Before you hear about any severe weather event on the news, a group of government meteorologists in Norman, OK have carefully tracked and studied its every move. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) is a part of the National Weather Service (NWS). The threat of severe weather continues to grow in the United States, making the Storm Prediction Center more and more vital for millions of Americans.
A day inside the Storm Prediction Center is anything but typical. The National Weather Service and the SPC provides weather, hydrologic, and climate forecasts and warnings for the contiguous United States. Their mission is to provide timely and accurate for the protection of life, property and the enhancement of the national economy. However, the major motivator for many of the meteorologists at the center is help keep people safe with their predictions.
June 2, 2019 was a relatively calm day for the Storm Prediction Center. “The most likely region for scattered severe thunderstorms is from parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming east-northeast into parts of the Dakotas. The greatest potential for a couple tornadoes exists across southwest North Dakota and northwest South Dakota. Otherwise, large hail and severe wind gusts are possible between about 2 PM to 2 AM MDT.”
As the rest of the country celebrates great weather for the upcoming long weekend, the SPC stays vigilant. Every storm watch across the country starts at the center in Oklahoma. In April, when severe weather season is just beginning, forecasters had already issued over 90 weather watches. There were 450 tornado or severe thunderstorm warnings in 2018 alone.
On days with upcoming weather warning, the center can feel like mission control. Weather experts like the forecasters and researchers will gather around computer monitors, tracking a storm's every move. Television stations will often come by the center to broadcast there information to the public and share footage of cloud formations. Emergency mangers from towns impacted will call with live storm insights and concerns.
The environment at the center is intense, yet quiet and orderly. Forecasters are surrounded by dozens of computer monitors displaying high resolution satellite pictures, radar data, forecasting models and surface observations. The SPC is connected to weather service offices across the country to “gather real-time accounts and to field questions about pending forecasts that are rooted in probabilities” according to Alan Blinder’s New York Time’s article that observed the center for a day.
The Storm Prediction Center uses “the most advanced technology and scientific methods” as described on there website. Forecasts depend on sophisticated technology that are able to accurately asses a storm’s strength and consequences. The preciseness of SPC technology is beneficial for emergency workers, “but human instinct is still critical”, continues Blinder’s report. “The Storm Prediction Center is the rare workplace where everyone has pencil sharpeners because, even now, forecasters will still draw some maps by hand...Sketching maps might seem old fashion, but the forecasters said it helps them think through their data.” Predicting a storm is part science, part art. Drawing maps with markers and colored pencils allow the SPC meteorologists to detect the atmospheric signs that makes severe weather dangerous. SPC forecasts are built “with a blend of science, history, and a measured dose of human instinct."
In addition to technology and instinct, forecasters also utilize latex weather balloons, which are considered the gold standard of meteorology. These balloons can fly over 20 miles into the atmosphere and can drift as far as 125 miles away, according to the National Weather Service. The balloons "– about 6 feet wide and affixed with devices that help experts detect pressure, relative humidity, temperature and winds – remain fixtures of forecasting." These instruments will often endure temperatures as cold as -139°F, relative humidity from 0% to 100%, and wind speeds of almost 200 mph! A transmitter attached to the balloon sends the data back to tracking equipment on the ground every one to two seconds. These balloons are the primary source of data above the ground. They provide valuable input for computer forecast models, local data for meteorologists to make forecasts and predict storms, and data for research.
Five times a day, the center publishes a Day One outlook map of the country. The consecutive outlook maps show categories of weather events and their probability. Using numbers, words, and colors, the categorical graphic depicts general thunderstorm areas and up to five risk types based on the coverage and intensity of organized severe weather like squall lines and supercell thunderstorms. The outlook also calculates the number of people in danger of severe weather at the time. For example, on a late April morning with an incoming Texas storm, the number of people in danger had climbed past 62 million.
“The scope – and consequences – of the storms they have charted are similarly sharp in their memories. They know the triple-digit death tolls that sometimes come, even when their forecasts are tragically accurate.” No matter how correct their predictions are, there is an issue of alerting people of this critical information. 23 people died in Alabama in March 2019 after a well-warned tornado outbreak. It can be heartbreaking for a meteorologist to watch a death toll rise from a storm they’ve carefully tracked and warned about. The forecast team knows that coming up with predictions and alerting the public is the most they can do to help from there Oklahoma center. Rich Thompson, lead forecaster, says that their predictions need to be as creditable as possible, “so that when we jump up and down and yell and wave our arms, people take it seriously.”
John Hart, a fellow lead forecaster at the SPC, also warned to be cautious about the timing and scope of a weather alert. “You issue a watch too early, people become complacent,” he said. Targeting warning messages to only recipients in an affected area helps avoid giving people alert fatigue.
In a room covered in maps and monitors, these meteorologists work tirelessly to protect lives from dangerous weather. Over 500 people were killed by severe weather incidents in 2017 according to the National Weather Service. The experts at the SPC work around the clock to better predict storms to help bring that number down. Emergency managers can help the efforts of the SPC's work to protect lives by effectively alerting there communities about incoming severe weather. Learn how two counties handle severe weather predictions and outcomes in our on-demand webinar.