From the ABC 7 Weather team

Tornadoes, hurricanes, decisions and climate change

May 23, 2012 - 05:01 AM
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Are decisions different when a tornado is coming than when the climate is changing?


“THIS IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TORNADO WITH COMPLETE DEVASTATION LIKELY. … SEEK SHELTER NOW! … MOBILE HOMES AND OUTBUILDINGS WILL OFFER NO SHELTER FROM THIS TORNADO — ABANDON THEM IMMEDIATELY.” Pretty ominous statement but this and other similar apocalyptic statements from the National Weather Service have been, and will be issued experimentally this tornado season in Missouri and Kansas in an effort to have us make a better life or death decision. Yet only 60 years ago, the then U.S. Weather Bureau would not issue a tornado alert for fear of causing widespread public panic.


The first public tornado risk statement was given by broadcast meteorologist, Harry Volkman in March 1952, who was afraid of being arrested by the government for communicating (correctly) there was a tornado “risk” for central Oklahoma. My  science of meteorology has made incredible advances in understanding and forecasting short-term life threatening weather such as tornadoes. Do we know everything? Is the science of tornado prediction “settled”?  In Joplin, MO, in 1970, in 1990 or now? Of course not. There is much to learn and still about 70% of tornado warnings are false alarms- there is no tornado. But we make a decision. Sometimes as many tragic stories from the devastating tornado season last year, the decision was not take shelter. Lives were lost. But the terrible tornado season last year also lead thousands of Americans in or near “tornado alley” to make the decision to purchase a “safe room” for their home. Joplin, Missouri, the city almost destroyed by a rare EF-5 monster one year ago, will spend $26 Million (with federal funding) for safe shelters for their schools. A good decision? Probably after the tragedy and near tragedy of last year, yes a good decision. Forecasting tornadoes still has many uncertainties, yet if a tornado warning is issued, we all have to make a short-term decision. Now more of us will head to a safe room and not worry if this is another false alarm. There will never be 100% certainty in forecasting tornadoes, but we will make a “best”decision.

The science of meteorology through satellite observations, computer “models” and continuing basic and applied research has also made impressive progress in forecasting the track and intensity of hurricanes.


Rather than minutes or hours, Americans in the possible path of a hurricane have to make a decision. Days ahead.  Do I evacuate? Do I believe the forecast? There is that cone of uncertainty . . . do I take a chance? Is the science of hurricane forecasting, “settled”? Again of course not, but decisions, human and economic decisions effecting sometimes millions are made, knowing the exact outcome is uncertain.

Supposedly the great Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough making predictions, especially about the future”. However, we make decisions every day about some prediction whether it is the traffic during rush hour, canceling a weekend picnic or headed with my family to a shelter when I hear a tornado siren.

Why should a decision about what action we take based on expert outlooks for our climate and national, regional and local changes 50 or 100 years from now be any different than making a decision, taking actions, minutes, hours, days or even a week from now knowing the tornado or hurricane, snow storm or seasonal forecast is also uncertain. The science is not settled but the modern science of forecasting short term weather is solid and the modern science of estimating long term climate changes (yes global warming and it impacts) is solid.  Are either 100% accurate?  Do we require 100% accuracy before making a decision or taking action?  Ask folks in Joplin what they will do the next time a tornado warning siren sounds.


We make decisions every day without 100% certainty, other than the sun will come up. The science of short-term weather and longer-term climate is solid. Neither is 100% certain but look where we have come in 60 years from no alerts to “You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter”. Where will we be in making climate related decisions 60 years from now? Let’s hope history gives us some perspective for our future shared decisions.


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