Mike Smith, occasional commenter here, CEO of WeatherData, and recipient of the award for Outstanding Contribution to Applied Meteorology, has written a really fine book, taking us on a ride through the past 50 years of weather forecasting, chasing tornados, analyzing the microbursts that plagued jet aviation for so long, and introducing us to a hero–Theodore Fujita, who you may have heard of in connection with the Fujita Scale for measuring the intensity of tornados. The book is available here at Amazon.com. Part 1 of the review and my interview with the author is here.
The book covers more than just the history of weather forecasting–it gets right in there with safety of our air travel system, and covers the disasters of Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina from the meteorological point of view, all the while keeping the focus on the people trying to use meteorology to keep us safe and informed. I recommend it highly
It is called Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.
Examiner. Your book has a vivid sense of personality and place–we hear the tornadoes and smell the aftermath, and it’s obvious that you lived this story as well as chronicled it. In that respect it reminds me of The Right Stuff. Looking back on your career, what were the moments and who were the people that made the biggest impression on you?
Even though I was five years old, I remember the Ruskin Heights Tornado like it was yesterday. The chapter about the tornado I missed in Oklahoma City with the fatalities was literally difficult to write (even considered leaving it out, but I thought it was necessary to give an honest account). Being there the night storm chasing was born. Starting WeatherData. The triumph of June 8, 1974 (“The Day TV Weather Grew Up”), the Andover tornado (cut out of the final edit of the book for length purposes), and the major AMS awards I have won (not written about) have made my career very rich and satisfying.
I have kept a lot of my records over the years. So, when I wanted to be sure of a fact about Delta 191’s trial, I went to my basement, dug through boxes and found the depositions, testimony, exhibits, etc. I think having the actual data, combined with living it, made it possible to give a “feel” to the narrative.
Examiner: You more or less end your story without talking about the contribution of satellites to forecasting and storm prediction. Has that made a difference? I read somewhere a quote that satellite prediction had saved more lives than penicillin. Care to comment?
Satellites and radar (Greensburg). While I can’t put an absolute number on it, it appears that Doppler radar may be the best investment the federal government has made in terms of lives saved.
Worldwide, weather satellites have done marvels. We don’t have hurricanes arriving completely without warning any more as we did as recently as the 1970s.
Whether they have saved more lives than penicillin, I don’t know. There is no question the return-on-investment is HUGE.
Examiner. As you well know, this column is generally concerned with the debate on climate change issues. Is there anything in your book or in your professional career that provides information relevant to this debate?
I purposely didn’t put a word about global warming into the book. I wanted this book to be a celebration of weather science and its many accomplishments.
That said, I DO believe man affects the climate and I do believe CO2 warms the atmosphere. However, I think the effect is more gradual than the IPCC indicates and that the warming by 2100 will be less than they predict. I also do not believe it is an immediate problem. What we should be doing is transitioning to smarter energy which makes sense on its own merits and has the added dividend of mitigating any problems with global warming.
Examiner. Have we now got in place a communications infrastructure adequate for the needs of our mobile society in terms of dealing with weather events? What else do we need?
For the most part, we are in good shape. There is one step missing which is storm warnings that follow the person around (i.e., cell phone + GPS). I think these are coming in the next 1 to 3 years.
Examiner. If climate change is real and sea levels do rise, how should coastal residents prepare?
I tend to be critical of coastal development practices and we are doing a lot of the wrong things. That said, it is a bit outside of my area of expertise.
Examiner. If climate change is real and temperatures do rise, what effect would you expect on tornadoes, hurricanes and other storms?
Right now, there is no scientific evidence that there is a linkage between storms and “climate change.” If that linkage does develop, I don’t think we know enough to predict what changes might occur. We need research — there is so much about climate we just do not understand.
A couple of final thoughts: Meteorologists, as a group, are the most dedicated professionals I have ever encountered. Government meteorologists work rotating shifts. TV meteorologists, especially in tornado alley, will come in by 2pm and stay until 2, 3, 4am numerous nights during tornado season. We do it because we love it and feel a strong sense of service to our communities.
Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, by Mike Smith