Thursday, March 24, 2022

50th Anniversary of "Tornado Chasing"

March, 2022, is the 50th Anniversary of Tornado Chasing 

OU's Felgar Hall where the meteorology department was located

While an amateur meteorologist named Dave Hoadley had storm chased since the 1950's, the scientific storm chasing program began in March, 1972. While I don't remember the date, the meeting of the University of Oklahoma Student Chapter of the American Meteorological Society that month featured speakers Dr.s Joe Golden (NSSL) and Bruce Morgan (Notre Dame). They proposed that students chase tornadoes -- for science. 

One of NSSL's two original Doppler radars, 1972

Certainly it wasn't for money! The National Severe Storms Laboratory wanted us to chase all over Oklahoma so as to determine the value of its Doppler radars but they didn't even give us gas money. We were needed to confirm ("ground truth") what the Dopplers were seeing. It was our work that would determine whether Doppler -- far more expensive than traditional weather radar -- was actually a step forward and worth eventually deploying across the nation. 

While we spent a lot of time chasing blue skies that first spring, we hit the jackpot the next year.

Two chase teams intercepted the Union City tornado in May of 1973 which happened to be in the viewing range of both Dopplers. Some of the things they -- along with radar meteorologists Don Burgess and Les Lemon using the Doppler's data -- discovered are still in use today. 

Chickasha, OK, June 4, 1973. The lowering was rapidly spinning. 
Large hail was falling with almost no rain.

In June of 1974, Kathleen and I documented a "low precipitation" supercell for the first time. These storms produce large hail, occasional tornadoes, and very little rain. They can be misleading on radar because they are so unimpressive. 

These were just the first two of numerous scientific papers resulting from storm chasing (over time, the word "storm" replaced "tornado"). Just two days ago, storm chasers were roaming the Southeast as a meteorology field project was researching tornadoes. 

Tornado and thunderstorm science have advanced far more rapidly that it would have if storm chasing had not existed. The improved science directly resulted in better life-saving tornado warnings.

In 1972, we never, ever would have dreamed a storm tourism industry would develop. Of course, it was given a huge boost by the movie Twister. 

So, here's to all of the responsible chasers who have significantly added to the science, called in real-time storm reports that have helped save lives, and to all of the fun people from around the world have had experiencing America's unique storms. 

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