I first became aware of the work of Professor Ted Fujita in early 1970. Likely, my first exposure to his work came from his summary in the January 1970 issue of Monthly Weather Review of the 1965 Palm Sunday tornadoes (pdf format), (I had an intimate association of one of the tornado families that day: those that struck Crystal Lake, Illinois where my uncle and his family lived. The event would ultimately lead me to meeting my future wife.) At around the same time I read that article by Fujita, I studied his landmark report Mesoanalysis that had been published in 1956 by the US Weather Bureau (research paper number 39). The concepts put forward by Fujita fascinated me, but by then I was leaning more toward the microscale aspects of weather than the synoptic or severe storm disciplines, and never scientifically pursued the topic further. Of course, soon Fujita would be a common name for anyone enthralled or affected by tornadoes.
Who was this man who would become one of the greatest minds in severe storm research? Surely, someone born or raised in the American Heartland, Tornado Alley. But that was not the case, for Ted Fujita was foreign born in a land where tornadoes are infrequent.
Tetsuya Fujita was born in Kitakyushu City, on the island of Kyushu, the southwestern-most island in Japan, on October 23, 1920. A practical youth, it is said that upon viewing the Ao-no-domon tunnel at Yabakei, he remarked that the monk who had dug the tunnel by hand over 30 years had wasted his time. Fujita felt he should have thought about it more and invented a mechanical digger, thus giving the world the tunnel and a useful machine.
Fujita attended the Meiji College of Technology (in 1949, this institution became the Kyushu Institute of Technology) and graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1943. In September of 1943, Fujita was appointed Assistant Professor of Physics at Meiji College, teaching basic physics and leading the laboratory courses.
In his memoirs, Fujita recalled that the last words of his father likely saved his life. Tetsuya had wanted to attend Hiroshima College, but his father insisted he attend Meiji College. Accepted at both schools, he chose Meiji to honour his father's request. Had he not heeded his father's words, Tetsuya feels he likely would have perished in the atomic blast that levelled Hiroshima.
The second atomic detonation might also have taken Fujita's life, but again fate stepped in. That bomb was initially targeted for Kokura Terminal, about three miles from where he was staying. Fujita recalled seeking shelter in the bunker next to the Physics building. But evidently, the weather over Kokura did not meet the mission specifications, and the bomber changed course for their secondary target: Nagasaki.
In September 1945, the Japanese government sent him to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki to determine the number of bombs dropped and the heights of their detonation. To determine the latter, he used the bombs' unique starburst damage patterns to calculate the height. Years later, Fujita would see a form of this pattern again during severe thunderstorm research.
His education was in physics and engineering, but Fujita's interests were wide including maps and geology specifically volcanoes and caves and the weather. (These interests were passed down. His son is currently Professor of Geology at Michigan State University.) He was an amateur spelunker. In early 1946, Fujita applied for a Department of Education grant under the topic Weather Science proposing to instruct teachers about the weather.
His research work in meteorology began in 1947 when he studied downflow winds in thunderstorms using data from Seburiyama. By chance, Fujita had been on a nearby mountain near the local weather station when the thunderstorm struck. Using data from that station along with his observations, Fujita concluded that thunderstorms produced a downward current of cooler air. He did not know at the time that similar conclusions had been drawn in the United States through the Thunderstorm Project which had measured such downdrafts.
Fujita's first survey of a tornado strike came on 26 September 1948 following the Enoura tornado near Saga on Kyushu Island. Fascinated by the damage, he followed the entire six-mile (9.6 km) damage path over hillsides and rice fields. The tornado initially formed as a waterspout in Ariake Bay then moved onshore where it blew off roofs and flattening crops.
Around this time, someone gave Fujita a copy of Horace Byers' report on nonfrontal thunderstorms which had been found it the trash. With the realization that someone else was working on similar storm investigations, Fujita began a correspondence with Byers, sending him a translated copy of his thunderstorm research. Byers responded with a copy of the Thunderstorm Project book.
Fujita had now become focused on meteorology and began work on his doctoral degree at the University of Tokyo. His thesis research investigated damage caused by typhoons that struck had Kyushu over three consecutive years. His thesis Analytical Study of Typhoons was approved in 1953.
To The United States
In 1953 Dr Byers invited Fujita to come to the Department of Meteorology at the University of Chicago for a two-year research appointment. There, the work of Dr Morris Tepper at the US Weather Bureau caught Fujita's interest. Soon, he began applying his microanalysis techniques to the analysis of a tornado outbreak across Kansas and Oklahoma on 25 June 1953. In that study, mesoanalysis was born as Fujita revealed features in the storm's structure he would call mesolows, mesohighs, wake depressions, and pressure jump lines.
In 1955, Byers suggested Fujita could have a permanent position with the research group if he obtained the proper visas. Fujita returned to Japan to complete his contract obligations there and to apply for an immigrant visa. While in Japan, Fujita worked on the report Mesoanalysis. In July 1956, Fujita returned to Illinois to take the position of Research Professor and Senior Meteorologist at the University of Chicago where he established the Severe Local Storms Project (SLSP).
