Damage with no warnings – what happened?

The Weather Authority

The words “I don’t know” require humility and honesty; those are two characteristics that are often seen as weak or worth of ridicule these days.

Maybe it’s always been that way, and it’s just that the megaphones social media allows for make it more obvious.  You know what else is obvious?  Ignorance.  Ignorance of how the world works.  Ignorance of the very thing people are railing against in the moment.  Whether it’s weather, politics or sports, the loudest mouth is often the one with the least understanding.  Ignorance isn’t stupidity; it’s the lack of willingness to admit “I don’t know” and to listen and learn.  Dump the emotions; embrace the facts.

“I don’t know” means there is still something uncertain about our world that most of us think we have figured out.

Doctors still don’t have a cure for the common cold.  Why?  It’s because they don’t know how to combat an uncertain number of mutations of viruses that provide ‘cold’ symptoms.  The ‘cold’ isn’t the same virus over and over; it’s always something slightly different that produces a similar result.  Then think about the flu shot for a moment.  The experts do their very best to predict it, but the current iteration of the flu is making the vaccine look like Oklahoma’s defense against Joe Burrow and LSU’s offense in the Peach Bowl.  (If you’re not into football, LSU destroyed Oklahoma 63-28, and it wasn’t even that close.)

If the world of medicine can’t stop a virus in a finite human body, then how can a meteorologist – or even a team of meteorologists, or even what we call the ‘weather enterprise’ made up of meteorologists, researchers, social scientists, emergency managers, professional communicators, and so on  – possibly grasp or accurately predict how an infinite atmosphere (argue the point if you want, but it’s infinite from a human perspective) will behave in every single situation?

With today’s knowledge and technology, it’s just not possible.

That brings us to the question of  Sunday night: “What the heck was that!?”

For days we expected severe weather.  There was a Tornado Watch in effect.  The National Weather Service issued one Severe Thunderstorm Warning that covered three counties (Franklin, Lawrence and Colbert in Alabama).

Wind damage, presumably from straight-line winds (downburst), happened on Duncan Creek Road and Whitten Road near Russellville High School.  Here’s the radar image from around 6 PM.  There was some rotation, but at radar level, it wasn’t obvious in the moment like the damaging wind threat was.  This rotation was also 3,700′ above the ground; tornadoes are in the lowest 1,000′ of the atmosphere.  Again, the signal is there, but it’s not an obvious trigger for a Tornado Warning.

Radar imagery from Columbus, Mississippi (KGWX) at approximately 6 PM. Upper left: reflectivity. Upper right: storm-relative velocity. Lower left: correlation coefficient (debris). Lower right: shear rate (Baron)

There was a “Severe Thunderstorm Warning” in effect, so this is not really a ‘miss.’

The other storm in Limestone County was a ‘missed event.’  As of 2:20 PM Monday, the National Weather Service in Huntsville confirms tornado damage from this storm that hit just before 8 PM Sunday night on the southwest side of Athens.

Our friend Dr. Tony Lyza at UAH sent me this shot of ARMOR radar imagery just after the damage in Limestone County occurred.  We were watching the lightning jump and seeing the broad rotation, but this tight couplet was brief and almost unnoticeable from the primary radar used for warnings: KHTX (Hytop Nexrad).

Dr. Tony Lyza, UAH

No excuses here.  A miss is a miss, and we are fortunate that no one was hurt or killed by either of those storms.

Here’s the problem with what’s real and what’s expected:

  • Real: this kind of thing is going to happen with border-line storms.  Nine times out of ten, those rotations produce no damage in this kind of environment.
  • Expected: you should be able to catch all of them and give 15-20 minutes of lead time at the bare minimum.  You should have been on TV!

Those two ideas don’t work together.  We can interrupt a TV show whenever we feel it’s necessary; most of the time we’re going to be in agreement with our colleagues at the National Weather Service on whether that’s necessary (warning vs. no warning situation).  This particular situation did not appear to rise to that level in our eyes or in theirs; otherwise, you’d have seen a Tornado Warning.

The truth is that meteorologists are right much more often than we’re wrong.  We catch them a lot more than we miss them.

Back to medicine for a moment.  How many times have serious illnesses been missed on the first and second trip to see a physician?  It happens.  It’s unfortunate, but even with the finest doctors in the world, medicine isn’t perfect.  Believe me, I know from first-hand experience with misdiagnoses.  One of those nearly let my youngest son die of heart failure in 2018.  It’s scary, it’s maddening, it’s real life.

So to those who have been and will be affected by these things in the future, we’re working hard to figure out a way to catch them all.  There’s an incredible research project called VORTEX-SE that will crank up again soon to help find some answers to these problems.

Science is good, but it’s not perfect.  Try to keep that in mind when looking at a weather forecast, a medical diagnosis or anything else.  The world and the way things work are much bigger and more mysterious than we give them credit for being.  Stop thinking in terms of the greatness of man and look at the incredible frontiers in front of us.  It might look like we’ve figured it all out, but I can assure you, there’s much to be learned.

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