April 23-25, 1908, saw one of the worst bouts of severe weather in the U.S., the Dixie Tornado Outbreak. Violent storms broke out from Texas to Tennessee, producing tornadoes in 13 states, including one F5 and two F4 tornadoes. One of the tornadoes, which spawned on April 24, 1908, leveled Purvis, MS, causing over 100 injuries and deaths, making it one of the top 10 deadliest storms in U.S. history.
In a little over half of the 105 years have passed since this deadly incident, over 50,000 other tornadoes of varying levels of damage have been recorded by official tornado records of the U.S. National Weather Service. With decades of knowledge garnered, the tools for predicting and preparing for severe weather have greatly improved, helping to hopefully avoid the amount of loss seen in incidents like the Dixie Tornado Outbreak.
Early warning systems
In 1888 U.S. Army Signal Corps Sergeant John P. Finely developed a list of 15 rules for forecasting a tornado, which identified signs that the formation of a tornado is likely. Based on observations of weather before, during and after a tornado, Finley’s rules were the first attempt at establishing criteria to warn people of impending severe weather.
With these rules as a solid foundation, an Air Force Major and Captain were able to issue the first forecast and tornados safety warning in 1948. Basing the warning on the atmospheric conditions they observed, the men were able to give advance warning to their military base and surrounding area. While damage occurred in the forecast area, there was no loss of life thanks to the warning, deeming the plan and forecast a success.
Introduction of Radar
The application of radar to severe weather predicting was discovered almost by accident. Military members using radar during World War II to detect enemy planes and ships noticed that their images were distorted by rain, leading early forecasters to investigate the possibility that radar could be used to detect weather patterns. In the post-war years, the Tornado Project, which studied the weather patterns leading to a storm, was implemented in Kansas and Oklahoma, with radar support from several Air Force bases from Nebraska to Oklahoma.
Doppler radar and satellite images
Doppler radar was first tested by the National Weather Service in 1988. Advancements in radar, as well as satellite imagery, enabled meteorologists to detect not only rain volumes but also wind patterns that are likely to proceed a tornado. These observations have helped lead to improved average lead for a storm warning from a few minutes (all the warning that was given during the Super Outbreak of tornadoes in 1974) to nearly a half hour lead time that was seen during tornado outbreaks in the late 1990’s. With the proliferation of broadcast news in addition to advanced technology, areas often have hours of warnings of storm build-up to prepare for severe weather.
As we enter the heart of tornado season for this year, ensuring you are prepared in the event of a tornado or severe weather event is crucial. Though advances in technology have given us more time to seek safety when a storm is upon us, ensuring you continuously check in with local news and radar when you observe bad weather, as well as having a preparedness kit on hand in case severe weather does strike can make all the difference.
What do you think will be the next big advancement in weather predictions?
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