Scientists explore changes to tornado warnings

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak of 1965 was particularly deadly because of miscommunication.

Though scientists were confident severe weather would occur that day, the message never got out. More than 200 people died as a result of the outbreak and the floundered severe weather message.

The terms “Tornado Watch” and “Tornado Warning” were coined as a result of the outbreak on April 11, 1965.

RECENT RADAR UPGRADES

  • Radars have changed the way they scan the skies to better spot small tornadoes. Now when a storm is near, a radar is programmed to scan the base of a storm more frequently. This could help spot quick-starting tornadoes, like the one that rolled through Kentwood in 2014 un-warned.
  • National Weather Service radars are all now “Dual-Pol,” which means they send out horizontal and vertically propagating microwaves. This helps meteorologists identify the size and shape of particles in the sky, which means the radar can identify debris from tornadoes on the ground. This tool tells meteorologists a storm is doing damage, and gives them confirmation to pull out all the stops to convey danger. It is especially useful at night or if a storm is rain-wrapped, when it can be hard for spotters to confirm a tornado is on the ground.

THE FUTURE OF TORNADO WARNINGS

“We have a system that is in place today that’s not perfect but really the envy of the world,” Storm Prediction Center Branch Manager Bill Bunting said.

The tornado warning system is good, but meteorologists and social scientists are striving to make it better. As technology improves, there needs to be a new way to convey danger, instead of blanket warnings over towns that may never be affected.

“Let’s say instead of calling it a warning, let’s say down the road we’re able to tell people two hours in advance that a tornado might be possible in their city,” Bunting said.

Scientists are playing around with ideas like a “hazard meter,” which beeps and changes color depending on how close a dangerous storm is to your location. The end goal is to improve awareness and accuracy and reduce false alarm rates.

“We have a good system. We need to make it better,” Bunting said. “Being able to issue hours in advance instead of minutes. I think the public wants that and as a science, we owe it to them.”

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