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Jack’s

How Far We Have Come

Posted on: 9:49 pm, September 4, 2013, by

I noticed this photo on Twitter earlier today when Lisa Allen mentioned me in a retweet of @HistoryInPics.  It’s the earliest photograph of a tornado (April 26, 1884):

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 8.35.25 PM

From the Kansas Historical Society:

“Tornadoes have threatened lives on the Great Plains for centuries, but until the late 1800s most Americans had never actually seen one. That changed on April 26, 1884, when unique circumstances allowed a farmer in Anderson County, Kansas, to capture the first known photograph of a tornado.

For three days that spring, the United States Signal Corps (precursor to the National Weather Service) observed a massive storm cell moving into Kansas from Colorado. At 5:30 p.m. on April 26, residents of Garnett witnessed a long rope-like funnel descend from the western sky near the tiny hamlet of Westphalia. For roughly 30 minutes it moved on a northeasterly path. The tornado’s slow progress allowed local fruit farmer and amateur photographer A.A. Adams time to assemble his cumbersome box camera and capture this singular image. Positioned near the United Presbyterian Church in Garnett, Adams was standing just 14 miles from the cyclone.”

It got me to thinking about just how far we have come in our understanding of tornadoes, and yet how far we still have to go in getting better at prediction, warnings, and reducing false alarms.  There is much work to be done to understand these monsters.

Even researchers have disagreements over how tornadoes behave. Research done here in Huntsville at UAH suggests that some (if not all) tornadoes strengthen as they descend in elevation; another study from the University of Arkansas says otherwise; it states that tornadoes skip over valleys.

Maybe the tornadoes here in Alabama aren’t aware of the findings in Arkansas…like this one from near Empire in Walker County on April 27, 2011:

And that brings me back around to the point of how far we have come…

When I started in the weather business as a weekend meteorologist at WTOK in Meridian, Mississippi back in September 2000, I never really imagined where the Internet would take us.

It never really occurred to me that we would have an infrastructure to have a two-way conversation with YOU during severe weather.

Sure, I thought, it would be cool to have video of storms from all over the country, live streams on storm chases (like from Storm Hunter 19), and instant pictures and video of cloud formations, hail, funnels, and wall clouds…like this one from Athens in May of this year (notice where the photos come from…how we get them):

Tornado in NE Athens from Brad Johnson (@Brad_Allstate)

Tornado in NE Athens from Brad Johnson (via Twitter @Brad_Allstate)

Or like this one from the Cullman tornado on April 27, 2011 that Brittany Williamson tagged me in just after it passed south of Cullman Regional Medical Center:

Cullman Tornado - Brittany Williamson April 27, 2011 via Facebook® for HP webOS  Allowed on Timeline

Cullman Tornado – Brittany Williamson
April 27, 2011 via Facebook® for HP webOS
Allowed on Timeline

The first tornado I ever covered was an EF-2 in the Dalewood community northeast of Meridian; it was from the same cell that produced a deadly EF-4 in South Tuscaloosa on December 16, 2000. In the aftermath, I was speechless while watching how (my now former cohorts James Spann and Mark Prater covered that storm with a live video feed from the old WCFT tower in East Tuscaloosa. How did I see it? Online…on a computer screen in Mississippi…two days after the storm hit.

From that moment on, I wondered how I would react to having a live video feed of a large, destructive tornado like that. How in the world would I keep cool? It’s one thing to have text or voice reports of it; it’s a whole different ballgame when you see it.

Ten years later, another Alabama tornado showed up on a live camera; this time it was on WHNT News 19, and it was headed toward Downtown Huntsville on January 21, 2010:

The following year, 2011, was my turn to deal with this. It’s not something you ever want to have to do, but I’m convinced the live video, the pictures, and the instant reports from social media, etc. make a HUGE difference in how people in the path of the storm respond to the danger.

My first one was from that same old WCFT towercam on ABC 33/40 as a weakening EF-3 tornado moved over US 82 just south of I-59 in South Tuscaloosa and rolled up Skyland Boulevard on April 15, 2011. The second was the Cullman tornado on April 27, 2011 followed by #3 Tuscaloosa, #4 Cordova, and #5 Birmingham tornadoes on the same day.

So, I say all of that to make this pitch to you: connect with us on social media. Your reports may be the information someone down the line needs to take shelter; it may save a life, or it may save many lives.  Follow us; we follow back.  It’s more than having X number of followers or likes to us; we actually do our best to get to know you and use social media to chat, socialize, and serve.

We are on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus. Any time there are severe thunderstorms around, we’re monitoring, Tweeting, posting, and answering questions. Twitter is THE preferred method of talking weather. The hashtags, DM’s and replies make it so easy to filter out reports from the normal traffic. Facebook and G+ have algorithms that may prevent us from seeing what you say or vice versa; that’s why I like Twitter so much.

Jason Simpson: Twitter: @simpsonwhnt Facebook Google+
Ben Smith: Twitter: @BenSmith_WHNT Facebook
Brandon Chambers: Twitter: @BChambersWX Facebook
Jennifer Watson: Twitter: @JWatson_WX Facebook Google+

We cannot know what the Fall severe weather season has in store for us, but something tells me we’ll need each other come November and December.

-Jason
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