Issuing severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings are crucial so people have enough time to get to their safe space. But warnings haven't always been as prompt as they are now. I talked with a National Weather Service meteorologist about the history of warnings and how lead times have improved
"The technology has helped not only detect storms, put warnings out, but also allow the public and everyone to hear these warnings so much better now." said Todd Shea, National Weather Service La Crosse Warning Coordination Meteorologist
The first tornado warning can be traced back to the late 1940's, when Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City was under threat of an approaching tornado. Just days prior, a tornado ripped through the base injuring personnel and causing millions of dollars of damage. The act of formally issuing a warning was somewhat new to this group of meteorologists.
"The National Weather Service then, which was the Weather Bureau back then, really didn't have a favorable policy for putting warnings out because the accuracy was somewhat lower." continues Shea
With its first successful tornado warning for the base, storm and tornado prediction ramped up and official warning policies were put into place.
Fast forward to the invention of Doppler radar, satellites, and nationwide forecast offices.
Shea adds, "Understanding the environment of what type of weather might occur that day and then looking at what is occurring on radar, the different characteristics of the storm as best we can tell with our radar information."
NWS meteorologists can now issue warnings much faster.
"You had lead times that were basically none up to you know maybe an average these days of 13 to 15 minutes with most tornado warnings." said Shea.
National Weather Service meteorologists are always trying to improve ways in which people receive alerts, but they can't do it alone.
"They also might need to hear from peers or see something on social media or see that there is perhaps a tornado occurring... So they're always trying to seek out more information and self-assess their risk."
"Storm spotters, with our emergency manager personnel, again with all the people in the meteorology business and the weather side of things will also increase and it's how we kind of integrate all of that information, I think will make warnings … perhaps increase lead time and, but also just provide more accuracy, so that people trust them a little bit better." continues Shea.
As knowledge of tornadoes increases, along with continued advancement in technology, warnings can be given even earlier. But we can't forget the importance of emergency managers and storm spotters that help us see what's going on in the field.