NOAA Predicts Tornado In Texas Hours Before It Forms
The business of predicting tornadoes has been, in some respects, as futile as predicting earthquakes. Predicting a tornado is certainly a more reasonable undertaking than predicting an earthquake, but it remains a rather erratic science. The fact is, predicting tornadoes gives people additional time to get into their tornado shelters and that saves lives. For those without the clear advantage of a tornado storm shelter, it still gives them time to take storm precautions that can vastly increase their survival odds.
As it stands, tornado prediction is achieved through a balance of technology (local radars) and eyes on the ground (tornado spotters and chasers calling in their visuals). The combined effort has vastly improved tornado predictions and certainly saved lives. According to the National Weather Service, a tornado prediction averages around 13 minutes of lead time. That’s definitely a good amount of time to get you and your family to safety. But that time needs to be lengthened, however, expanding warning time begins to become more of “tornado prediction” science than it does “tornado warning” science. Because expanding the lead time really does mean understanding that a tornado will form, as opposed to has already formed.
Well, it appears the NOAA has gotten closer to doing just that (predicting a tornado).
NOAA Predicts Texas Tornado
A May 16th tornado in the Texas panhandle was rated as an EF2. It killed one person and wiped out about 30 businesses and a couple of hundred homes. In the world of tornadoes, this hardly feels like headline news. But in some ways, this might turn out to be the most famous EF2 in weather history. That’s because the NOAA predicted it.
Using a new experimental tornado prediction technology called Warn On Forecast System, the NOAA successfully predicted the tornado 30 minutes prior, over doubling the average prediction time.
“We had a picture of the storms and their evolution before they became life-threatening,” said Todd Lindley, science operations officer with the NOAA NWS Norman Forecast Office in Oklahoma. “We used this model guidance to forecast with greater lead time and greater confidence.”
“Based on the information from the NWS, we knew storms would intensify when they reached our area and were able to activate the outdoor warning sirens about 30 minutes ahead of the tornado,” said Lonnie Risenhoover with Beckham County Emergency Management.
Here’s a closer look at the technology.
The May 16th severe storm outbreak wasn’t a surprise, forecasters had been monitoring favorable storm data for days prior. That morning, the National Weather Service warned of the potential for tornado activity. But again, this is the normal. Often, communities are warned on potential but exacts remain hardly understood. And weather stations have to be careful to not appear to be “crying wolf,” as many “warnings” fall short of any tornado fruition.
At 1:50 pm, a tornado watch was placed on 33 counties in the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma. It wasn’t long following those watches that the Warn On Forecast system begins to reveal predictive data. The system uniquely identified tornadic activity forming. This is how the lead time happened.
“That level of detail and lead time in a forecast is new,” said NSSL Director Steve Koch (via NOAA). “To have information conveying a sense of certainty in so small of an area that far in advance is a success.”
This may not sound like much, but in our how to survive a tornado article, lead time is a huge factor. Increasing it, such as how this system helped do, would save thousands of lives. It could also help with massive evacuations (think stadiums and concerts).
Tornado Spotters and Chasers Are Still Doing Lifesaving Work
Until further notice, tornado chasers aren’t just making for great TV; they are saving lives. Obviously, technology (smartphones, the Internet) has helped them to quickly convey tornadic activity to the public, as well as respond to potential tornado hotspots more effectively, but they do remain the central standard for tornado predicting. It remains difficult to see a tornado or know whether it is on the ground, using radar.
Tornado chasers are also able to communicate directional changes in tornadoes, which is a very typical reason that people die. Often people are told the tornado is traveling one direction, so they either stay put or try to drive another direction, only to become sitting ducks in weather’s most tragic of circumstances.
The technology to predict tornadoes brings us hope. Some day, tornadoes might be a whole lot less lethal.
Author: Jim Satney
PrepForThat’s Editor and lead writer for political, survival, and weather categories.