When the skies begin to turn an ominous gray and there's a threat of severe weather, it is employees at the NOAA Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., who issue the first alerts. Weather experts there keep track of the skies and provide information to local weather forecasters and others about the risk of thunderstorms and tornadoes.
The Storm Prediction Center is located on the University of Oklahoma campus, a towering five-story building made of concrete with an observatory on top that lets the weather experts keep an eye on the wide-open fields and sky around them. This week, when staff saw a tornado forming not too far from the building, spokeswoman Keli Tarp says lots of folks started heading for the center's underground auditorium.
"People who are employees actually came here with their families — and some of their pets," Tarp says.
A Dark And Stormy Life
Tracking tornadoes is a way of life for Prediction Center workers. Computer monitors are everywhere, full of color-coded maps and weather data. In his office, Director Russell Schneider keeps a list of numbers on his whiteboard comparing this season's more than 500 tornado-related deaths to past years.
"It means this is a very historic tornado season," he says. "A lot of tragedies around the country. It motivates us at the Storm Prediction Center to work ever harder to protect people by giving them a heads up, and to keep striving to make our forecasts more accurate."
The operations room is where four or five forecasters constantly monitor weather information. Mark Darrow is one of the forecasters who analyzes radar and satellite observations, looking for evidence of tornadoes or winds with damaging hail. Today, he's writing up details for the National Weather Service and others about thunderstorms along western Virginia and central Pennsylvania.
"I told them that the thunderstorms would continue," he says. "Primarily concentrated over the mountains in the short term, lifting into central Pennsylvania."
The center issues outlooks for areas in the United States that might experience severe weather as much as eight days in advance. If needed, it also issues a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch. Local weather forecasters take over from there.
Early Warnings And Preparing For The Next Storm
One of the jobs of Harold Brooks, who works in the Severe Storms Laboratory, is to put current events in some sort of historical context. Brooks says the tornado in Joplin, Mo., where the number of those killed by the tornado continues to grow, presents some real challenges.
"We are trying to find out where people were when they died," he says. "Were they in cars, mobile homes, at home, in big buildings? What kinds of things happened that could have led to those death tolls?"
This week, meteorologists from around the country gathered in the center's hazard weather test room to talk about new research they hope will improve severe weather forecasting. Many, like Jason Jordan from Lubbock, Texas, also traveled to the damaged areas around Piedmont, Okla., where he says the tornado winds came close to 200 miles per hour.
"What we do is we go back and look at the damage from tornadoes and to try to determine what the winds speeds were, based on the damage itself," he explains.
Meantime, the storm center's Louis Wicker says the push is on to use a new generation of radar to provide better information about tornadoes.
"We won't be able to say it will hit here or there, but in 10 or 15 years, [we'll] be able to provide one-hour tornado forecasts that tell people where main problems will be," he says.
And that's the goal here: to get accurate severe weather information out early enough to save lives.