Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather
by Mike Smith
I met Mike Smith in 1994 or 1995 at an American Meteorological Society annual meeting. I tried to convince him of some crazy idea I had about making money off of short-term climate forecasts, made available monthly from the then Climate Prediction Center.
He showed the good business sense he was known for by saying, in the politest way imaginable, that I was nuts. He paid for the beer, though, which shows his generosity. As does his sending me a copy of his new book, Warnings. You might have also seen Mike as a commenter to the blog.
Like a lot of weather geeks, Smith became interested in the weather by experiencing it. In his case, the hard way: a tornado. One, unannounced, whipped through his hometown when he was a boy in the 1957. His family made it, but a lot of others didn’t.
The reason many were wiped out was that the Weather Bureau, as the National Weather Service was then known, was forbidden to issue tornado warnings. Or even to use the word “tornado.” Reason? Fear of false alarms and panics. The bureaucracy at the time thought a few dead bodies here and there was better than the bad publicity of a possibly blown forecast.
It was a combination of the efforts of private media and a long string of bad luck in the form of deadly tornado outbreaks that finally knocked some sense into the bureaucracy. Nowadays, of course, tornado warnings are considered reliable and lifesaving.
Smith started off as a television weatherman and was there at the beginning of broadcasting radar images to the public. In color! He turned his forecasting skills into profit when he started WeatherData, a company that provided custom predictions for corporate clients like train transport firms. Knowing where to avoid high winds and floods saves them a lot of money. Smith recently sold WeatherData to Pennsylvania-based Accuweather.
The story is Ted Fujita’s as much as Smith’s. Fujita’s passion was storms and storm damage. It was he that devised the well known rating scale, F0 to F5, used to classify the strength of a tornado coupled with the amount of destruction it wreaks.
In his work, Fujita pored over an immense number of photographs, compiled eyewitness reports, and assimilated massive amounts of weather data. Not just to classify tornadoes, but to show where hot spots hurricanes are. But his ideas were always regarded with initial suspicion; he always had to swim upstream.
His greatest success come from persevering through the stiff criticism of consensus, which assured the world that microbursts were fictional. These are rapid, powerful downdrafts of winds accompanying some storms. Through intense skepticism, Fujita proved that microbursts were responsible for many crashes of jets, usually on takeoffs and landings.
Meteorologists and the FAA eventually succumbed to weight of evidence and installed specialty radars at airports that could “see” wind; since then, no more crashes due to microbursts. Not that bureaucracy was defeated. The FAA still does not directly share its weather data with the public or with the NWS.
Smith includes some technical details, but very few; not enough to turn off non-mathematical readers. For example, he points out that when a gram of water vapor condenses it released 540 calories of energy, which is, of course, true. Think of it as returning the energy used to turn the liquid water into gas.
Most people, I think, don’t have a good feel for how much energy a calorie is. Smith gives the hint that supercell thunderstorms release megatons on sheer power, so those grams of condensing water really add up!
And we never learn why locating radars higher off the ground results in more ground clutter return and not less (there is more backscattering from the radar beam sidelobes). But these are trivial criticisms.
When I was starting out in meteorology, I recall talking with other weather-types about what would happen if New Orleans ever got whacked by a hurricane: they’d be dead meat. And everybody knew it. Except New Orleans and Louisiana politicians, who chose not to know it, or to forget about it.
Yet Hurricane Katrina—which was as well forecasted as a storm can possibly be—still took the appalling mayor Ray Nagin and other officials by surprise. Smith leads us through the tragedy of ineptitude step by step. One example: why were firefighters and other rescue workers a day late? They first had to stop in Atlanta to take a mandatory course on sexual harassment before they were allowed in the field. Ah, the wisdom of government and delights of political correctness.
Still, the overall story is one of success. Improvements in the science of meteorology and in the technological tools have certainly saved a lot of lives. And the future appears bright.