Weather Almanac for May 2012 YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!
THE BANNING OF TORNADO
Forbidden language has long been a part of cultures. Many forbidden words have religious connotations; others, political reason and some uphold social standards. In this day of unrestricted free speech, it is hard to believe that for over 60 years, the word tornado was banned from any public statements released by the United States Weather Bureau.
In contrast, the US National Weather Service has begun in the Spring of 2012 to experiment with even more powerful language in its tornado forecasts in parts of Tornado Alley. Not only is tornado permitted, but descriptor words such as Deadly Tornado; Complete Destruction; Mass Devastation; Unsurvivable; and Catastrophic are being used.
The Roots of Censorship of Weather Forecasts
During the 1880s, John P. Finley began a research program to study tornadoes with the ultimate goal of forecasting their occurrence. Finley worked for the US Army Signal Corps who had the responsibility for weather forecasting for the United States at the time. (I have written at length on Finley’s work on tornadoes and that article can be found here.)
The Tornado-Studies Project, which he headed, analyzed hundreds of tornado reports from across the nation. After studying the data, Finley put forth a set of tornado forecast rules that were published in Science in 1884, and followed that up with an improved set published in 1888 in the American Meteorological Journal. Some meteorologists at the time questioned his rules, and the claimed accuracy of his tornado forecasts, which he put as high as 98 percent correct.
from Tornadoes: What They Are and How to Observe Them;
with Practical Suggestions for the Protection of Life and Property, (1887)
Finley’s first forecasts never reached the public; they were for internal use only. However, many, including Finley, pushed to have them appear in official weather releases by the Signal Corps. In 1885, General William Hazen, the chief of the Signal Corps, agreed with reservations. Special warnings could be in the daily forecasts when Finley forecasted the conditions for violent storms were favorable. However, it was specifically forbidden to use the word tornado in those forecasts. The practice continued until 1887 when the new Chief Adolphous W. Greely disbanded the Study Room group from which Finley worked, and thus stopped their activities.
In 1890, Congress transferred the weather service from the Army Signal Corps to the Department of Agriculture, and the US Weather Bureau was born. The Bureau’s second director Dr Willis Moore took office in 1895. Moore was no fan of Finley’s tornado project. Moore had, in the words of Mike Smith, in his informative 2010 book Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, “an obsessive fear of his agency misforecasting major storms.” As a result, the Bureau was banned from publicly using the words tornado and hurricane, except to deny that one had happened.
Moore’s fears were reinforced by comments by the chief Weather Bureau scientist, and editor of the journal Monthly Weather Review, Prof. Cleveland Abbe. A Chicago Tribune article had questioned whether the Weather Bureau could have warned residents of Newtown, Missouri of an approaching deadly tornado. Abbe responded that the Bureau “had no right to issue numerous erroneous alarms. The stoppage of business and the unnecessary fright would in its summation during a year be worse that the storms themselves.” He went on to say that if “the certainty of destruction is absolute when the tornado comes, then it follows inevitably that there is no material advantage to be derived from any, even the most perfect system of forewarnings and attempts to protect.”
Others spoke of the dangers of widespread public panic that could ensue from a tornado warning. As a result, not only were forecasts suppressed, but also most of the research into the causes and possible improved forecasting of tornados.
Rural Tornado Courtesy NOAA/Department of Commerce Historic NWS Collection
The ban on use of the word tornado and specific tornado forecasts by the Weather Bureau remained until 1950. A parallel ban was in effect by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the use of the word in any forecasts or statements for fear of public panic. That ban remained for four more years, broken by renowned meteorologist Harry Volkman on WKY-TV in Oklahoma City. Though he knew that by warning people of an impending tornado he was breaking the law, Volkman did it for the greater public good. We will never know how many lives he saved, but that particular storm became the ninth deadliest tornado in US history at the time.
The Modern Era Begins
It took the military weather service to break the silence and ban on forecasting tornadoes, which would usher in a new era of tornado forecasts and warnings. In 1948, Air Force weather officers Major Ernest J Fawbush and Captain Robert C Miller produced the first successful tornado forecast for Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
Capt. Robert C. Miller (l) and Lieut. Col. E. J. Fawbush Courtesy Take-Off, the Tinker AFB Newspaper NOAA/Department of Commerce Collection
With the advent of weather radar, a network of storm spotters, and improved communications networks, the science of tornado forecasting and detection had reached a level where the practice would reap benefits in protection of human life and some property. To be effective, the forecasting of hazardous nature phenomena, whether tornadoes, blizzards, hurricanes, tsunamis, or earthquakes, must reach a stage where the public has faith in the product. In fearing misforecasts, Willis Moore was partially correct. Issuance of too many forecasts that prove wrong will, over time, be disregarded by the public. Too many forecasts, even if some are right, can lead to the “cry wolf” response. Unfortunately, Moore threw the baby out with the bathwater in suppressing the research into better forecast as well as the word.
