Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Weather Alarms and Alarming Weather

A cat sits in the midst of tornado damage in Oklahoma. I hope that after taking this photo, the photographer had this kitty rescued.

The National Weather Service's Severe Prediction Center just about nailed the location of the really bad weather yesterday. Oklahoma and southern Kansas had many tornadoes, with Oklahoma City being the epicenter. Five people were killed and several injured. We here in Kansas City stayed very cool and this cooling kept our air stable enough that we just had thunderstorms with vivid lightening, down pours and small hail. Today is the pause between two rain events for us; the mets think we'll get t-storms tonight and tomorrow. Ah, spring in the Middle of the Country!

Every spring, along with the storms, is a discussion about keeping people informed about weather in order to save lives. With radar, computers and modeling, often the meteorologists can get a pretty decent handle on where severe weather (tornadoes, severe thunderstorms) might be. Also, there is an organized system for getting the warning word out to the public. It started with radio, now is radio, TV, internet, IM and more. Such warning would have saved countless lives May 20, 1957 when the tornado known as the Ruskin Heights tornado tore up a 71 mile path from Williamsburg, KS, through Martin City, Grandview and Ruskin Heights not lifting up until Knobtown, MO--the area around Noland Road and 87th Street as best as I can tell. (KCMO had not annexed this area of Jackson County yet.)

Damage from the 1957 Ruskin Heights tornado.

The problem is that tornadoes are devastating but rare. In contrast to hurricanes they strike in a much more defined area. What mets are trying to do is balance between alerting people that tornadoes are possible, be careful, and being too alarmist, crying the sky is falling when it is not. There is no doubt in my mind that early warning is a good thing and saves lives. Trying to forecast weather, that is, to predict ahead of time exactly what will happen, is still a imprecise science. There will be times that the mets are wrong. When they say something will happen, and it doesn't, people bag on them for being alarmist. When they indicate that not much will happen, and something does, then they get the blame for not warning us. That's why we will always need the radar, the spotters and the notifications. We need to remember that weather prediction is still a science in process, and be a little bit forgiving of the weatherman. And we need to be alert to changing conditions when the weather does appear to be unstable in our area.

LINKS: Msnbc on the Oklahoma tornadoes, check out the slide show and videos, and the National Weather Service on the Ruskin Heights Tornado of 1957. The contrast in outcomes is stark: while there was the tragic loss of five lives in Oklahoma yesterday, 44 people were killed and 531 injured in the 1957 event. I would suspect that without the early warning and ongoing alerts, the Oklahoma death toll would have been higher, and that early warning and ongoing alerts would have saved lives in Missouri and Kansas that May day.

I noticed on another blog that he had feeds of Weather Service data, so in honor of severe weather season, I added some NWS feeds to my sidebar. They are under the Weather Blog section.

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