Prior to 1950 meteorologists knew so little about tornadoes that they were sometimes forbidden from using the term in forecasts. They figured it would've caused needless panic more than actually saving lives. But things have changed. Today, people often know a few days in advance that severe weather is possible, and they almost always have enough warning to take shelter when a tornado strikes. Paying attention to these warnings is a crucial part of tornado survival.
To put modern forecasting in perspective, let's take a look at how far it's come. The first documented, accurate tornado forecast happened in central Oklahoma on March 25, 1948. It was essentially based on the simple observation that weather patterns were similar to those that produced a tornado several days before. But it took a while to see improvements; warnings in the 1950s and '60s often came just seconds before a twister hit [source: Galvin]. By the 1980s, however, radar technology allowed meteorologists to see conditions inside the storms, increasing warning time to five minutes. Additional radar advances in 1993 nearly doubled that lead time, and today warnings can give people 15 minutes or more to prepare [source: Howard]. That may not sound like very long, but it certainly gives you a lot more options than a few seconds would!
Of course, forecasting still isn't perfect, and sometimes meteorologists can be wrong. But choosing to ignore warnings just because they aren't always right is asking for trouble. When it comes to tornado forecasts, don't take them for granted — take shelter!
Author's Note: 10 Myths About Surviving a Tornado
Tornadoes are serious business: I know firsthand from my 21 years living in the Southeast. Almost every spring and summer I'd spend a few afternoons or evenings huddled in a hallway or closet while the weather radio blasted the latest warnings. That voice — somewhere between computer and human — became synonymous with the fearful uncertainty that filled the space between the initial alert and the "all clear." Now I've moved to the Rocky Mountain region, and while I know from writing this article that I'm not completely in the clear, I haven't been spending nearly as much time in a hall or closet. That's something I'm certainly glad to have left behind.
More Great Links
- Arizona State University. "Global Weather and Climate Extremes." 2015. (Feb. 22, 2015) http://wmo.asu.edu/world-lowest-sea-level-air-pressure-excluding-tornadoes
- Associated Press. "1979 Texas Tornado Led to Safety Changes." USA Today. April 9, 2004. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/weather/resources/safety/2004-04-09-wichita-falls-tornado_x.htm
- Associated Press. "Don't Listen to Superman: Overpass Unsafe During Tornado." The Topeka Capital-Journal. July 1, 2013. (Feb. 23, 2015) http://cjonline.com/news/2013-07-01/dont-listen-superman-overpass-unsafe-during-tornado
- Associated Press. "Joplin Home Depot Building Design Under Scrutiny." Missourian. June 20, 2013. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.emissourian.com/news/state/article_8c5b4d16-a0f5-11e0-ba32-001cc4c03286.html
- Associated Press. "Tornado Season is Here: Don't Try to Run Away From a Twister." Los Angeles Times. May 15, 1988. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://articles.latimes.com/1988-05-15/news/mn-4172_1_tornado-season
- Blair, Scott et al. "In Situ Observations of the 21 April 2007 Tulia, Texas Tornado." Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology. 2008. (Feb. 25, 2015) http://www.ejssm.org/ojs/index.php/ejssm/article/view/39
- Brown, Shelby and Jerrita Patterson. "When Tornadoes Threaten, Here is EXACTLY What to Do." CBS 6. April 29, 2014. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://wtvr.com/2014/04/29/powerful-images-tell-of-mother-natures-brute-force/
- Drye, Willie. "Winter Tornadoes can be Faster, Deadlier, Experts Say." National Geographic News. Feb. 6, 2008. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/02/080206-winter-tornadoes.html
- Edwards, Roger. "The Online Tornado FAQ." Storm Prediction Center. Nov. 19, 2010. (Feb. 24, 2015) http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/stlt_tor.html
- Edwards, Roger. "The Online Tornado FAQ: Tornado Forecasting." Storm Prediction Center. Nov. 19, 2010. (Feb. 27, 2015) http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/#Forecasting
- Egan, Eric. "High-elevation Tornadoes Unusual, Not Rare in Colorado." 9 News. June 9, 2014. (Feb. 25, 2015) http://www.9news.com/story/news/local/2014/06/09/high-elevation-tornadoes-rare-in-colorado/10255443/
- Erdman, Jon. "Tornadoes in February: Yes, They Happen. Don't Underestimate the Threat." The Weather Channel. Feb. 19, 2014. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.weather.com/storms/tornado/news/tornadoes-february-20140219
- Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Tornado Protection: Selecting Refuge Areas in Buildings." October 2009. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1456-20490-4099/fema_p_431.pdf
- Finley, John P. "Tornadoes. What They Are and How to Observe Them; With Practical Suggestions for the Protection of Life and Property." The Insurance Monitor. 1887. (Feb. 25, 2015) http://www.lib.noaa.gov/noaainfo/heritage/tornado.html
- Fujita, T. Theodore. "The Teton-Yellowstone Tornado of 21 July 1987." Monthly Weather Review. September 1989. (Feb. 25, 2015) http://www.jhfire-ems.org/em/docs/nws_pamphlets/ams_teton_tornado_paper.pdf
- Galvin, John. "The Past and Future of Tornado Prediction." Popular Mechanics. May 22, 2013 (Feb. 27, 2015) http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a12371/the-past-and-future-of-tornado-prediction-15502769/
- Hoekstra, Stephanie et al. "A Social Perspective of Warn on Forecast: Ideal Tornado Warning Lead Time and the General Public's Perceptions of Weather Risks." Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms – University of Oklahoma. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.caps.ou.edu/reu/reu09/papers/Hoekstra.pdf
- Hoffman, Rebecca Lynn. "To the Southwest Corner: Tornado Myths and Socio-Demographic Vulnerability." Kent State University. May 2013. (Feb. 25, 2015) https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=kent1366627060
- Howard, Brian Clark. "How Scientists Hope to Improve Tornado Forecasting." National Geographic. April 28, 2014. (Feb. 27, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/04/140428-tornado-prediction-warn-on-forecast-science/
- Keim, Brandon. "Urban Sprawl, Climate Change Fueled Atlanta Tornado." Wired. March 13, 2009. (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.wired.com/2009/03/urbanstorm/
- Linkin, Megan et al. "Modeling for a Complex and Growing Peril." Swiss Reinsurance Company. 2014. (Feb. 23, 3015) http://media.swissre.com/documents/2014_us_tornadoes.pdf
- Miller, Daniel J. et al. "Highway Overpasses as Tornado Shelters: Fallout from the 3 May 1999 Oklahoma/Kansas Violent Tornado Outbreak." National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office. October 1999. (Feb. 23, 2015) http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/?n=safety-overpass-slide01
- Monteverdi, John P. et al. "An Analysis of the 7 July 2004 Rockwell Pass, California Tornado: Highest-Elevation Tornado Documented in the United States." Monthly Weather Review. November 2014. (Feb. 25, 2015) http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/full/10.1175/MWR-D-14-00222.1
- Murphy, Kevin. "Tornado Shelters Advised in Retail 'Big Box' Stores." Reuters. June 10, 2011. (Feb. 25, 2015) http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/10/us-tornado-bigbox-missouri-idUSTRE7596TD20110610
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Mobile Homes and Vehicles Deadly in Tornadoes." March 5, 2003. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories/s1105.htm
- National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office. "Joplin Tornado Event Summary." (Feb. 26, 2015) http://www.crh.noaa.gov/sgf/?n=event_2011may22_summary
- National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office. "Wisconsin Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness: Part 4 – Tornado Myths." March 26, 2014. (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.crh.noaa.gov/mkx/?n=taw-part2-tornado_myths
- Prociv, Kathryn. "Tornadoes Don't Happen in Mountains. Or Do They? Debunking the Myth." United States Tornadoes. March 14, 2013. (Feb. 25, 2015) http://www.ustornadoes.com/2013/03/14/tornadoes-dont-happen-in-mountains-or-do-they-debunking-the-myth/
- Rosen, Rebecca J. "Why Does It Seem Like Small Towns Always Get the Worst of Tornado Season?" The Atlantic. May 21, 2013. (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/why-does-it-seem-like-small-towns-always-get-the-worst-of-tornado-season/276071/
- Ryan, Bob. "Answers Archive: Tornado Safety." USA Today. Jan. 1, 2006. (Feb. 26, 2015) http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/weather/resources/askjack/watorsaf.htm
- Sewich, Chad and Nick Storm. "Why are Mobile Homes so Dangerous?" 14 News. Feb. 26, 2008. (Feb. 25, 2015) http://www.14news.com/story/7895169/why-are-mobile-homes-so-dangerous
- Walker, Ashley S. et al. "Vulnerability Due to Nocturnal Tornadoes." Weather & Forecasting. October 2008. Vol. 23. Issue 5. Pages 795-807.
The Carr fire is California sixth-largest in its history. HowStuffWorks talks experts about how it got out of control, and how they're putting it out.