The event that would springboard Fujita to the highest ranks of tornado researchers struck Fargo, North Dakota on 20 June 1957. The slow-moving tornado killed ten and injured 103 people while destroying or damaging over 1300 homes. Because the storm ambled across Fargo at 19 mph (30 km/h) and was highly visible, the Fargo tornado became a widely photographed tornado.
Damage from June 1957 Fargo Tornado Courtesy NOAA National Weather Service, Grand Forks, ND Weather Forecast Office
Byers asked Fujita if he would undertake a photogrammetric study of the tornado. Fujita, through the assistance of the local media, collected 150 photographs of the storm from 53 different locations. Analysing those photos over the next two years, Fujita was able to plot the tornado's path and cloud features at one-minute intervals. His paper A Detailed Analysis of the Fargo Tornado of June 20, 1957 published in 1960 introduced such terms now common to storm watchers as wall cloud and tail cloud.
Damage from June 1957 Fargo Tornado Courtesy NOAA National Weather Service, Grand Forks, ND Weather Forecast Office
His analysis of the 1965 Palm Sunday tornadoes redefined how meteorologists looked at tornado outbreaks. From the thousands of aerial photographs, he mapped the entire outbreak in terms of tornado families and deduced the existence of multiple vortex tornadoes from the aerial views of damage patterns.
Twin Funnels strike Elkhart, Indiana during April 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak Courtesy NOAA Historic NWS Collection, Photographer: Mr. Paul Huffman
The Severe Local Storms Project was renamed Mesometeorology Research Project (MRP) in 1961, and with the advent of satellite coverage MRP became the Satellite and Mesometeorology Research Project (SMRP) in 1964. During this period Fujita was appointed Associate Professor of Meteorology at the University of Chicago in 1962 and full professor in 1965. The Project's research during the 1950s and 1960s focused on severe storms and then included the use of satellites to study storm developments, movements, and global circulation. In 1968, Fujita became an American citizen and added "Theodore" as his middle name, his colleagues knew him as "Ted".
The Scale and the Downburst
The 1970s would see Fujita's research coin several concepts and terms that will live forever in severe storm meteorology. The first concept was his scale for rating tornado intensity and damage known as the F-Scale or Fujita Scale which I have documented elsewhere in the website.
Another term is the downburst which later spawned the microburst. (More on these storm aspects can be found here.) Fujita identified the downburst during his study of the crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 66 on 24 June 1975. The aircraft was landing during severe weather when it suddenly "fell." Fujita postulated that the aircraft had been hit by a sudden, strong downrush of air that forced it to the ground. Further investigations of weather-related aircraft accidents and a series of field studies that lasted into the 1980s confirmed the existence of the downburst and the microburst.
Damage caused by a downburst (Fujita, 1978)
In 1971, Fujita also coined suction vortex/vortices to described the mechanism for creating unique tornadic damage patterns cycloidal marks first identified by John Park Finley in the nineteenth century. These circular patterns are produced by smaller tornadoes or suction vortices which rotated around the periphery of the larger circulation.
Aerial photograph of typical suction and drift marks. Source: Fujita et al, Monthly Weather Review, 1970.
The final term I will mention here (there are numerous others) is the bow echo which is a particular bow-shaped pattern seen on radar images of severe convective storms. The region of the storm exhibiting bow echoes had a propensity for forming downbursts, some of which occur over very long swaths.
Radar image of bow echo over southeast lower Michigan 31 May 1998 Courtesy US National Weather Service, NOAA
The SMRP continued its groundbreaking work through the 1980s. In addition to analyses of tornadoes and their damage patterns, the group did pioneer research in cloud tracking using satellite imagery from polar orbiters and from geostationary satellites.
It is ironic that many of America's tornado researchers never witnessed a tornado "live and in person" until later in their careers. Fujita was one of these, and his first tornado sighting came near Denver's Stapleton Airport on 12 June 1982; it was also the only one he would witness.
In 1988, to better reflect the wider range of Fujita's research, the SMRP was renamed the Wind Research Laboratory (WRL). The laboratory housed a tornado machine that was dismantled in the early 1990s.
Professor Ted Fujita and the tornado machine Courtesy University of Chicago
Ted Fujita formally retired from his research work in September 1990, but he did not stop working until poor health took its final toll. In these last years, he surveyed hurricane damage including Hurricane Andrew. He also looked into the effect of El Niņo regimes on storm tracks. His memoirs, The Mystery of Severe Storms was published in 1992.
Tetsuya "Ted" Fujita had rightly earned the nickname Mr Tornado (bestowed on him in a 1972 National Geographic article) when he died in his sleep on 19 November 1998 at the age of 78. His work was a quantum leap in our knowledge of tornadoes and their impacts. His name, like that of Admiral Beaufort, will live forever in the scale he devised.
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