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O'Donnell Presents Topic of Tornado Warnings at Senior Seminar

Monday, December 7, 2015

Mike O'Donnell gave his senior seminar presentation in Lindley Hall yesterday on the topic,  "Past, Present and Future Impacts of Tornado Warnings in the United States."  The presentation was attended by faculty members David Braaten, David Rahn, and David Mechem as well as other students and staff.

The topic included four sections; the history of tornado warnings, current detection systems, the future of United States tornado warnings, and concluding remarks.  The early history of tornado warnings began in the early 1880's with the first warning system consisting of some telegraph wire strung between poles on the edge of town and a cannon that would fire if the wire broke.  This particular method lead to unnecessary panic among the populace and this system lead to a ban on tornado warnings until 1938.

The modern era of tornado warnings began in March of 1948 when Tinker Air Force Base was struck by two tornadoes, March 20th and March 25th respectively, in Oklahoma City.  The radar systems that had originated with the military were expanded for use with the civilian population by using those systems for weather forecasting and tornado prediction.  The first modern tornado forecast was issued on July 12, 1950.

Tornado warning systems began to get more sophisticated with each passing year and the first iconic tornado signature the "hook echo" was seen on radar in the early 50's. The NOAA National Weather Service began to issue tornado warnings in 1950 and had established a tornado warning network by 1953.

The Palm Sunday Outbreak on April 11, 1965 was one the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history.  It hit several Midwestern states and left more than 250 people dead and caused nearly half a billion dollars in damage.  Following the outbreak the National Weather Service (NWS) underwent many changes that remain in place today, including improvements in severe weather forecasts and warnings and instituting a nationwide spotter program called, "SKYWARN."

In the 1950s and 1960s radio and televison began to work in concert with the NWS to disseminate tornado warnings to both listeners and viewers alike.  The Doppler Radar was first built in 1956 and rolled out in 1964 using pulses to not only detect high wind speeds in tornadoes but determine the distance to the tornado.

The first tornado siren specifically utilized for the purpose of tornado warnings was put in use in 1970.  Former air raid sirens were also re-purposed with the intent of warning the civilian population when there was a tornado identified in the county.

For several years tornado warnings were issued for very broad areas and citizens began to ignore some of the information because of the "crying wolf" phenomenon.  It became clear that it was necessary to narrow down the scope of the tornado warned areas.  On October 1, 2007 the NWS rolled out Storm-Based Warnings which used threat-based polygon warnings for specific meteorological threat areas unrestricted by geopolitical boundaries, such as counties.

Newer and better warning systems continue to be developed, often now focusing on early storm formation by studying pre-storm and post-storm environments.  Narrowing down the warned areas will also continue to help with citizen focus and awareness of tornado watches and warnings in their area.

O'Donnell's presentation was educational, informative, and entertaining to all attendees.  The subject matter was of great interest to many people both inside and outside the Department of Geography and Atmospheric Science.



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