I grew up on a small farm about 30 miles northwest of Abilene. Our farmhouse was on a hill, so you can see for miles in almost every direction, except to the east because of another hill. My dad, like many Midwesterners, goes outside to watch approaching storms instead of taking shelter inside.
His fascination with the clouds, lightning, thunder and wind rubbed off on me. I would go outside and stand next to him.
As a farmer, of course, my dad had a vested interest as well. One hailstorm could knock out a year’s worth of crops, a lightning strike could kill an $800 cow and a straight-line wind could knock over a machine shed.
So, when I got the assignment to find out what happens inside the National Weather Center in Norman, Okla., I couldn’t wait. I pictured a building with large rooms full of monitors and a bunch of noisy forecasters who were running around turning in their predictions.
But that was a far cry from what I found. It actually is a large, five-story building with an assortment of rooms, an auditorium, a cafeteria, an observation deck and a vehicle bay. A lot more goes on than just forecasting. There is a School of Meteorology and a lot of research.
About 100 employees work in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Severe Storms Lab. About 40 are federal employees, and most are researchers with doctorates. The lab has an annual budget of about $15 million; it serves the nation by working to improve the lead time and accuracy of severe weather warnings and forecasts, which in turn saves lives and reduces property damage.
During a two-hour interview, Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist in the lab, rattled off dates, storms and damage estimates. He is a walking encyclopedia of severe weather. Brooks began working at the lab in 1990 as a post-doctoral researcher. He became a federal employee in 1992.
Brooks explained the three primary areas of research: climatology of severe storms, evaluation of weather forecasts and societal impacts of weather.
Climatology of severe weather
Brooks said they are always working to figure out when and where severe weather occurs around the world.
Researchers work on the hypothesis that if you take the same conditions and put them anywhere in the world, you will get the same outcome.
Brooks said researchers have made headway. They do know, for example, that the Midwest is one of the most dangerous places in the world to live when it comes to severe weather. That’s because we have that unique combination of the warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and the dry, cold air from the Rocky Mountains.
“There’s no place on the planet that has the same kinds of conditions,” he said. “The Central Plains is a special place worldwide that can produce tornadoes.”
He said the lab is hoping to have a climate change report by 2013. So far, he predicts there will be more storms. But, it doesn’t look like their intensity will change.
Evaluation of weather forecasts
The lab is trying to come up with a system that better describes forecasts. Right now, it is hard to compare a good forecast to a bad one.
Brooks said some storms are simply easier to predict than others. They are trying to figure out a system that provides a baseline of “it ought to be this good.” The goal then would be to penalize those who miss a forecast that they should have gotten.
He said predicting weather becomes easier with the development of technology. Brooks said Doppler radar systems have significantly improved tornado forecasting. Tornado deaths have declined by 40 percent since the advent of Doppler.
Brooks said tornadoes continue to be the hardest weather phenomenon to predict. Only about 10 to 20 percent of storms produce tornadoes, and they don’t know why. That’s why field projects such as Vortex2 — scheduled to run from May 10 to June 15 of this year and next — are so important. Brooks said the project will cost about $8 million and involve about five mobile radars and at least 60 people.
Societal impacts of weather
Brooks said a series of events has changed the country and its way of thinking. For example, after the 1888 blizzard in New York, cities started putting wiring underground.
He said the Tri-State tornado that struck on March 18, 1925, was a “watershed event in U.S. tornado history.” He said that tornado killed about 700 people in southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana.
“Prior to Tri-State, it appears that essentially the attitude toward tornadoes was they were like the finger of God, this place got hit. You can get killed.”
He said that tornado produced deaths for about four hours. About 240 people were killed in Murphysboro, Ill., where the tornado struck about two hours after the first deaths. That’s when people started wondering why not inform others who are in the storm’s path. Brooks said that’s when storm spotter networks began and the death toll from tornadoes began to drop.
That was until 1998.
Brooks said that was the first year since 1985 that there were more than 100 deaths from tornadoes. Why? His research found that the percentage of people living in a mobile home had risen from 3 percent to 8 percent. Mobile home residents are killed in tornadoes at a rate 15 to 20 times higher than that of permanent residents.
“Now, half of all tornado deaths occur in mobile homes. In the ’70s, that number was a quarter,” he said.
His lab also puts a tornado’s damage into historical perspective. When a tornado hit Oklahoma City in 1999 and caused $1 billion in damage, researchers took old tornado data and adjusted for inflation. They came up with about eight other tornadoes that would have caused $1 billion in damage, but three stood above the rest: the Tri-State tornado, a 1927 St. Louis tornado and a 1896 St. Louis tornado. Brooks said if the 1896 tornado occurred today, it would cost about $3 billion.
Brooks said the United States can expect a $1 billion tornado about once a decade based on the past century. He said tornadoes cause about $2 billion in damage a year.
I was almost as impressed by his knowledge as I was by those storms forming overhead as a little girl.
Now I’m hoping my next assignment will be storm chasing.