Friday, February 24, 2012

Worst Science Story of the Week

Worst Headline: "Tornado Forecasting Eludes Weather Scientists" in my hometown paper, The Wichita Eagle. 

The headline was attached to the worst story science story of the week written by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. The story was printed in many newspapers across the United States, including the Tulsa World, Miami Herald, and others. 

Let me state -- again -- on this blog how wrong this story is: Of the 551 people killed by tornadoes in 2011, more than 99% were located in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning at the time the storm arrived! 

Mr. Borenstein cites Joplin. Here is the forecast of the Joplin tornado in the form of the tornado watch:

The watch was issued at 1:30pm, 4 hours and 11 minutes before the tornado reached Joplin! The watch (a forecast) further says there is a "high" probability of tornadoes and a "moderate" probability of a tornado of F-2 intensity or greater.

Did things go wrong later that afternoon in Joplin? Yes. Are there still further improvements to be made to the warning system? Yes, to that, too. The warning system is hardly perfect. But, to trash the science that got the major tornadoes right 99% of the time is ridiculous. This type of ignorant reporting ( "Tornado Forecasting Eludes Weather Scientists") does nothing but discourage people from taking warnings seriously -- and that is dangerous

Because of stories defending the protagonist in Fakegate, there were many worthy contenders. Still, I hereby nominate Mr. Borenstein for the Dianne Sawyer Award for inaccurate reporting about weather and storms. 


  1. While I agree that tornado forecasting has never been better, the bigger question is what percentage of tornado warnings in 2011 resulted in zero deaths? The problem is that the public doesn't pay attention.....far too many Warnings where NOTHING happens. I know you've covered this topic extensively, but it's still an obstacle the science of meteorology must overcome.

  2. People who live in Tornado alley KNOW, you dont mess around when a warning is announced; unless you're tired of living...

  3. "The watch (a forecast) further states that there is a 'high' probability of tornadoes"

    If I remember correctly, tornado watches were originally called "Severe Weather Forecasts" back in the 1950s and early 60s when they were first used. The switch to the current "watch" and "warning" terminology occurred after the 1965 Palm Sunday outbreak -- another event that led to a lot of reflection on "what went wrong."

  4. You are correct. Thanks for the comment!

  5. You are correct, there are too many false alarms. I point that out in my book, "Warnings" and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is ridiculous to claim that tornado forecasting "eludes" us. While it is not perfect, it is one of the best of the predictive sciences. That is where a valid comparison can be made.

    Thanks for the comment.

  6. Also, if you count other Storm Prediction Center products as "forecasts," a convective outlook indicating significantly elevated risk of tornadoes (10% hatched area with possibility of strong or violent tornadoes) went up around 8 a.m. (almost 10 hours ahead of time). And a Public Severe Weather Outlook -- which SPC issues specifically to call attention to potentially damaging or life-threatening weather conditions -- went up at 11:26 a.m. (6 hours ahead of time) that named SW Mo. as an area at risk:

    Both these products, by the way, also mentioned a severe weather/tornado risk for other areas that experienced tornadoes that day, including MN, WI and northern IL.

  7. And don't forget this wording in the Public Severe Weather Outlook: "The greatest severe threat should exist during the mid to late afternoon into this evening over parts of the mid and upper Mississippi Valleys SOUTHWESTWARD TO THE OZARK PLATEAU." (emphasis mine)

  8. No question. This story is so bad that I'm shocked AP even moved it, let alone local papers printing it. Whatever happened to editors and fact-checking?!


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