Science tamed the weather, keeping us safe while we sleep

Summary: Today’s post reviews a fun book about some of the systems that make us safe — but which we too often ignore or even mock.

Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather
Available at Amazon.


Review of Warnings:
The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather

The true story of how science tamed the weather.

By Mike Smith (2010).


Warnings tells a well-written and exciting story about natural disasters, the progress of science, and the workings of America’s bureaucracy. It is a story about the advances in meteorology (one of the many technologies which makes our world run) and a government service (the National Weather Service). Many Americans are oblivious or contemptuous of one — or both.

Warnings reminds us of how our world has become much safer since WWII as meteorologists provide ever-better warnings about destructive weather.

“In the 1920s, the annual death rate from tornadoes in the U.S. was approximately three per million people. In the early 1950s, with the beginning of a tornado warning system, the rate was still 1.5 deaths per million people. In the last three years, 2006 through 2009, the death rate was down to .068 deaths per million, a decrease of more than 95%! We’ve never needed a presidential “war on tornadoes,” simply because meteorologists have quietly taken care of it. They’ve brought us from seeing tornado deaths as an “inevitable part of population increase” to where we are today, with the lowest tornado-related death rates ever.”

Smith describes this progress using examples that showcase the work of a few pioneers and many skilled experts. They worked for both government agencies and private businesses, in a loose partnership that has evolved to exploit the advantages of each. At the beginning of that period, forecasting extreme weather (e.g., tornadoes) was considered too politically risk to even attempt. Now weather forecasting systems save thousands of live per year, avoiding threats some of which the public seldom even sees.

Weather forecasting tool

“Since the crash of Delta 191 in 1985, there has been only one microburst-related crash of a U.S. airliner — the July 2, 1994, crash of U.S. Airways Flight 1016 at Charlotte, North Carolina, which killed 37 people. And even that crash could have been avoided if the flight crew had followed the avoidance procedures set out in the downburst training course. Given the ever-increasing number of people and planes in the air, the number of lives saved due to Fujita’s pioneering research that eventually led to implementation of microburst avoidance procedures in the United States is well over 2,000, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of aircraft losses prevented.”

Smith describes this progress with a minimum of technical detail and many vivid stories. He describes what it feels like to chase tornadoes — accompanied by your fiancée, hoping she isn’t terrified enough to end the engagement (she didn’t). He describes the smell of a destroyed town, the struggle of innovators with hidebound bureaucrats, and the thrill of technical breakthroughs.

There are only (roughly) ten thousand practitioners of applied meteorology in the US, yet they have produced vast savings in money and lives. We grow ever more dependent on them.

“The only thing standing between the American public and huge annual death tolls from extreme weather is the weather warning system — a partnership of weather companies, the federal government, emergency managers, volunteer storm spotters, and the media. As coastal populations grow in areas vulnerable to hurricanes, as more people move into flood plains, and as megacities grow in tornado-prone areas, the warning system becomes more and more important.”

In Warnings, Smith tells us about the past in a way that gives us advice for the future. He discusses our often slow application of technical advances. For example, in nine years America put a man on the moon. It took twice that for America to build a network of Doppler radars to track tornadoes. Smith also describes decades of underfunding of our critical public infrastructure, and corporations’ weak support for that funding — even when it can save them money and prevent deaths of their customers.

Books like Warnings can help us better use the tools provided by scientists and engineers.

One reason for this underfunding is our amnesia about past progress, and how it has made our world so much safer. Probably future generations will be equally forgetful, no matter how far our tech advances. I can imagine that our descendents will read about asteroid and comet intercepts in their morning news, unaware of the devastation they would have caused in the past (the Chelyabinsk meteor was a 500 kiloton near-miss on 13 February 2013).

Warnings is on my list of recommended books and films. Take a look; it might give you a few ideas for you Holiday shopping.

Mike Smith

About the author

Michael Smith, SVP and Chief Innovation Executive, leads advanced research in severe weather detection for AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions. Mike is one of America’s leading authorities in the field of extreme weather and its effects on society and business. He has received 21 patents in the fields of weather science, emergency management, and search and rescue. A Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, Mike received the AMS award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advance of Applied Meteorology and, twice, their award for Outstanding Service to Meteorology by a Corporation.

In 1981, Mike founded WeatherData, Inc. It pioneered pinpoint severe-weather warning services and technologies serving businesses and governments. WeatherData was acquired by AccuWeather in 2006, becoming AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions.

Mike is the author of two books, Warnings and When the Sirens Were Silent. He is a frequent speaker and writer on both popular and technical weather-related topics. He has appeared on The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, Fox News, and the major networks.  {From his bio at Accuweather.}

See his website and his blog.

For More Information

Ideas! For ideas about using Holiday cash, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See The keys to understanding climate change, my posts about NOAA, about weather, and especially these…

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When the Sirens Were Silent
Available at Amazon.

About Mike Smith’s second book.

When the Sirens Were Silent – How the Warning System Failed a Community. (2012). From the publisher…

“In Mike Smith’s first book, Warnings:
The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather
, we learned the only thing separating American society from triple-digit fatalities from tornadoes, weather-related plane crashes, and hurricanes is the storm warning system that was carefully crafted over the last 50 years. That acclaimed book, as one reviewer put it, ‘made meteorologists the most unlikely heroes of recent literature.’

“But, what if the warning system failed to provide a clear, timely notice of a major storm? Tragically, that scenario played out in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011. As a wedding, a high school graduation, and shopping trips were in progress, an invisible monster storm was developing west of the city. When it arrived, many were caught unaware. One hundred sixty-one perished and one thousand were injured.

When the Sirens Were Silent is the gripping story of the Joplin tornado. It recounts that horrible day with a goal of insuring this does not happen again. The book gives you the tools you need to keep yourself and your family safe. Included are clever lift-out copies of the latest tornado safety rules for homes, schools, and offices.”

2 thoughts on “Science tamed the weather, keeping us safe while we sleep”

  1. Thought I’d say “thanks for the article” so as to tack against “only negative or controversial things are worth discussing,” which is a common sentiment on these Internets lately.

    Do you know anything about this thing I saw some people say, about some kind of nebulous corruption in the installation of Doppler radar systems?

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Mike Smith lightly discusses this in the book. It’s business as usual in government contracting, especially in the Department of Defense.

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