While watching the 1996 blockbuster movie Twister recently, I couldn’t help but notice what is supposed to be a tornado warning from 1969 (which, according to IMDB, might in fact actually be a 1970s-era warning from Tulsa TV station KWTV) airing on the TV in the background while the young Jo Harding (Helen Hunt’s character in the film) and her family were taking shelter from the monster F5 tornado headed straight for their house. This led me to wonder: What were the early TV and radio tornado warnings like here in the USA? How accurate were they? And how far have tornado warnings come over the past few decades?
personnel at Tinker AFB. A warning system for the public had yet to be devised, mainly because the Weather Bureau (forerunner to NOAA’s National Weather Service) didn’t want to cause a panic by issuing tornado alerts or ordering Civil Defense to sound the air raid sirens. Needless to say, at that time the technology for storm predictions was still in its infancy.
The First Severe Weather Bulletin
The first public tornado alert – or rather, a “severe weather bulletin” – was issued by the Weather Bureau in Washington, DC on March 21st, 1952. This alert was issued regarding a deadly tornado system which struck several states in the south-central US. Sadly enough, this alert wasn’t widely distributed and 150 people were killed by deadly tornadoes. After this tragedy – as well as the deadly tornado outbreak of 1953 (which remains one of the deadliest on record) , calls for a tornado warning system grew from the public and, eventually from Congress. The FCC
ban on broadcast warnings continued until the ban was finally lifted in 1954.
However, issuing an accurate alert would be challenging. The technology we use today just wasn’t in existence or was mature enough to accurately predict severe weather in the early 1950s. At that time, weather data was gathered mainly by releasing weather balloons into the atmosphere that contained radio sensors which reported back to the Weather Bureau information about temperature, atmospheric conditions, humidity, and other basic data. Storm systems were tracked manually using a tracking map with penciled triangles which identified a potentially severe system.
The very first televised warning was issued by WKY-TV’s (now Oklahoma City’s NBC affiliate KFOR) chief meteorologist Harry Volkman, who believed that broadcast warnings desperately needed to be issued over TV and radio to warn the public of severe weather. This warning was an unauthorized rebroadcast of a warning issued by Tinker AFB about a tornado that was headed straight for OKC. After broadcasting the warning (with the blessings of station management), WKY received letters of thanks from people all over the area for giving them a heads-up of the impending tornado and saving their lives. WKY remained at the forefront of storm forecasting in OK throughout the 1950s with their own radar forecasts, which a great deal of TV stations
in OK – or anywhere else in the US for that matter – just didn’t have at the time.
The Emergence of Weather Radars
Throughout the rest of the 1950s and 1960s, the weather radars we know and rely on for predicting tornadic activity began to emerge. Throughout the 1950s, the Weather Bureau began deploying radar systems for detecting severe storms. These radar systems – combined with aircraft observations – could instantly report back any storm systems with the potential for tornadic activity. However, unlike the radars of today which gather detailed information about a weather system, they were World War II-era military radars which only detected a wispy cloud and other basic shapes that indicated a tornado was on the way. They were incapable of reporting detailed information about a storm system like the radars of today.
During the 1990s, weather forecasting started reaching new horizons thanks to a number of different factors. One of these big factors was the advent of the Internet. With the Internet, tornado warnings could be delivered in an instant through websites and e-mail, reaching people who may not have their TVs or radios on. Also with the emergence of the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) into the Emergency Alert System (EAS) in 1997/98, tornado warnings could now be delivered over electronic devices such as pagers and fax machines.
The 1990s is also the decade when advanced S-band Doppler radars, or Nexrad radars, became the norm for weather broadcasters. Most TV stations started using Nexrad during this time to accurately pinpoint the location of a storm system capable of producing tornadoes and where a tornado might strike, giving viewers advanced warning so they could run for a shelter well in advance. Unlike the older generations of radars, Nexrad radars are also capable of measuring windspeed, precipitation, and atmospheric activity.
