December 2, 2013

COMMENTARY: Meteorology is the Rodney Dangerfield of science

MIKE SMITH

On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River, saving the lives of its 150 passengers and five crew members. The crew was feted from coast to coast, including being the guests of honor at that year’s Super Bowl. The crew deserved every accolade it received.

Nearly five years later, on Nov. 17, accomplished scientists and dedicated volunteers saved the lives of more than 250 people. Yet there will be no parades, no Super Bowl tickets.

I’m talking about the lives saved in that day’s outbreak of vicious tornadoes in the Midwest. How do I know how many lives were saved?

On Palm Sunday 1965, a similar outbreak of tornadoes struck about 100 miles north of that same region. One town was hit in both 1965 and 2013. The earlier tornado outbreak killed 267. The 2013 tornadoes killed just six.

The lower death toll from the Nov. 17’s storms was not inevitable; it is the result of a half-century of scientific discovery and technological development: Doppler radar, weather satellites, lightning detection networks and smartphone apps. It is a result of volunteer storm chasers instantly reporting the most violent tornado (the Washington, Ill., storm) when it first touched down near Pekin.

No other nation enjoys the quality and breadth of meteorological services available in the United States. It is an area in which federal dollars are put to valuable use and leveraged through the efforts of private-sector weather companies such as AccuWeather, and by meteorologists and emergency managers.

Yet modern meteorology is the Rodney Dangerfield of sciences: Despite saving hundreds of lives in a single day, meteorologists often get no respect. Part of the reason is that our successes are invisible. People see the destruction of buildings or a nightmarish plane crash, but no one notices the people who were not killed or the planes that made it to their destinations safely. Remarkably and unremarkably, all of Nov. 17’s hundreds of flights over the Midwest landed safely.

The rate of improvement of storm warnings over the past decade is remarkable. So, don’t let past experiences dissuade you. When a meteorologist says “Take cover!” you ought to take cover.

Mike Smith is the author of “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather” and senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions. This column was distributed by The Washington Post, where it first appeared.
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