Yesterday afternoon a tornado ripped through Norman, Oklahoma, doing what tornadoes do best; hopscotching along and ripping up the place everywhere it touched down. It uprooted trees and knocked down their power-pole counterparts, cutting off electrical power to thousands, tore the roofs off buildings and did other structural damage. Unsurprisingly, it also caused human injury – fortunately none reported as major this time around.
Today may be even more dangerous across a large area of the central United States. National Weather Service local forecasts speak to the threat; you can check your local forecasts here or on your favorite private-sector site.
The weather community – NWS forecasters, researchers, and broadcast meteorologists – started recognizing the menace posed to this region days ago. Social media and the blogosphere have stepped up the chatter. For a sample, check out Mike Smith’s Meteorological Musings. It’s not like the old days, when these storms would develop with little or no warning.
The reason for what might seem to be such dramatic forecast improvement? More than sixty years of focused thunderstorm research, closely linked to structured and sustained action to move advanced observing capabilities, new understanding, numerical weather prediction, and more recently, new understanding of risk communication from the research desk into day-to-day public- and private weather services. The origins go back to the so-called Thunderstorm Project. You can find the narrative in Horace R. Byers and R. R. Braham, Jr., The Thunderstorm: Final Report of the Thunderstorm Project (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949, or in a more recent and accessible history put together by Charles Doswell.
Where has this work been done? Well, much of the energy and progress has centered in Norman itself. Yesterday’s tornado path went within just a few miles of the National Weather Center, a complex on the University of Oklahoma research campus housing National Weather Service, OU, and even private-sector elements. The world’s largest concentration of tornado experts can be found here.
Such concentrations bring both benefits and risks.
First the upside. What is striking and alluring about the study of the Earth in general and natural hazards in particular is that it is inherently, inescapably place-based. The weather in the Arctic is different from the tropics. It varies from continent to continent. Want to study monsoons? You have to go to where the monsoons are. Want to study ocean western boundary currents such as the Kuroshio – or more familiarly to Americans and Europeans, the Gulf Stream? You’ll want to be on the nearby coast.
This is not so for the laboratory sciences like physics and chemistry, or medical research. Here the history and the focus of the work is merely shaped by human decisions and preferences. Look at the location of the Department of Energy National Laboratories. Brookhaven, NY. Argonne Labs in Illinois. Lawrence Livermore Labs in California. Los Alamos…and so on. You can split the atom or map the human genome anywhere.
By contrast, if you want to study earthquakes, you might find yourself at the USGS facilities at Menlo Park California, deliberately sited near the San Andreas fault. Want to study volcanoes? You have a choice between USGS sites near the flanks of Mount Rainier or in Hawaii Volcano Observatory at Kilauea. Marine weather? You’ll find yourself at an oceanfront laboratory. NOAA’s hurricane research and services are sited at Miami. It’s tsunami warning centers are in Hawaii and Alaska.
And its tornado research is in Norman.
The place-based nature of the research and services, and living in a community vulnerable to the hazard under study, fosters a sense of urgency, of mission, and a wonderful passion that are hallmarks of our community, perhaps even unique. For those in our field, our life’s work and our family-, neighborhood-, and broader community interests and values are linked in a wonderful way.
For many geophysicists and meteorologists, this awareness came early. They’ll tell you about a winter storm or tornado that hit their town when they were ten years old. Or an earthquake or volcanic eruption that made an impression. They can’t remember a moment when they weren’t obsessed, energized with their life’s work. Mike Smith? He’ll tell you about his experiences as a kid. Joel Myers, who founded and still leads AccuWeather? He was issuing daily forecasts and selling them to his grandmother for a penny a day before he was ten years old. Louis Uccellini, director of the NOAA/NWS Centers for Environmental Prediction? He’s been transfixed and preoccupied with northeast snowstorms and their prediction since growing up in New York. And Mike and Joel and Louis are the rule, not the exception. The urgency and immediacy of the work fosters resolve and focus on the part of the experts. They make more rapid progress. [Note that these realities apply to other countries around the world as well, not just the United States. Go to Japan, or China, or Russia, or Egypt, you’ll find the same thing, concentrations of experts, strategically located atop the hazard, at Ground Zero.]
So much for the upside. What about the downside?
The risk is that one day – and it’s not a matter of if but when – the tornado, or the earthquake, or the hurricane – the hazard under study will hit each of the communities and facilities that have been developed and concentrated for such study and service. And when that happens, it’ll be a setback for the larger society depending on these people and their work for providing public safety in the face of hazards.
This is a reality, not a conjecture. The USGS honor roll includes vulcanologists who have lost their lives at the volcano’s rim. David Johnston at Mount St. Helens. Katia and Maurice Krafft at Japan’s Mount Unzen in 1991. U.S. research and forecasting of hurricanes – both the NOAA research facilities and the National Hurricane Center, as well as the families and homes of many of the staff – took a real hit from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
So, today, to our Norman friends and colleagues, as well as all those living and working throughout the region…as you do your jobs, issuing those watches and warnings…you and your families are in our thoughts and prayers.
We live in the hazard’s lair knowing well that our very homes, lives and livelihoods are at risk; and we accept the risk out of the fascination of learning and the challenges of forecasting and research.
You describe an intimately familiar predicament. I was an NHC meteorologist during Hurricane Andrew, riding out the north eyewall at home, a few miles south of the facility. The 12 June 2009 EF1 Norman tornado went directly over my home (no damage to the house, but trees broken on all sides). The 10 May 201o outbreak featured a tornado that began about a block south of the National Weather Center, then buzzed east-northeastward across Lake Thunderbird to produce EF4 damage around Little Axe. My daughter was under a desk, in a windowless room, when the most recent tornado passed over her high school last Saturday. It’s a fact of life that these things can and will happen here.
Those don’t even include the countless tornadoes I’ve witnessed afield, through deliberate efforts to observe and document them first-hand.
There is no evidence that tornadoes are getting “worse” by any strictly meteorological criteria. We are, however, offering tornadoes more targets to hit than ever, thanks to greater sprawl and mobility. As such, we are offering more and more targets to tornadoes with every passing year. The Norman tornado in 1949 (rated F4 by Grazulis) passed across a swath of largely empty land that now holds I-35 and thousands of homes, offices and businesses. As you alluded, it’ s only a matter of time. Someday Norman will experience a tornado that makes 13 April 2012 seem gentle as a whisper.