How 2 Tornadoes Helped Initiate Severe Weather Forecasting in the U.S. (Credit: The Weather Channel)
DISCUSSION: In the early 20th century, official tornado warnings were not allowed in the U.S. because the Weather Bureau (precursor to today’s National Weather Service) didn’t want to cause panic based on low-confidence forecasts (given our limited understanding of tornadoes). However, two tornadoes struck Tinker Air Force Base (AFB) in Oklahoma in March 1948 while two prominent Air Force meteorologists (Major Ernest Fawbush and Captain Robert Miller; pictured above) were stationed there that would begin to change that.
Initially, there was no mention of thunderstorms in the forecast for the evening of 20 March 1948. Later that evening, reports came in of a tornado that had damaged an airport to the southwest of Tinker AFB and was moving to the northeast toward Tinker. Unfortunately, those reports came in too late to warn and prepare the AFB. The result was $10 million in damages including the destruction of 52 aircraft.
After this event, a study was put together to determine if better severe storm forecasts could be issued to prevent such damage in the future. Fawbush and Miller identified several large-scale conditions that tended to precede the formation of tornadoes and observed these conditions form again five days later on 25 March. The two base meteorologists decided to issue a forecast similar to today’s tornado watch. This forecast was a success when a second tornado in five days struck Tinker. This tornado still caused $6 million in damage, but there were no injuries likely due to the base preparations that were enacted after the forecast was issued.
According to information from Tinker AFB, 89% of the tornado forecasts issued by Fawbush and Miller verified, which is pretty incredible given the rudimentary observing system and infancy of severe weather science at that time relative to today’s tools and understanding. This success led to the development of the Severe Weather Unit of the Weather Bureau in 1952 which is the precursor to today’s Storm Prediction Center.
Essentially, two tornadoes that occurred in 1948 prompted two Air Force meteorologists to study the conditions under which tornadoes form and issue the first official tornado forecast. This successful forecast and subsequent successful ones helped spawn the severe weather forecasting enterprise that currently exists in the U.S. and which has undoubtedly helped save countless lives.
To learn more about other past historic weather and science events from around the world, be sure to click here!
©2019 Meteorologist Dr. Ken Leppert II