Number 16, June 1999
"What's happening on the Societal Aspects of Weather WWW Site."
On Monday, May 3, 1999 more than 70 tornadoes tore through Oklahoma and Kansas, killing 46 people injuring scores more, and resulting in more than $1 billion in damage.
The National Weather Service called the outbreak [http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/headlines/outbreak.shtml] one of the most severe in this country in the past 50 years. According to Charles Doswell [http://www.wildstar.net/~doswell/Tornado_essay.html], one of the nation's experts on tornadoes, there are two important factors that kept loss of life from being even higher. One was luck, in the sense that the storm did not strike in the middle of the night or cross a busy interstate crowded with rush-hour traffic. The second was that the nation's severe weather infrastructure performed admirably in a region where people take official warnings seriously and are prepared to respond. The event was but one of many that has recently underscored the importance of the nation's severe weather infrastructure.
At the heart of the U.S. government's assault on severe weather are the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) of the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) of the Office of Atmospheric Research, both of which fall under the mantle of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce. These organizations work closely with the NWS Weather Forecast Offices to alert the public to impending severe weather. Several offices, including those in Norman and Tulsa, Oklahoma and Wichita, Kansas, played a significant role in the May 3 outbreak.
The two organizations are co-located [http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/lb_images/nssl/nssl0021.htm] on the open plains of Norman, Oklahoma, appropriately in the heart of Tornado Alley.
SPC and NSSL are similar to the better-known National Hurricane Center and NOAA's Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Florida which focus respectively on the operational forecasting and scientific research of tropical cyclones.
According to SPC, its mission is to "monitor and forecast severe and non-severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, winter storms, extreme winds, heavy rain and other hazardous weather phenomena across the continental U.S. — every hour of the day and night, every day of the year."
The mission of NSSL is to "provide accurate and timely forecasts and warnings of hazardous weather events . . . through a balanced program of research; to advance the understanding of weather processes research; to improve forecasting and warning techniques; development of operational applications and transfer of understanding, techniques, and applications to the NWS and other public and private sector agencies."
The organizations work closely with each other as well as with the University of Oklahoma, a national leader in meteorological research. With the impacts of severe weather growing across the nation, these institutions along with the entire NWS organization together address an increasingly important national need.
But with increasing importance to the nation also comes more visibility and responsibilities. NOAA and its National Weather Service, and ultimately the U.S. Congress, need to give careful consideration to the future of the nation's severe weather infrastructure. Two important issues to be addressed are (1) appropriately evaluating performance in order better target research investments and to accelerate the transition from scientific discovery to societal benefit, and (2) providing the necessary support to these national centers in order to meet the demands of a nation hungry for severe weather information.
Harold Brooks, a scientist at NSSL, has provided some information that allows us to begin to tackle this issue. http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/~brooks/tornado/#alltorn/ (See also the work of Charles Doswell also a NSSL scientist: Tornadoes: Some Hard Realities [http://www.wildstar.net/~doswell/Tornado_essay.html]
Budget-Cutting and the Value of Weather Services [http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/~doswell/NWS_value/value2.html])
Brooks shows that the nation has gone from an average annual loss of life to tornadoes of more than 300/year in the 1920s to less than 100 per year in the 1990s. The data is even more striking when considered in the context of the nation's population growth. Brooks reports that from 1880-1924 the death rate was about 1.8 per million, which has declined to a value of 0.14 per million by 1997. Considering that official tornado warnings date to 1948 [http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/GoldenAnniversary] Brooks notes that:
"I cannot explain the decrease. Lots of things contribute — improved forecasts and warnings, communication of warnings, better housing, the movement of people from rural areas to urban areas, less time being spent outdoors, etc. (Before we, in the meteorological and preparedness communities pat ourselves on the back, it is important to note that lightning deaths also show a decreasing trend over this time period, but we do little forecasting or preparedness work on that problem, in comparison to tornadoes.)"
Others have been more critical in their assessment of how the National Weather Service evaluates its severe weather forecasts. See, for example:
As the impacts associated with extreme weather increase, demands from the public and policy makers for the weather community to "do something" will also increase. The weather community will be more effectively able to respond to such demands if it understands the relationship between its products and societal outcomes. Today, we simply don't have that understanding. The NWS could conduct research needed to gain that understanding, but perhaps more appropriately, a quasi-independent entity like the U.S. Weather Research program could oversee the needed studies, and of course there are other organization possibilities. The bottom line is that if the nation expects improvements in its severe weather infrastructure, then we must better understand the relationship of weather forecasts and societal outcomes, including improved documentation of severe weather events.
An effective communications capability is critical to the success of any forecast process — as important as the generation of the forecast itself. Thus, the heroic efforts of Brooks and others at the SPC and NSSL should be applauded. But when demand for information exceeds the capability to provide information, the entire forecast process can suffer as a result. The two institutions have for the first time hired a shared public relations specialist to work with the media. This is a small step in the right direction and should be applauded. Given the nation's increasing demands for information on severe weather, the parent institutions of SPC and NSSL (as well as the US Congress) might carefully consider whether these organizations should be outfitted with a public and media relations capability more in line with their role as national centers. Effectively instituted, a more robust public and media relations capability could serve to improve the nations capabilities to deal with severe weather.
The United States experiences as wide a range of weather extremes as any nation on earth. It is thus fitting that it also has the most advanced infrastructure to help its citizens respond. With careful attention to the changing demands for and role of severe weather information, the nation will be better prepared to stay one step ahead the weather.
— Roger A. Pielke, Jr.
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