While centered southwest of Minnesota, a storm of similar intensity, a “bomb cyclone,” is winding down in the northern Great Plains and upper Midwest. Even though the region has a much larger population now, fatalities so far have been very limited.
Weather forecasting in the 2010s is a marvel. There is no doubt that without modern meteorology and communications that hundreds if not thousands would have died in this storm, as they did in Minnesota in 1888.
From the tornadoes in New Mexico and Kentucky to winds exceeding 100 mph in Texas, the severe blizzard, the flooding, the power failures and even the extreme turbulence alerts for airline passengers — every aspect was well forecast.
Yet for reasons not fully understood, warnings of extreme weather are sometimes ignored — or worse, mocked.
To be sure, many people and organizations heeded the warnings ahead of Wednesday’s storm. School was dismissed in Colorado the evening before. Numerous companies allowed their employees to telecommute.
But many did not adequately factor the weather forecast into their decision-making. Hundreds slept at Denver International Airport on Wednesday night, and dozens were stuck for hours on the approach to the airport because DIA and the airlines that serve it didn’t proactively deal with the storm. Some airlines could have issued earlier travel waivers, which would have allowed more customers to rebook (without charge) their trips. One would think that airlines and the industries that serve them would be far more “weather aware.”
Too many members of the public also did not heed the warnings. A Colorado highway patrolman was killed helping a motorist who slid off Interstate 76 in northeast Colorado when he was struck by a second car. Why were these people even driving in a severe blizzard, given the two days’ notice?
One issue, as I see it, is that weather science does a poor job of advocating for itself. Because its value to society is terribly undervalued, lives are lost when warnings are ignored or disregarded.
Potentially making matters worse, the ability of meteorologists to offer these valuable forecasts will be put in jeopardy because the Federal Communications Commission evidently undervalues them, too. What other explanation is there for putting the gains that storm warnings and weather forecasting have made at risk by selling the radio spectrum used by essential, and extremely expensive, weather satellites for 5G wireless?
Meteorologists tend to have personalities similar to engineers, so marketing and promotion do not come easily. But weather scientists need to change their attitude in that regard. Other fields do not hesitate to promote themselves. There will be more setbacks for weather science if attitudes do not evolve.
The 2019 tornado season is just beginning, and there are signs it could be an active one. Take weather forecasts and warnings seriously. They are not perfect, but they are excellent — on the money far more often than they are flawed. Your life could depend on them.
Please have a plan for how to prepare and keep yourself safe if a warning is issued for your location.
Mike Smith is president of MSE Creative Consulting, which assists entrepreneurs and science-related start-ups. He is the former senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, a fellow of the American Meteorological Society and a certified consulting meteorologist.