National Weather Service Versus Tornadoes: Playing Defense

You don't want to be issuing [a tornado warning] on every one of those little circulations...because you are going to be alerting upwards of a million people in the middle of the night. 

         -- Julie Adolphson, meteorologist-in-charge, National Weather Service, Kansas City 

In 2010, when my book Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather was published, the United States had an excellent tornado warning system. Near the end of the book I wrote:

From that inauspicious beginning involving spare World War II leftovers, we have developed an effective and highly cost-effective systems that saves lives and dollars, nearly every week. Here's to the first fifty years of storm warnings. May the next fifty be just as rewarding. 

Unfortunately, things have deteriorated in ways I never would have imagined in 2010.

Joplin Tornado. Photo by the Basehunters.

The next year the Joplin Tornado occurred. It was, by far, the worst disaster of the tornado warning era. One hundred sixty-one died in part because the local office of the National Weather Service (NWS) told the the people of Joplin -- multiple times -- the tornado would go north of the city. Residents were unprepared when the exceptionally violent tornado struck. The after-storm "service assessment" (where the NWS investigates itself) was either incompetent or a coverup. 

Since Joplin, the accuracy of tornado warnings has plummeted as the NWS seems to have lost confidence in that part of its mission. Before Joplin, the NWS "played offense," by doing its best to insure there was an advance warning before every significant tornado. Now, it is "playing defense," -- trying to avoid false alarms at all costs in spite of the potential for loss of life. 

Hook echo (obvious tornado presentation) on Gaylord, MI radar
sixteen minutes before tornado struck. The storm is unwarned
at this time. 

The National Weather Service falls under the U.S. Department of Commerce. From Commerce's own web site
  • "Lead-time" is the amount of time to take shelter. It is measured from when the warning is issued to when the tornado touches down. From fiscal year (FY) 2005-2011, the average lead-time was 13.3 minutes. From 2012 to 2020 (latest year available) the lead-time had dropped to just 8.4 minutes. 
  • From FY 2007-2011, the accuracy of tornado warnings (probability of a warning being issued before a tornado develops) was 72 percent. From 2012 to 2021, the accuracy was down to 60.9%, a drop of 19 percent. 
  • The NWS sets accuracy goals for its tornado warnings. In 2007, the goal was 76 percent. In 2012, the agency dropped its goal to 72 percent, where it has stayed. In spite of that lowered goal, the Department of Commerce describes the its success at attaining the goal as, "not met,""not met,""not met,""not met,""not met,""not met,""not met,""not met," and "not met." The goal hasn't been met a single time in nine years! 
National Weather Service's map of the path of the June 8 south Kansas City Tornado.
I highlighted the unwarned portion of the path. 
So, it is not surprising when, 
  • There was no advance notice (zero lead time) for the EF-3 intensity Wichita-Andover Tornado on April 29.
  • When the meteorologically obvious Gaylord Tornado occurred on May 20, the lead time was just seven minutes. Two people died and 44 were injured in this EF-3 intensity storm. 
  • When a tornado cut through densely populated south Kansas City at 1:10am on June 8, the lead-time was minus eleven minutes even though the Doppler radar displayed both rotation in the storm and lofted debris from the time the tornado touched down. 
1:19am Kansas City NWS radar display showing tornado lofted debris over
the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park. The tornado was still unwarned at this point.

Why has the NWS's tornado warning system declined so precipitously in a decade? Here are my suppositions:
  • Retirements. My generation of meteorologists, who learned to warn of tornadoes based on hook echoes, right-moving thunderstorms, et cetera, is gone. That background and experience is very useful. Part of that loss could be made up with excellent,
  • Training. Since I last wrote on this topic, a friend passed along links to the NWS's radar and tornado warning training. In my opinion, it is quite deficient in basics while overly complicated when it comes to real-time techniques. 
  • Fear of False Alarms (covered above).
There is more: Since Joplin, there are other issues (but I won't go into here) including the complexity that has been introduced into tornado warnings, the embedding of National Weather Service meteorologists into commercial events (think NASCAR races) in a form of corporate welfare -- when it should be focused on its core mission -- and that its aging technology frequently fails. For example, the first of its Doppler radars was installed thirty years ago -- with no plan to replace them. 

When I wrote Warnings, I was proud of the accomplishments of the NWS and wrote the book accordingly. Then-director of the NWS, Jack Hayes, invited me to its Washington headquarters where the book -- the first to tell the story of the storm warning system -- was celebrated by all concerned, including the head of the NWS's employees' union. 

Unfortunately, I could not write the book in the same way today. 

I wish to close with some good news. Ken Graham, who came up through the NWS's ranks, was appointed director of the NWS last week. He is the first director with this important experience since the 1950's. I believe Ken has what is needed to fix the agency's myriad issues provided he gets the support of NOAA, Congress and the Biden Administration. This is far from certain as the head of NOAA and senior NOAA management has no background in atmospheric science and major changes are needed. 

If you are concerned about a tornado striking without warning, please consider emailing your congressional delegation and President Biden. I'll keep praising the NWS when it does well and let you know when there are issues. 

This and all content: © 2022 Mike Smith Enterprises LLC


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