March 25, 1948 is the date of this anniversary. It’s one most people have never heard of before, but it is very significant in today’s world. Where did it happen? Oklahoma. What was it? It was the first ever prediction of a tornado event.
The location was Tinker Air Force Base when its commanding general, Fred S. Borum who was in charge of the Oklahoma City Air Material Area, tasked the Air Weather Service at the base to see if it would be possible to predict the occurrence of thunderstorms that could produce tornadoes. Major Ernest Fawbush was in charge of the base weather station and he, along with Captain Robert Miller, began to study the problem. Prior to the start of their investigation a board had decided that tornado prediction couldn’t happen. Quoting the board’s findings that were mentioned in an article on clickonDetroit.com written by meteorologist Paul Gross: “due to the nature of the storm it was not forecastable given the present state of the art” and that it was an “act of God.” The board recommended that efforts should be made to come up with a way to alert the public to the storms and for the bases to develop protocols to minimize damage and injuries caused by tornado events.
How did they go about studying the problem? Back then, without the help of computers, surface and upper air charts were plotted by hand and drawn on paper maps. I, along with all the TV meteorologists back in the day when I started my TV weather career, had to go to the local National Weather Service office in our towns and hand-draw our own copy of the paper weather charts they had so we could put highs, lows, and fronts on our own maps back at the station. Then we used magnet symbols on a metal map or drew on a plexiglas map to show the viewers where the storms were and where they were headed.
Back to their research. The two men studied the charts from other previous tornado outbreaks looking for similarities. They did find similarities in the weather situations before each storm that produced a tornado. Here’s what Captain Miller had to say about their findings: “Using our findings and incorporating those of others… we listed several weather parameters considered sufficient to result in significant tornado outbreaks when all were present in a geographical area at the same time.”
With the use of the surface and upper air data they determined the existence of the various parameters and projected them forward in time and space to plot out a specific tornado threat area with reasonable confidence and with enough advanced warning for the area. Quoting the story “On the morning weather charts of March 25, 1948, Miller and Fawbush noted a great similarity between the charts of March 20 and March 25, 1948. After analyzing the surface and upper-air data, a prognostic chart was prepared for 6 p.m. local time showing the expected position of the various critical parameters.” The conclusion they drew from this information was that there was a significant threat of a tornado in central Oklahoma by late afternoon and evening.
Upon scanning the radar over the area a rapidly developing equal line was spotted at about 2:30 p.m. They typed up their forecast and sent it to Base Operations to get the word out. Tornado protocols were carried out on the base to prepare for the storm. A thunderstorm passed through the Will Rogers Municipal Airport just after 5 p.m. and about an hour later a tornado touched down at Tinker Field.
The Federal Communications Commission had a policy that forbade broadcasters from airing tornado details for fear of causing a panic. It took until 1954 for that to change when a TV Meteorologist, Harry Volkman (shown above), warned viewers of his Oklahoma City TV station of an approaching tornado. Volkman became a legend, not only in Oklahoma, but all over the country for his professionalism and dedication to his profession.
Now we have Dual Doppler Radar installations all over the country, the National Weather Service Radio broadcast system bulletins, and radio, television and even web-based and twitter bulletins. There you have it. Considering today’s instant communication of weather bulletins it is hard to imagine how people survived these killer storms when there was no organized way to spread the word and tell them what to do. We owe a great debt of gratitude to these two pioneers in meteorological history.
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