April kicks off what is typically the most active and dangerous three-month period of the year for tornadoes in the United States. It’s a perfect time to pull out the Quirkles book Timothy Tornado to learn more about this strange weather phenomena and discuss safety preparedness. Then learn about vortexes in our fun activity, Timothy Tornado’s Water Race.
Did you know that before 1950, your local weather forecaster would not have warned you of favorable tornado weather conditions or told you to take cover? That’s because from 1887 up until 1950, American weather forecasters were forbidden from attempting to predict tornados. During that time, Roger Edwards of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center writes, “tornadoes were dark and mysterious menaces of unfathomable power, fast-striking monsters from the sky capable of sudden and unpredictable acts of death and devastation.”
Less than confident in their own predictive powers, and fearful of the responses of a panicked public, “the use of the word ‘tornado’ in forecasts was at times strongly discouraged and at other times forbidden” by the Weather Bureau, Edwards writes, replaced by euphemisms like “severe local storms.”
Of course, a ban on the word “tornado” wouldn’t have been necessary without someone who really wanted to talk about tornadoes. That person was John Park Finley, an officer with the Army Signal Office with a deep interest in severe storms. The U.S. Army Signal Service first opened a weather forecasting office in 1870, and when Finley enlisted in 1877, he joined it immediately.
His hope was to develop a method of tornado prediction so that storms’ arrivals could be broadcast to local communities–possibly he thought through the ringing of church bells.
In 1887, nervous superiors sent him instructions: the word tornado was banned from forecasts. Besides an excitable public, there were commercial concerns; the businessmen of Tornado Alley had “complained that Finley was giving potential investors the idea that their region was twister prone.”
The Signal Office’s forecasting division was eventually transferred to the Department of Agriculture, where it became the U.S. Weather Bureau. Though the Bureau developed warning systems for everything from floods to hurricanes to forest fires, it held fast to its tornado position. Forecasts of tornadoes were prohibited. Meanwhile, throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, the death toll from tornadoes mounted. There were no warnings, so no time for people to seek shelter.
In 1948, two Air Force meteorologists, Major Ernest J. Fawbush and Captain Robert E. Miller, after scrutinizing tornados in Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma, developed their own prediction system. In 1948, after correctly predicting several outbreaks among themselves, they finally announced an upcoming storm publicly.
Miller prepared himself for the worst: “It seemed improbable that anyone would employ, as a weather forecaster, an idiot who issued a tornado forecast for a precise location,” he would later write.
Their forecast turned out to be correct, and when word of the feat got out a couple of years later, the public clamored for warnings. In 1950, the chief of the Weather Bureau removed the ban, writing “the forecaster (district or local) may at his discretion mention tornadoes in the forecast or warning.”
These days, tornado forecasting is still hard to pull off. We still don’t fully understand how these powerful storms work. But thanks to technological advances, changing priorities, and ever-more-detailed science, the average annual tornado death toll has gone down significantly since the 1950s (though some storms, like the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado killed 161). Hopefully, we’ll continue to learn more. It helps, of course, that forecasters can also say the word.