The tornado is likely the most feared of North American weather's deadly moods. Its very nature -- short-lived and small-scale -- makes the tornado a difficult entity to predict. Even today, pinpointing the occurrence of a tornado within a 100-square mile block and less than an hour before touchdown is one of the most difficult tasks facing a severe weather forecaster. Modern weather radar systems, almost instantaneous communications networks and dedicated teams of storm spotters and chasers have, however, dramatically improved tornado warning systems and saved countless lives over the past few decades.
In Scanning The Skies: A History of Tornado Forecasting, Marlene Bradford highlights the development of the US tornado forecast and warning systems from the earliest inception to the modern, multi-component, highly technical system in place today.
Ms Bradford begins the book with the historical background into the theories of tornado formation and the early attempts to predict tornadoes in the United States. The major focus of the story, however, begins a little more than a century ago when the first scientific inquiries and debates as to the nature and causes of tornadoes began. Much of the limited early debate appears to have focussed on the negative aspects of a tornado forecasts, even speculating that more would die from panic or illnesses contracted while huddled in damp storm cellars than from the storms themselves! The US Weather Bureau, recognizing the difficulties in forecasting tornadoes and fearing public panic from any such forecasts, actually forbade use of the word "tornado" in any forecast until 1938.
When the author reaches the state of tornado knowledge during and just after the World War II years, she reaches the true heart of the story. Bradford gives us a well-documented account of the friction between military and civilian storm forecasters in the post-war years that was sparked by the first storm warnings produced within the US military weather service. She takes us from the events leading up to the first "official" tornado warning forecast of Major Ernest Fawbush and Captain Robert Miller issued on March 25, 1948 to the modern forecast and warning system used today by the US Storm Prediction Center.
Having brought the warning system development to the new century, Bradford concludes the book with a chapter an the evaluation of the effectiveness of the integrated tornado warning system over the past several decades. Her analysis shows a difficulty in proving the question as to whether such a system has saved enough lives for the cost of development, implementation and function.
I personally believe that the true nature of the question is always unanswerable in a true scientific analysis: there are too many variables. But I find it hard not to conclude that the tornado warning system has saved countless lives over the past decades and will continue to do so into the future. No system can be 100 percent effective, particularly as population density grows in susceptible areas. Bradford concludes similarly: "Although the ultimate goal of the integrated tornado warning system, preventing loss of life from tornadoes, becomes less achievable as Americans continue to move into tornado-prone areas of the country, improvements in tornado forecasting and the tornado warning system and public education should continue to lower the number of tornado fatalities."
I have no real criticism of Scanning The Skies. Readers looking for more technical material on the scientific aspects of the history of tornado forecasting may be disappointed in this book as it only briefly and superficially discusses scientific advances that lead to improvements of the tornado warning system (such as the development of Doppler radar). Recognizing that the book is intended to present the history of the process of developing a tornado warning system and not about the science behind it, I feel a little more attention could have been given to some of the more relevant scientific aspects with a few diagrams for clarification as to what forecasters look for when developing a tornado watch or warning forecast.
If you are interested in tornadoes or in disaster prevention and warning programs, I think you will find Scanning The Skies an enjoyable and informative read. Scanning The Skies is a well- written historical account of the rise of the modern tornado forecasting and warning system as well as a peek at the workings within government as agencies vie for control and funding while simultaneously trying to avoid criticism.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
10 May 2001
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