How Science and Meteorology are Gaining on the Weather and Saving Lives

In his new book, meteorologist Mike Smith writes how technology has made great advances in predicting the weather.

by Eric Holdeman / March 15, 2011
Seventeen students at the Longfellow School were killed by the Tri-State Tornado on March 18, 1925. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Mike Smith is a pioneering meteorologist, entrepreneur, inventor and now an author. His first book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, recounts how technology has improved our ability to detect severe weather and warn people of impending hazards. It is written in a nontechnical style using storytelling to explain the technological advances that have dramatically improved our ability to warn people of severe weather events. Emergency management has benefited greatly from these advances in weather warning. Smith, who helped create the country’s storm warning system and helped develop color weather radar, shared his thoughts on specific questions that Emergency Management magazine posed to him about the book, technology and warnings.

Question: Why did you write the book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather?

Answer: Two reasons. The first was to obtain for meteorology some of the badly overdue respect that I believe it deserves. To give just one example, we, along with our partners in emergency management, have cut the tornado death rate (deaths per million) by 95 percent since the 1930s. That is an amazing accomplishment about which most people are unaware.

The second reason is to inspire the next generation of scientists.

What single technology do you think has most transformed the weather service’s ability to predict severe weather?

Probably computer models, but I am also temped to say better data to put into the models. That has allowed us to get the word out that major storms (hurricanes, blizzards, tornado outbreaks) are likely two to three days out, not just hours before the storm arrives.

What warning technology has done the most to advance the warning of people in harm’s way?

Doppler radar. Doppler allows us to see inside of the storm and the wind flow within the storm. It has made a huge difference and is one of the federal government’s best investments.

When you think of the possibilities of severe weather events. Which one do you think has the worst impact on people and property and why?

A major winter storm affects the largest number of people. Tornadoes are the most ubiquitous as they occur in all 50 states.

How far in advance can the weather “accurately” be predicted?

Three days and less; the forecasts are getting to be quite accurate. For reasons we do not understand, the atmosphere is sometimes more predictable than others. For the 15 days prior to my daughter’s recent wedding, I got the forecast right. Unfortunately those opportunities are few and far between. Most of the time, there would be little skill in the 15-day forecast.

As you look to the future, what developing technology (like radar was in the 1950s and ’60s) is poised to make the biggest difference in our ability to predict the weather?

I’m excited about the new dual-polarization capability that will be added to the National Weather Service’s radars in 2011. It should help us to better warn of flash floods and might help with short-term forecasting of snowfalls and adding certainty to tornado detection, especially at night.

What role do you think social media can provide in supporting weather forecasting, weather spotting and the issuance of warnings?

This one is tough for me. The reason is that I’m concerned that social media are not yet sufficiently robust to ensure critical messages get through in a timely basis 100 percent of the time. When you are dealing with a fast-moving tornado, nothing else is adequate.

That said we will probably see contributions from social media in the next few years.

Climate change and global warming are being debated across our nation. Do you personally believe that the recent severe weather here in the United States and across the world has any relationship to warming global temperatures?

In spite of the impressions left by much of the media, there is no evidence that storms are getting worse in the United States or around the world for any reason. Take, for example, the recent floods in Australia. They were terrible, but there were worse floods in the same region in 1974.

Any last thoughts about the past, present or future of weather warnings?

Part of the reason I wrote Warnings is because I want people to understand how good forecasts and warnings have become so they will take them seriously.

We have run a contest where people sent in photos of themselves with the book. Katelyn Pfeister sent a photo of herself in front of a memorial at the Longfellow School in Murphysboro, Ill., where 17 children were killed by the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. That single tornado killed 689 people. It is our hope that the advances in weather science described in Warnings will prevent anything like that from happening again.

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