes. He also realized that much information on the damage patterns was lost due to the time required to travel from Washington to the afflicted area. As a result, Finley recommended within his report on the May 1879 tornadoes:
"Permit me to suggest that it would be advisable to station a special observer during the months of May, June, and July at Kansas City (a point easily communicated with from any part of the Lower Missouri Valley), who shall receive special reports and instructions from Washington regarding atmospheric disturbances, and report same to the various telegraphic stations throughout the valley."
With the death of General Albert J. Myers in 1880, General William B. Hazen was named head of the weather services. In 1881, Hazen established a research unit dubbed the "Study Room." Private Finley received permission to continue compiling tornado reports, work he had begun while in Philadelphia. Prof. Abbe encouraged him to make a special study of tornadoes, that would improve on the work of earlier investigations such as those by Blasius and Professor Elias Loomis of Yale.
The resultant report was Character of Six Hundred Tornadoes, the most complete climatology of tornadoes that had struck the United States between 1794 and the end of 1881 yet compiled. While working on the report, Finley became convinced he could devise a viable method for forecasting tornadoes. The brass in the Service thought so too, and when Finley reenlisted in 1882, now a sergeant, they assigned him to the task of devising and testing a set of tornado forecast rules. To facilitate the study, Finley relocated for the main tornado season to Kansas City, Missouri where he could be in better touch with local tornado spotters, known as tornado reporters, and have quicker access to sites of tornado devastation.
Distribution of Known Tornadoes in the United States From Tornadoes: What They Are and How to Observe Them; with Practical Suggestions for the Protection of Life and Property (1887)
Returning to Washington in the autumn of 1882, Finley enrolled in graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. He also married that November. The strain of studies, his research work and a new marriage took its toll on Finley, and he entered an army hospital late in the year suffering from nervous exhaustion. The attending physician's report stated: "He is doing too much brain work. He very decidedly needs rest." Dropping his graduate studies and taking a transfer to the Detroit Signal Service office, Finley appears to have made a speedy recovery, and in January 1884, returned to Washington in a new post.