In praise of meteorologists, science's Rodney Dangerfields

The Washington PostNovember 21, 2013 

Survivors of a powerful twister embrace Tuesday. More than 1,000 homes were devastated by a tornado that passed through the town Sunday with wind speeds greater than 200 mph. Early warnings were credited with saving many lives.

FRED ZWICKY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River, saving the lives of its 150 passengers and five crew members. The crew was feted from coast to coast, including being the guests of honor at that year’s Super Bowl. The crew deserved every accolade it received.

Nearly five years later, on Nov. 17, accomplished scientists and dedicated volunteers saved the lives of more than 250 people. Yet there will be no parades, no Super Bowl tickets.

I’m talking about the lives saved in Sunday’s outbreak of vicious tornadoes in the Midwest.

How do I know how many lives were saved?

On Palm Sunday 1965, a similar outbreak of tornadoes struck about 100 miles north of that same region. One town was hit in both 1965 and 2013. The earlier tornado outbreak killed 267. The 2013 tornadoes killed just six.

The lower death toll from this week’s storms was not inevitable; it is the result of a half-century of scientific discovery and technological development: Doppler radar, weather satellites, lightning detection networks and smartphone apps. It is a result of volunteer storm chasers instantly reporting the most violent tornado (the Washington, Ill., storm) when it first touched down near Pekin.

No other nation enjoys the quality and breadth of meteorological services available in the United States. It is an area in which federal dollars are put to valuable use and leveraged through the efforts of private-sector weather companies such as AccuWeather, and by meteorologists and emergency managers.

Yet modern meteorology is the Rodney Dangerfield of sciences: Despite saving hundreds of lives in a single day, meteorologists often get no respect.

Part of the reason is that our successes are invisible. People see the destruction of buildings or a nightmarish plane crash, but no one notices the people who were not killed or the planes that made it to their destinations safely. Remarkably and unremarkably, all of Sunday’s hundreds of flights over the Midwest landed safely.

The rate of improvement of storm warnings over the past decade is remarkable. So, don’t let past experiences dissuade you. When a meteorologist says “Take cover!” you ought to take cover.

Mike Smith is the author of “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather” and senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions. He wrote this for The Washington Post.

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service