Friday, September 16, 2011

Mike Smith Saves the World from the Weather

Living in Tornado Alley, I’ve often felt grateful for the loud sirens and TV’s color-coded Doppler radar displays. Meteorologist Mike Smith, who pioneered many of the technologies that have saved lives in the nation’s midland, looks back over a pathbreaking career, and decades of weather history, in his debut book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.

I didn’t realize that, as recently as the 1950s, the Weather Bureau—now the National Weather Service—not only didn’t predict tornadoes and hurricanes; they flatly forbid such forecasts. They feared you and I were too irrational to handle such knowledge. Hundreds of people sat blindly unaware in the path of truly horrific weather because the government thought public panic was riskier than mass destruction.

Members of my generation grew up with the idea that weather prediction was a reliable applied science, that forecasts would continue to improve, and that we had a right to know when destructive weather menaced our homes. Smith combines history and memoir to describe the changes that made such an attitude possible.

Smith pays particular attention to tornadoes. As a survivor of the 1957 Ruskin Heights tornado, which killed dozens and flattened a Kansas City suburb, Smith demonstrates particular affinity for tornadoes. This played out in his early career when, as a young weatherman, he failed to utilize the newest technology and left much of Oklahoma City vulnerable to a significant tornado outbreak.

Throughout history, humans have stood vulnerable to weather phenomena. Only recently have we had technology to plan for the weather in any concrete way. Victims of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane or the Great Hurricane of 1780 had no warning before their homew washed out to sea. When Dorothy trembled before the gruesome twister, that was no literary device. People literally lived in fear of the weather.

Our technology also makes us vulnerable to weather in entirely new ways. Smith spends several chapters on Delta Flight 191, which got caught in a controversial phenomenon called a “microburst,” a highly localized storm that pushes cold, wet air into the ground with such force that a jumbo jet could get sucked along like driftwood. Only high tech could leave us at the mercy of such weather.

Smith believes that technology also frees us from such risks. Hundreds of people died in air disasters caused by microbursts, but not since 1994. We have the ability to recognize and anticipate such risks in a way we couldn’t in 1985, when Delta 191 flew through what the captain thought was just the rain.

And that’s what Smith means when he says science has tamed the weather. We have the knowledge to spot disasters in advance, steer the most vulnerable out of the path of destruction, and prevent loss of life. Though weather remains beyond our control, we no longer have to live in fear of wind and water.

In one telling thread, Smith compares the 1955 Udall, Kansas, tornado, with a nearly identical outbreak that hit Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007. The two tornadoes followed such similar paths that, superimposed, you could easily confuse one tornado for the other. Each flattened the towns. Yet Greensburg’s residents survived to rebuild; Udall, as Smith says, “died in its sleep.” This story isn’t just informative; it’s touching.

Strangely, though we regard the weather as the ultimate impersonal truth, Smith describes the controversies that actually accrue to weather prediction. Personalities like Robert Miller and Ted Fujita have polarized the meteorological community. Though these debates linger outside public view, they have forced their way into how we perceive the weather, and how we shield ourselves from it.

Fujita’s theories, for instance, have entered popular culture through the movie Twister, to which Smith returns time and again. We toss around terms like F-4 and F-5 casually, as we did this year following the Joplin tornado, without realizing the battles that went into this scale’s general acceptance. Ted Fujita faced resistance throughout that seems appallingly unscientific to outsiders.

Smith skillfully makes this and other controversies seem not just important, but exciting. Meteorology, in his telling, has the same bare-knuckle energy we see in politics or sports. These battles, many of which Smith himself fought in, reveal how much of our modern, weather-safe lifestyle is contingent on personalities, and could have gone another way.

While weather forecasters often appear starchy and bland, Smith makes the weather into an urgent concern, and a remarkable victory. This story turns the weather into a quest, and meteorologists into the most unlikely heroes in recent literature.

No comments:

Post a Comment