(I recall during the summer following the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak in northeastern Illinois that it seemed the warning sirens in Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs were sounded nearly every time a strong thunderstorm approached. By mid-summer, they had lost their effectiveness as no further deadly tornadoes struck. My personal reaction was not to seek shelter, but that a good thunderstorm was coming and watching it might prove interesting.)
In July 1950, Weather Bureau Chief, Francis W Reichelderfer issued a statement that ended, in essence, Moore’s ban on tornado forecasting. It read:
Statements Concerning Tornado Forecasting
Frequently, when tornadoes ere [sic] in the news, the press quotes Weather 'Bureau officials as stating that, "Tornadoes cannot be predicted," or "The Weather Bureau does not make tornado forecasts," or even, "We are not permitted to issue tornado forecasts." Such statements are misleading and tend to reflect discredit on the Bureau.
The Weather Bureau has the responsibility of warning the public whenever possible of the approach of destructive local storms. It is true that localized forecasting of tornadoes is still dependent to a large extent upon timely reports of actual occurrences, but recognizing that fact, Weather Bureau officials have been able to act upon such reports from storm networks to broadcast tornado warnings when appropriate. More generally, the state or district forecasts for many years have indicated severe or destructive local storms under conditions that are favorable for tornadoes, and in such cases the forecaster (district or local) may at his discretion mention tornadoes in the forecast or warning.
The forecasting of tornadoes has long been recognized by the Bureau as one of its most difficult tasks, and the Bureau will continue to concentrate on the problem. Special studies to improve forecasts of local storms, including tornadoes, have been conducted at the Central Office and in the field for several years, and the Bureau wishes to make practical use of the knowledge gained from these studies. Obviously, reasonable caution must be used when forecasting tornado conditions, and there should be good probability of verification but when issued, these warnings should be given full distribution.
Weather Bureau employees should avoid statements that can be interpreted as a negation of the Bureau's willingness or ability to make tornado forecasts. The official viewpoint may be briefly stated: There is no regulation or order against the forecasting of tornadoes. Whenever the forecaster has a sound basis for predicting tornadoes, the forecast should include the prediction in as definite terms as the circumstances justify.
Survey of Palm Sunday Tornado Damage, Crystal Lake IL, 12 April 1965
Source: Fujita, et al, Monthly Weather Review, 1970
The task now became how best to warn the public of impending dangerous weather. The Severe Local Storms unit of the US Weather Bureau began issuing Tornado Forecasts in 1952. These initially covered large areas and long time periods, and indicated that atmospheric conditions were conducive for tornado formation. In 1965 these forecasts were renamed Tornado Watches, and they defined an additional term Tornado Warnings as forecasts for small areas, often as small as counties and shorter time periods after a tornado had been sighted. This change was made because an investigation following the Palm Sunday Outbreak questioned the effectiveness of the single tornado forecast in relaying the danger level to the public. These new terms are today defined as:
A tornado watch defines an area shaped like a parallelogram, where tornadoes and other kinds of severe weather are possible in the next several hours. It does not mean tornadoes are imminent, just that you need to be alert, and to be prepared to go to safe shelter if tornadoes do happen or a warning is issued. This is the time to turn on local TV or radio, turn on and set the alarm switch on your weather radio, make sure you have ready access to safe shelter, and make your friends and family aware of the potential for tornadoes in the area.
A tornado warning means that a tornado has been spotted, or that Doppler radar indicates a thunderstorm circulation which can spawn a tornado. When a tornado warning is issued for your town or county, take immediate safety precautions.
The practice of issuing Watches and Warnings evolved with the science to Watches that covered smaller, more precise areas that no longer were specifically based on geopolitical boundaries. Warnings usually were issued when either a tornado was reported on the ground, or radar indicated a strong likelihood a tornado was in the region. They were intended to communicate imminent danger or high probability of danger. Thus, they referred to “now” conditions for a small area.
In 1999, the Norman, Oklahoma National Weather Service (NWS) issued the first Tornado Emergency for Moore, Oklahoma on 3 May. This new warning type was issued when a reliable eyewitness reported a tornado or radar clearly indicated a tornado moving into or through a heavily populated area.
Storm-based Tornado Warning (peach-colored polygon) issued for Enterprise, Alabama in Coffee County at 12:47 pm CT, 2 March 2007 by the NOAA National Weather Service
Beginning 1 October 2007, the NWS replaced the old tornado warning system with a storm-based warning system that was more precise in its area of coverage — a polygon rather than a county.