Finally, the 1980s and 1990s were the decades when storm chasing started growing in popularity. Storm chasers have proven decisive in providing meteorologists with on-the-ground data from a tornado touchdown and conditions in a tornado or tornadic storm cell. During the week-long tornado outbreak in Oklahoma in May 1999, storm chasers were active across the state, providing much-needed weather reports to meteorologists and helping them to give timely tornado warnings to the public. The Center for Severe Weather Research’s fleet of radar trucks known as Doppler on Wheels recorded the highest wind speeds ever recorded at that time when a massive F5 tornado touched down at Bridge Creek, OK on the 3rd of May.
Severe Weather and the Internet and Social Media Age
The Internet revolution of the ’90s continued through the 2000s and with it the mediums through which weather forecasters issued weather alerts. When social media such as Facebook and Twitter started to explode in popularity, broadcast stations and TV networks were quick to seize the opportunity to reach more viewers and quickly alert anyone who signed up to their Facebook group or Twitter account of any impending storm activity. Likewise, anyone signed up to these groups could post pictures of tornado damage or of the tornadoes themselves.
The power of social media sites was fully demonstrated on May 22nd, 2011 when a super-tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri. Within a matter of hours after the tornado struck, pages such as Joplin Tornado Info and Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery were created that relayed weather info, special statmements from state and disaster officials, and helped pass on information about missing relatives to family members. In the weeks and months after the disaster, these sites and others helped organize efforts to rebuild Joplin and reunited missing pets with their families. At the time of this writing, those Facebook pages are still in existence and are still helping to organize efforts to rebuild what still remains to be rebuilt in the city. Also, they are returning the favors to other communities (esp. in the Joplin/Kansas City area) that have been hit by tornadoes or other weather disasters by passing on severe storm warnings and helping them rebuild after a tornado strikes.One group of people who have saved countless lives and helped meteorologists track storms are the volunteer storm spotters of networks such as Skywarn in the US and Canwarn in Canada. These folks have contributed their time and hard work over the past few decades to provide valuable information about weather conditions and anomalies in their particular locations that just might be missed by radar and satellites, such as funnel clouds, lightning strikes, and rotating wall clouds that can produce tornadoes. Much of this information has helped meteorologists issue warning predictions for a particular town or community.The way meteorologists alert the public has definitely come a long way from the days of the 1950s “tornado alerts” and we now have more ways than ever to stay safe from these deadly vortexes. But what will be the next big breakthrough in weather forecasting and mass communication that will keeps us better informed of tornado watches and warnings? We’ll just have to wait and see.
*Please note that I’m not a meteorology expert. I’m just a blogger with a strong interest in this subject! If you note any mistakes in this blog entry or have any personal memories about this period you’d like to share, please share them with us in the Comment section below. Any reminiscences about weather forecasting or broadcasting in general back in the day would be greatly appreciated!
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tornado_warning (Wikipedia entry on tornado warnings.)
- http://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/tornado_forecasting/#intro (NOAA’s 200-year anniversary site on the history of tornado forecasting.)
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KFOR-TV (KFOR-TV Wikipedia entry.)
- http://www.retrometrookc.org/wky-tv-collection (History of WKY in the 1950s and 60s.)
- http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/about/history/ (The history of the National Severe Storms Laboratory [NSSL] from NOAA.)
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkWmNamVS2Q (A rare clip of WHIO’s coverage of the massive tornado which struck Xenia, OH on April 3rd, 1974. Features the late, renowned WHIO meteorologist Gil Whitney. This seems to be one of the few clips available of live tornado warnings or radar coverage from that day. The studio part of this clip is apparently a remake made for a documentary about the Super Outbreak of ’74 some four years later.)
- http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/science/31tornado.html?pagewanted=all (A very interesting article from the New York Times about the history of severe weather prediction from the 1950s up to the Joplin super-tornado of 2011….and how much progress has yet to be made in the area of predicting severe weather.)
- http://www.ustornadoes.com/2013/04/03/looking-back-at-the-april-3-4-1974-super-outbreak/ (An interesting discussion about the Super Outbreak of 1974 on the United States Tornadoes website. Includes comments from people who worked in the broadcast and weather forecasting industry at the time.)
(All images are public domain images used courtesy of NOAA and the NOAA Photo Library via Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise specified. This blog post was originally published on 12 Sept. 2014 at the now-defunct Contemporary Night Owl website and blog.)