Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Warnings - A Review

This book is the fascinating tale of how our modern weather warning system came into being. Part biography and part history, it details the quest to save countless lives in the face of poor communication systems, limited technology, bureaucracy, and of course, big storms.

The author, Mike Smith, is the founder of WeatherData, and he has a unique and pioneer-like perspective on the history of storm forecasting over the past several decades. Throughout the book, the reader is given great insights into how the technology was developed and what obstacles needed to be overcome along the way. Odd fact: in the late 1940's, weather forecasters were not even allowed to issue tornado warnings.

There is also a chapter on Theodore Fujita, developer of our modern tornado ranking system, that discusses his contributions to our modern understanding of tornadoes, downbursts, and microbursts. The contributions came at a price, however, as there was quite a struggle to get his work recognized and accepted by other scientists at the time.

Throughout the book, there are eye-opening accounts of several major storms of the past and their aftermath...not only from the standpoint of a weather forecaster, but from that of the survivors left to pick up after the destruction. There are several chapters on Hurricane Katrina, as well as a chapter on Hurricane Andrew. It was interesting to see how bureaucratic issues complicated warning as well as recovery efforts almost every step of the way. Some insight is given on how data is actually collected for use in hurricane modelling, and guess's not all science. Some of it is part intuition and part art.

Some great comparisons were made near the end of the book, when Smith found similarities between the destructive Udall, Kansas, tornado of 1955 and the one that pummelled Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007. Most striking was the structure of both storms, but also, the progress that has been made over the years in forecasting, along with the tools that took too long to implement (widespread usage of Doppler radar, etc.). Perhaps the most significant detail is that many lives were saved during the Greensburg storm.

Overall, this book was an engaging and informative read. Highly recommended.

Question: Do you think science has truly "tamed the weather" as the subtitle of this book suggests?

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