New Programs Are Tested
In March of 2010, the Des Moines (IA) NWS office began a practice of enhanced wording in their Tornado Emergency alerts. They set forth the purpose of this practice and a set of criteria for its implementation, These are:
To motivate and provide a sense of urgency to persons in the path of this storm to take immediate shelter in a reinforced structure that offers maximum protection from destructive winds.
To communicate to state, local, and county officials and emergency responders that they should prepare for immediate search and rescue operations.
To communicate the need to prepare for immediate medical emergencies, evacuation measures, and emergency sheltering.
And before usage, the following criteria must be met:
A large and catastrophic tornado has been confirmed and will continue (a radar signature alone is not sufficient).
The tornado will have a high impact and/or affect a highly vulnerable population (estimated to be once every 10 years for central Iowa).
The tornado is expected to cause numerous fatalities.
A similar action was taken by the Nashville (TN) NWS office at the start of 2011 for the use of tornado emergency messages. “Tornado Emergency can be inserted in the third bulletin of the initial tornado warning (TOR) or in a severe weather statement (SVS).” Before the phrase can be used:
A confirmed large tornado must be going through a highly populated area such as Metro Nashville.
A violent tornado with a significant damage history.
A confirmed tornado, radar shows evidence of debris.
The confirmed tornado is expected to cause significant widespread damage and loss of life.
Beginning 2 April 2012, the NWS in its Central Region undertook an experimental program at its offices in Kansas, and Missouri. The program, entitled the Impact Based Warning allowed these offices to tag a Tornado Warning with indications of the potential damage severity of the storm. According to the NWS: “The goal in this multi-step process is to provide more information to media and [Emergency Management] partners, to facilitate improved public response and decision making; and to better meet societal needs in the most life-threatening weather events.
INTENDED OUTCOMES OF THE IMPACT BASED WARNING DEMONSTRATION
Optimize the convective warning system within the existing structure
Motivate proper response to warnings by better distinguishing situational urgency
Realign the warning message in terms of societal impacts
Communicate recommended actions/precautions more concisely
Evaluate ability to distinguish between low impact and high impact convective events
Impact Based Warnings will Enhance Current Efforts
Impact Based Warnings will improve communication of critical information
Enhanced format will make it easier and quicker to parse out the most valuable information
Will enable you to prioritize the key warnings in your coverage area
Provides different levels of warning within the same product
A particular warning might highlight a storm that is particularly dangerous
This allows users and vendors to develop apps and tools for the public and broadcast meteorologists to better communicate areas of increased risk
Tags will enable the NWS to express a level of confidence of potential impacts
Tornado Damage Threat Tag
TORNADO DAMAGE THREAT...SIGNIFICANT
When there is credible evidence that a tornado, capable of producing significant damage, is imminent or ongoing.
TORNADO DAMAGE THREAT...CATASTROPHIC
When a severe threat to human life and catastrophic damage from a tornado is occurring, and will only be used when reliable sources confirm a violent tornado.
The goal of this new protocol is for the public to take the warning seriously and seek shelter. The strong wording will hopefully get the message through to a citizenry that has become desensitized to warning sirens and sterile media warnings.
Like the changes in tornado warnings made following the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak, these changes grew from a look into the reaction of citizens of Joplin, Missouri following the dearly tornado of 22 May 2011 that killed 185 and injured over a thousand. The report stated: “the perceived frequency of siren activation in Joplin led most survey participants to become desensitized or complacent to this method of warning. … The majority of Joplin residents did not take protective action until processing additional credible confirmation of the threat and its magnitude from a non-routine, extraordinary risk trigger.”
The new protocol is illustrated in the following sample message released by the NWS:
THIS IS A PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION.
SOURCE... EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT CONFIRMED LARGE AND DESTRUCTIVE TORNADO
IMPACT... COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOODS IS LIKELY. MANY WELL-BUILT HOMES AND BUSINESSES WILL BE COMPLETELY SWEPT FROM THEIR FOUNDATIONS. DEBRIS WILL BLOCK MOST ROADWAYS. MASS DEVASTATIONS IS HIGHLY LIKELY, MAKING THE AREA UNRECOGNIZABLE TO SURVIVORS. TORNADO MAY BE UN-SURVIVABLE IF SHELTER IS NOT SOUGHT BELOW GROUND LEVEL."
This program will continue through the late autumn, at which time, a research team will determine how well the program functioned, and whether it is suitable for expansion to the rest of the nation.
Tornado Damage to Midway Trailer Court near Goshen, Indiana
Source: Fujita, et al, Monthly Weather Review, 1970
From a ban on mentioning the word tornado to tornado warnings using terms such as mass devastation, unsurvivable and catastrophic — we have come a long way. Let us hope that the more emphatic words save lives before they too are ignored.
Learn More From These Relevant Books Chosen by The Weather Doctor