'Tornado' Banned by U.S. Weather Bureau Before Radar
you know that from 1885 until 1938, prior to the advent of radar, the U.S. Weather Bureau banned the use of the
word 'tornado' in weather forecasts? According to a story in the September 2013 edition of IEEE's
Spectrum magazine, the bureau thought the mere mention of the word would strike fear in people and
prevent them from settling in tornado-prone Midwest and western plains regions. Believe it or not, the decision
was made in part because local business owners complained that customers stayed home in shelters rather than shopping
at their establishments when a tornado warning was in effect. An early tornado warning system was devised that was
so hokey that it is no surprise it never worked well enough to be adopted. A single wire with a series current running
through it was strung between all the houses and along a stretch of land southwest of town (most probable approach
direction of tornados). The current energized a solenoid that held cocked the hammer of a bell. If a tornado broke
the wire anywhere, the bells in all outfitted homes would strike to warn occupants of immediate danger. I suppose
it was better than nothing, but not very practical or effective, especially if a stray cow or mischievous kid broke
In 1948, a rudimentary radio broadcast warning system based on a network of observers and reporters
debuted in parts of Kansas and Missouri that did prove useful, albeit labor intensive. In 1946, the U.S. Army Signal
Corps, responsible for all forms of communications during wartime, began converting some of their World War II
era radar systems for use in weather detection. The first official weather radar was commissioned a year later.
U.S. Air Force officers Capt. Robert Miller and Maj. Ernest Fawbush, noticed that the atmospheric conditions surrounding
Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma visibly appeared similar to the way it did during the onset of prior tornadoes
in the area. They used radar to monitor the approaching storm and were able to discern a telltale signature in the
signal that correlated with the spawning of a tornado. In 1953, researchers identified a distinctive hook-shaped
echo which was found to be characteristic of a fully formed tornado. The era of severe weather forecasting via radar
had been born.
In 1971, S-band pulse-compression radar systems that could detect and measure the velocity
of anything that moves became operational. Software algorithms produced the kind of color-coded weather radar images
that we are accustomed to seeing today. Satellite sensing is now combined with terrestrial data to provide an up-to-the-minute
status on everything from a list mist of rain to a major downpour, ice storm, or blizzard-force snow storm. Phone
Dark Sky now exploit instant access to the National Weather Service's publically available database to let you
know based on your current GPS-determined location whether or not to head for shelter. We've come a long way, baby.
Here is a related CNN story titled "Up
Until 1940s, Americans Didn't Even Get Tornado Forecasts."
Posted September 12, 2013