“Without Warning” and Other Sociological Kerfuffles That Come With Tornadoes

It’s been a little more than a week since the EF-5 tornado devastated the town of Moore, Oklahoma.

There is still a news element reporting that such storms strike “without warning,” even though the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a second Tornado Warning 16 minutes before impacting Moore.

However, Matt Lanza, a meteorologist friend in Texas, reminds us from Twitter:

Anytime someone’s life is torn apart in 30 seconds, yes, that is “without warning.” Psychologically, that’s unexpected and a surprise.

True enough.  But, in an industry that still works to gain respect in the eyes of the public, I will admit, to hear without warning is like nails on a chalkboard.  Another meteorologist friend, Patrick Powell in Green Bay, gets credit for standing up and tweeting:

If someone says the Tornado ‘struck without warning‘, they are lying or just ignorant. About a 30 minute lead.

Powell refers to the time when the original Tornado Warning went out at 2:40pm CT.  The tornado had not reached the ground at that time, but the radar signature was compelling, so a Tornado Warning was issued from the NWS office in Norman at that time.

The Warning was then reissued at 3:01pm CT with the additional wording:


The Doppler radar image below shows the wind velocity just as the tornado was moving eastward into Moore. Note the timestamp is in Eastern Time, so this was taken at 3:16pm CT.  The deep blue pixels next to the whitish-red pixels indicate a circulation of approximately 200mph.


This gives at least a 14 minute lead time based on the second warning.  That second warning has become known as a Tornado Emergency, due to the beefed up wording in the text of the warning.

Unfortunately, there is always someone who does not get the warning.  And that person usually seems to find his way on television.

Consider the tweet from CNN International:

US: Survivor: ‘I had no idea it was coming‘ 

Andrew Freedman, Senior Science Writer for Climate Central reacts:

WHAT!? Moore had AT LEAST 16 min warning

So as the old movie quote goes, “What we have here is… failure to communicate.”

The Warning protocols and the infrastructure put in place by the NWS worked as designed. Meteorologist Mike Smith, lays out the case effectively in his blog shortly afterward.

* * *

So this sets us up for a tough question.  How much responsibility does an individual have to get the warning? Of course, television will always cover a Tornado Warning, but you would have to be near a television to follow along with the storm’s path, and you will probably leave the television when the time comes to take shelter.  Plus, the television does not automatically turn on once a Tornado Warning is issued.

A weather radio is inexpensive and alerts for all Tornado Warnings in its area.  There are also several smart phone apps which can use GPS to follow you and alert you if you are in a Tornado Warning area.

To be sure, the false alarm rates are still too high with regard to Tornado Warnings, which is a technology problem.  That is getting better, however, with the recent advances in weather radar.  These dual-polarization radars are better at picking up debris fields lifted up by tornadoes, providing better evidence that a tornado is on the ground.

I have dealt with false alarms too. My family has taken shelter three times in nine years at my current residence.  My home still stands.  I’m not upset.

There will always be limits in the accuracy of Tornado Warnings. Radar scans are made every six minutes.  The video verifies, a tornado can go from a weak rope circulation to a violent and devastating wedge in three minutes.

Perhaps the Without warning meme sits better because it makes the tornado seem like a more brutal adversary. Without warning makes it appear that there was nothing the individual could have done.  Without warning perpetuates a stereotype that these things are impossible to forecast.  Without warning absolves an individual the responsibility of finding out about the warning.  Nate Johnson, a meteorologist in Raleigh makes a similar case during the netcast, WeatherBrains, which aired a few hours after the tornado struck.

Imagine a television reporter interviewing a person who has just lost everything and tearfully states, “I didn’t have any idea it was coming.”

Then, imagine the awkward situation when that reporter tells the individual, as tactfully as possible, “There was actually a Tornado Warning issued 15 minutes before the tornado hit.”

That reporter would be publicly flogged.  How dare they pick on this poor person who lost everything!  Tornadoes are unpredictable!  It’s not his fault a tornado blew away his house!  No one deserves this!

Correct. No one deserves this. Don’t be that person. Check the weather once or twice every day. Find a way to get the warnings. Have a plan and be ready to use it. Get out of harm’s way.

I teach a class every other semester at Lynchburg College.  We had a quickly developing snowfall one Wednesday morning this past winter.  As the snow fell, I looked at the class and asked if anyone was surprised at the snow.

Only one hand went up. I asked that student if he had checked the forecast the previous day, and he told me, “No.”

* * *

When I visit elementary schools and talk about tornado safety, I tell them that the rules come from 2 basic ideas:

Get as low as you can… underground is best, and put as many walls between you and the outside as possible. Dr. Harold Brooks from the National Severe Storms Lab agrees.

* * *

Now, the other tempest in a tea pot.

I like Bill Nye The Science Guy.  He is a great science ambassador to kids.  The bow tie. The lab coast.  Nye is a mechanical engineer and a sharp fellow.  I admire and applaud his dedication to science literacy.

There are numerous climatologists and meteorologists who can speak to the point of extreme weather and climate change.  These are people who have studied it extensively, have real experience discussing it in public forums, and know how to address a camera.

Nye tweeted shortly after the tornado struck:

Back to CNN midnight @PiersMorganLive. Tornado 2 miles wide. More energy in the atmosphere- means more trouble.

This is sloppy.  No scientific link has been established between a warming planet and increased tornadoes.  Andrew Freedman of Climate Central addresses the science of this relationship eloquently.

Yes, there is more energy in the planetary system in a warming world.  But, the preliminary studies suggest that the wind shear required to produce the spin that causes tornadoes will decrease on a warming plant.

Climate science already has enough trouble being accepted by a scientifically illiterate American Public. Nye speaking off the cuff because he is publicly recognized as a scientist does nothing to help matters.  Quite the opposite.

So why in the world is Bill Nye talking about meteorology anyway?  Is the CNN producer just that lazy?  Or is it that Nye’s stereotypical bow tie and lab coat make him great for television?

Do better. Get Kerry Emmanuel, Paul Douglas, Heidi Cullen, or Marshall Shepherd.  

You want a character? Go get Chuck Doswell.

About seansublette

Meteorologist at Climate Central. Broadcast meteorologist in Virginia from 1995 to 2015. Born and raised in Richmond, VA. Penn State alumnus. Loves baseball and the rock band Rush. Views are independent of my employer. Past performance does not guarantee future results.
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2 Responses to “Without Warning” and Other Sociological Kerfuffles That Come With Tornadoes

  1. Does the author of this page live in the usa? Is there any way to
    find the snail mail address so that we could be in contact?

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