Technology's Role in the Future of Storm Prediction

Social media has been a net positive in the battle for weather awareness, but what does the future hold?

by Mack Burke, The Norman Transcript, Okla. / August 23, 2016

(TNS) -- Technology has revolutionized severe weather prediction, but the latest breakthrough isn’t a new radar.

“Social media has opened up new communication pathways that were never there before, two-way pathways,” National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Smith said. “Weather stations have been screaming in all caps for decades, but now we have a way to listen and talk back and forth. It’s certainly changed our jobs.”

Smith said misinformation happens, but social media has been a net positive in the battle for weather awareness.

A panel of weather experts including representatives from the Weather Channel, the National Weather Center (NWC) at the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory convened the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 19 at the NWC to talk about trends in meteorology and the future of storm science after a special screening of “Oklahoma Tornado Target.”

The panel trumpeted the impact of social media and pointed to a potential shift in the way people stay ahead of the storm.

The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes said people still flock to their TVs for up-to-date storm information but said more people are looking to social media outlets for vital updates.

“If you look at something like Twitter now, you can do live video,” Bettes said. “Facebook is a way for families to reconnect after [the storm]. I think it’s just evolving now. I think this is probably bad to say, because I’m a TV broadcaster, but I think TV is becoming a bit of a dinosaur.”

If social media represents the present, the near future is up in the air.

OU meteorology professor Phil Chilson envisions a future where research drones can relay atmospheric data. He said FAA rules are a challenge but said restrictions will be loosened for commercial and government use drones at the end of August.

“Whenever a new technology is introduced there is a hype cycle,” Chilson said. “There’s the peak, then the valley of despair, then the plateau of reality. If you look at drones, they’re at the top of the hype cycle. Having said that, I’m very optimistic about using drones to monitor before, during and after storms.”

Tornadoes and severe storms are still somewhat unpredictable, but big leaps in understanding have occurred.

National Severe Storms Laboratory researcher Harold Brooks said the science reveals some telling trends. In Oklahoma, data points to two distinct tornado patterns.

“The tornado season, particularly in the plains, is characterized by a very strong annual cycle,” Brooks said. “We have a very short period of time where there’s a high threat. We also have a strong diurnal cycle. Late afternoon, early evening, 75 percent of all tornadoes within 100 miles of Oklahoma City happen between 5 and 9 p.m. That helps in terms of response.”

Another trend that meteorologists are exploring is the possible link between climate change and tornado activity. But Brooks, who has published many papers on the topic, said a scientific approach is important to avoid correlation fallacies. He said the big change is in variance.

“We have fewer days per year [with a recorded tornado] in the United States now than we did 40 years ago, but our biggest days are more frequent, to where we end up with about the same number of tornadoes on an annual basis. 2011 was one of the biggest years on record, but some of the smallest years have followed that.”

In Oklahoma, the biggest contributing factors to tornado activity are warm air from the Gulf of Mexico and cool air from the Rocky Mountains. Brooks said changes in those ingredients could change weather patterns in the future.

Chilson said the science of predicting tornadoes has plateaued to some extent but is optimistic that another big leap could happen soon.

“We’ve been flat for quite a long time, maybe 10 years,” Chilson said. “We need that new paradigm shift. There are things in development. This is really a community effort. If we’re going to make advances, we need to leverage all of the technology we have.”

Chilson said that one idea he would like to see implemented is meteorological sensors on drones across the country. If every drone operator in the United States were feeding data to the National Weather Center, he said it would make them citizen scientists and could potentially advance the study of the lower atmosphere in a practical and powerful way.

“There are a lot of pieces in play,” he said. “It’s a complicated topic. I’m looking for that next leap for that lead time to occur. I can’t say that that’s going to happen next month, but I do feel that it’s imminent.”

©2016 The Norman Transcript (Norman, Okla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.