Tornadoes difficult to predict; heed warnings, alerts nonetheless

Friday, March 8, 2019

The poor weather forecasters. It's no easy task, trying to get the forecast right, and more often than not they nail it. But the bigger the potential system, the less predictability there is because of so many factors at play. Tiny variations in temperature and wind speed can change the dynamics considerably.

And so the meteorologists take it on the chin when things don't play out as expected. The public ribbing comes with the job when you predict 6 inches of snow, then get zero. Generally, meteorologists who study models know there is a wide range of potential outcomes in certain systems, and communicate that to the public. Still yet, there's a lot of good-nature joking when a big predictions fizzles to nothing.

"Did you survive the Great Blizzard of 2019?" your co-worker might say.

But we're entering tornado season now, and predictions and warnings are no laughing matter.

Warning systems have improved dramatically over the years. Meteorologists have many ways they communicate with the public about these life-threatening events.

Many times, like with snow systems, forecasters can look at how air patterns and pressure systems are moving in from the west and south and warn days in advance severe weather could be heading your way. Of course, this is no time to panic, but a time to evaluate plans, particularly if they're outdoors. If you're a runner or a hiker, a boater or fishermen; or someone who works outside, these advance alerts are important.

Later, on the day of the system coming in, a tornado watch may be issued. This means conditions are favorable for a tornado. If you are outside, this is a good time to go in, or at least be aware of your surroundings and have an immediate plan for cover if things turn quickly.

And if a warning is issued, this is no time to delay. This means a tornado or funnel has been spotted or rotation has been discovered on radar near you. Take cover immediately.

Twenty-three people died Sunday in a tornado in Alabama. Three days before the storm hit, the public was given an alert that conditions could be ripe for tornadic activity. An hour before the twister hit, a watch was issued for two counties.

In Southeast Missouri, we're so accustomed to tornado alerts, watches, and even warnings, there is a tendency to disregard them. The problem with tornadoes, as the Associated recently reported, is they are a fleeting event that happens within a larger storm. Forecasters can predict supercell activity, but only 10 to 20 percent of supercells produce tornadoes, as the AP reported.

There have been 39 tornadoes in Cape Girardeau County from 1950-2018, and only one death. Scott County has seen 41; Perry 23 and Bollinger 22 during that time. All told, 13 people have died over that span in the four-county coverage area of the Southeast Missourian. It's remarkable that more haven't perished from some of the tornadoes.

Sixty years ago May, 22 people died, and 72 were hospitalized after a tornado ripped through Cape Girardeau.

There are many ways to keep track of the weather in 2019. Most smart phones are equipped with weather warnings already built in. At the Southeast Missourian, we offer free text alert services for weather warnings for your county. Several free weather apps are available for live radar.

This week is Severe Weather Preparedness Week in Missouri and Illinois.

Please pay attention to the forecasters. There may be false alarms, but they're not crying wolf. If you live in a vulnerable house such as a trailer home, please review your options. Several tornado-proof rooms have been built in public places in recent years. A mobile home is not a safe place to ride out a tornado warning.

If you have a basement, retreat there during a warning. Stay away from windows. If you have no basement, take cover in a bathroom or closet.

Stay informed about severe weather this spring. The meteorologists have a difficult job, and are doing the best they can to protect the public from harm.

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