Tornado Warning False Alarms

A classic tornado-producing supercell on radar

Here’s a scenario:  The National Weather Service is watching a storm develop on radar.  Doppler velocity data shows the storm is rotating and the rotation is strengthening.  A Tornado Warning is issued for the storm and the bulletin goes out to the media, weather radio, county officials (who sound the sirens) and social media.  People in the path get the word and take cover.  Then, nothing happens.  The storm’s rotation never comes all the way to the ground and no tornado forms.   Some people are thankful that nothing happened but others are bothered that the storm never produced a tornado and they spent 45 minutes in their safe place for nothing.   This scenario plays out each storm season multiple times.  It happened last night across southern Middle Tennessee with several tornado warnings but no touchdowns.   This is a tough balancing act for the National Weather Service.

The goal of tornado warnings is to warn people of impending danger.  If you can warn people even before a tornado touches down, that’s best, wouldn’t you agree?  That way, people in the path have plenty of time to take cover.   But, technology isn’t quite there yet.  There can be two storms on radar that look exactly alike.  They both have significant rotation and both will get tornado warnings.  However, one will produce a tornado and one won’t.  There’s a difference in these storms that isn’t known yet and that’s where much of the tornado research is focused on these days.  Until that difference is known, we will always have to deal with false alarms.  It’s simply going to be a fact of life until the technology  improves and tornadoes are better understood.

While these false alarms can be frustrating, I encourage you to take all tornado warnings seriously.  In our storm situation last night, the warnings were issued for potentially tornadic storms after dark.  That’s when the largest number of deaths occur in the southeast from tornadoes – after sunset.  You simply cannot see them.  So, if you choose to ignore a tornado warning, you’re taking a big gamble that you’re not going to get hit.  Every year, people lose that gamble and end up losing their lives.   I don’t want you to become a statistic.

Know that meteorologists from the National Weather Service understand there is an issue with false alarms and are working hard to figure out how to make warnings better and more effective.   Research is leading to better and better tornado detection, too.   In time, the false alarm rate will drastically begin to drop.

What do you think?  Do you take tornado warnings seriously?


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