The Story of the First Tornado Forecast
April 18, 2011 11:44 PM   Subscribe

"Are you going to issue a tornado forecast?" [asked the general]. We both made abortive efforts at crawling out of such a horrendous decision. We pointed out the infinitesimal possibility of a second tornado striking the same area within twenty years or more, let alone in five days. "Besides," we said, "no one has ever issued an operational tornado forecast."

Fawbush and Miller were the reluctant young forecasters, and the general was Fred "Fritz" Borum; the link goes to Miller's first person re-telling. The story takes place at Oklahoma's Tinker Air Force Base over five days in 1948, and it would lead to the establishment of ongoing successful programs for tornado and other forms of severe weather forecasting.

For context, here's a Brief history of severe weather prediction efforts by the US Govt and timeline of storm prediction efforts since Fawbush and Miller (both of those are a bit dry).

See also this recent terrific Mefi post about John Finley, the major 19th century tornado researcher in the US, who died a scant 5 years before Fawbush and Miller's first successful forecast.
posted by LobsterMitten (9 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
We pointed out the infinitesimal possibility of a second tornado striking the same area within twenty years or more, let alone in five days

and if you keep the same lottery numbers every week, you increase your chances of winning!
posted by devnull at 12:23 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nice post.
posted by bystander at 5:08 AM on April 19, 2011

Fascinating stuff! Thanks.
posted by General Tonic at 6:51 AM on April 19, 2011

More on Harry Volkman and early TV weather forecasters - according to this page, Volkman was the first, or one of the first, tv weathermen. He was a young weatherman in the early 1950s in Oklahoma, and this is how he describes the lead-up to his issuing the first broadcast civilian tornado warning:
[There was a] decision by top management at WKY-TV to steal, or perhaps better said "bootleg", the latest air weather services tornado alerts from nearby Tinker Field to put on the air. The experts there were the well known Col. Fawbush and Maj. Miller who devised the rules for predicting tornado likelihood.

Up to this time the alerts were only to be used for military bases, as the civilian authorities did not believe that enough was known about tornado forecasting to make it trustworthy and feasible. There was much official concern about causing panic among the civilian population.

As I was the new young weatherman on the scene, I was told that it was my duty to go on the air and announce, for the first time, a tornado risk area in central Oklahoma. I quickly informed my boss, P.A. "Buddy" Sugg that this might be illegal and we could be arrested. His immediate response was that they could arrest him, but not me, as I would only be obeying his orders.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:27 AM on April 19, 2011

(looking at that again, it seems Volkman (writing in 2006, many years after the fact) has the ranks of Miller and Fawbush mixed up - the official page says they were Maj Fawbush and Col Miller.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:28 AM on April 19, 2011

"Major Fawbush had been interested for some years in such storms and since I had become "most interested" overnight, I was most fortunate in being selected to aid in the investigations."
I love this! It was fascinating to read and you can really get a feel for the uncertainty he felt. And to think, it's on a NOAA page. NOAA always has the cool stuff.
posted by librarylis at 10:55 AM on April 19, 2011

Great stuff.

I could see it now, a sure "bust" and plenty of flack thereafter. I figured General Borum wasn't about to say, "I made them do it". More likely it would be, "Major Fawbush and Captain Miller thought it looked a great deal like the 20th - ask them." I wondered how I would manage as a civilian, perhaps as an elevator operator. It seemed improbable that anyone would employ, as a weather forecaster, an idiot who issued a tornado forecast for a precise location.

The base was a shambles. Poles and powerlines were down and debris was strewn everywhere. Emergency crews were busy trying to restore power, clear the streets and, in particular, to restore the main runway to operational status. I reached the station to find a jubilant Major Fawbush who described the course of events after I had given up hope.

Hooray! The base was destroyed!
posted by dhartung at 11:06 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

To be fair, he does give a warning at the top:
The close knit world of the tornado and severe thunderstorm forecaster often seems somewhat demented to those not knowledgeable in this discipline. This apparent derangement is based on our seemingly ghoulish expressions of joy and satisfaction displayed whenever we verify a tornado forecast. This aberration is not vicious; tornadoes in open fields make us happier than damaging storms and count just as much for or against us. We beg your indulgence, but point out the sad truism that we rise and fall by the blessed verification numbers. There is a fantastic feeling of accomplishment when a tornado forecast is successful. We are really nice people but odd.
posted by vytae at 6:57 PM on April 19, 2011

« Older MONKEYS! RIDING DOGS! HERDING SHEEP!   |   Habit Judo Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments