2013 Fermilab/WGN-TV Tornado & Severe Weather Seminar



Tom Skilling, WGN-TV's chief meteorologist, hosted the 33rd Annual Tornado and Severe Weather Seminar at the Fermilab National Accelerator complex in Batavia, on Saturday, April 6, 2013.

Guest Speakers

Superstorm Sandy--the largest Atlantic hurricane and 2nd costliest to hit the U.S.: An unusual melding of the worst features of a westward-moving tropical cyclone (hurricane), an eastbound Midwest winter storm, Greenland blocking and the tidal effects of a full moon
Dr. Louis Uccellini, Director of NOAA's National Weather Service, NWS-Headquarters-Silver Spring, Maryland

Few storms on record have been the product of a more unique and onerous blend of meteorological variables than last autumn's Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Mid-Atlantic---hitting New York and New Jersey with particular fury. The storm was responsible for 72 U.S. deaths--the most of any hurricane to hit the Northeast in the 40 years since Agnes, responsible for 122 deaths in 1972.

Sandy's damage, which has been put at more than $50-billion ($18-billion in New York state alone), is 2nd only to Hurricane Katrina's $108-billion tally. That horrific 2005 storm decimated a wide swath of the Gulf Coast, including the city of New Orleans.

Sandy--is what's referred to in the meteorological profession as a "hybrid" storm; a storm which combines atmospheric characteristics found in BOTH tropical and non-tropical storms. Rarely in Mid-Atlantic region has a storm combined such an array of characteristics, explains Dr. Louis Uccellini, newly appointed Director of the National Weather Service, who will talk about this storm in detail during his presentation at our 2013 Fermilab Tornado and Severe Storms seminars on Saturday, April 6. Sandy, says Uccellini, combined the worst attributes of a tropical and a non-tropical storm system, striking at a time of higher than normal "astronomical" tides brought on by a full moon. The presence of Greenland blocking pattern to the north, forced the storm on a westward path onto the U.S. East Coast rather than allowing it to move eastward and out to sea.

Sandy's impact was felt across sections of 24 states, with high winds recorded as far west as Michigan and Wisconsin. Here in Chicago, Sandy's powerful circulation generated huge swells on Lake Michigan.

Great care is required in not only accurately predicting such a storm--which was done in a stunning fashion with Sandy--but also in educating and informing those in the path of a storm like Sandy about the risks such a system represents, says Dr. Uccellini, who will speak to us on April 6 at this year's Fermilab seminars about this unique storm.

He talked about Sandy in this recent PBS interview which you might wish to check out here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2301402820/


The life-saving mission of NOAA's Storm Prediction Center: Monitoring severe weather across the U.S.
Dr. Russell Schneider, Director, The Storm Prediction Center, Norman, Oklahoma

The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center monitors the threat of severe weather across the Chicago area, the Midwest and the country as a whole around the clock. All U.S. severe thunderstorm and tornado watches are issued from the Norman, Oklahoma-based facility. It's an immense task which involves the efforts of some of the most talented severe weather forecasters and researchers which walk our planet.

The effort has been ongoing for years and has been bolstered by advances in remote sensing of our atmosphere from space and from the ground as well as revolutionary advances in computer modeling of the atmosphere and advances in our understanding of how severe weather outbreaks occur. Each of these advances has given forecasters at SPC a view of our atmosphere and its workings only dreamed of years ago.

Dr. Schneider, a native of the Chicago area and alumus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, joins us again at our 2013 Fermilab Tornado and Severe Storm seminar on April 6, noting in his acceptance of our invitation to speak the Fermilab program's role over the years of helping prepare one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States for the dangers of tornadoes and severe storms.


Severe Weather in the U.S. under a Changing Climate
Dr. Donald J. Wuebbles, The Harry E. Preble Professor of Atmospheric Sciences
School of Earth, Society, and Environment
Department of Atmospheric Sciences
University of Illinois


The U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) draws upon the latest scientific understanding of climate and climate change, synthesizing recent advances in the understanding of the science of climate change, and providing a succinct overview of the past and projected effects of climate change on the United States. This presentation will provide an overview of draft findings from the 2013 NCA report chapter on the science of climate change, including observed trends and projected future climate changes for the United States. One of the major findings is that there has been an increase in some key types of extreme weather events, especially in heat waves and large precipitation events, in the U.S. (and throughout the world) over the last 50 years. There has been an increase in the number of historically top 1% of heavy precipitation events across the U.S. The pattern of precipitation change in general is one of increases generally at higher northern latitudes (because as the atmosphere warms it holds more moisture) and drying in the tropics and subtropics over land.

Scientific analyses are also indicating a strong link between changing trends in severe weather events and the changing climate. Every weather event that happens nowadays takes place in the context of the changes in the background climate system. Every event is influenced by many factors. Human-induced climate change is now a factor in all weather events. This presentation provides a discussion of the current understanding of climate change in the U.S. and severe weather in particular.


Computer models have revolutionized weather forecasting-but where did they come from? A look at the development of the first digital computer at Princeton University in the 1930s and 1940s and its first tasks: Aiding atomic bomb development and forecasting the weather
Tom Skilling, Chief Meteorologist, WGN-TV and Radio and the Chicago Tribune

Those of us who bring you the weather through various media and my colleagues who produce forecasts for the public and the military are often heard making references to "computer models" and what they're telling us about coming weather developments. Computer models are sets of mathematical equations which describe the evolution and movement of our weather. They're the product of centuries of studies aimed at understanding how our atmosphere works. The advent of these models has been referred to by NWS Director Dr. Louis Uccellini as one of science's most important advances of the 20th century. It's a characterization which couldn't be more astute.

Computer models play an absolutely essential role in identifying--at times a week or more ahead of time--the volatile combination of meteorological variables which lead to deadly severe weather outbreaks, making the discussion of computer models quite relevant in any program or seminar tackling the subject of severe weather. But where did computer models come from? How were they developed and where?

A team of brilliant engineers and mathematicians took on the challenge of developing the world's first digital computer in the 1930s and 1940s on the Princeton University campus in New Jersey. Though weather forecasting wasn't the first purpose to which these early Princeton computers developed were directed--interestingly perfecting the devastating power of the atomic bomb was--forecasting the weather did end up being AMONG the first applications of the computer.

The advent of computer modeling of our weather is a story of genius and perseverance and the body of theoretical meteorological research and work which preceded the machine's development. It's a story of brilliant Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann, English mathematical genius and code-breaker Alan Turing and a group of brilliant meteorologists--among them MIT's Joseph Smagorinsky and Joseph Lorenz, UCLA's Jule Charney, the University of Chicago's George Platzman and so many others who laid the groundwork for today's ever more complex computer models, increasing forecasting accuracy dramatically in the process.

We'll explore the origins of modern computer models this year at our Fermilab seminars on April 6.


Impact Based Severe Weather Warnings: Getting the severe weather message out to the public
Ed Fenelon, Meteorologist in Charge-National Weather Service Forecast Office-Chicago/Romeoville

It is critical the public CLEARLY understands the nature of the severe weather threat which faces them. People have died in recent tornado and severe storm outbreaks despite the issuance of timely watches and warnings. This greatly concerns all of us in the meteorological profession. How has this happened and how can it be prevented? How can warnings more clearly communicate the danger which faces a population during outbreaks of severe weather? The National Weather Service has been--and continues to be--- engaged in a broad, multi-faceted effort to design warnings which more clearly communicate the threats severe weather poses in developing weather situations. Ed Fenelon will discuss the effort to issue what are being referred to as "impact based" severe weather warnings in attempt to do just that. He will also discuss the Tornado Ready Chicago campaign being spearheaded by the National Weather Service Forecast Office here.


50th Anniversary of the Kankakee-Medaryville Tornado of April 17, 1963
Jim Allsopp, Warning Coordination Meteorologist--National Weather Service Forecast Office-Chicago/Romeoville

Fifty years ago, on April 17, 1963, one of the most powerful and long-lived tornadoes ever documented in this area, touched down near the town of Essex in northwestern Kankakee County. The tornado finally lifted near Medaryville in Pulaski County, Indiana. A damage survey conducted by Dr. Fujita confirmed a continuous damage path of 70 miles. The tornado, which produced F4 damage in Bourbonnais and again at Gifford, Indiana, killed a young mother, injured 70 people and caused 3 million dollars in damage. A look back at this unique tornado, and a reminder that violent, long-tracked tornadoes do occur in this area.


The history of Skywarn and Storm Spotting in the U.S.
Brian Smith, Warning Coordination Meteorologist, NWS-Omaha

Trained spotters form the backbone of the country's tornado and severe weather warning system. They provide invaluable, indispensible ground-based observations of incoming severe weather, supplementing and adding value to Doppler radar observations and model forecasts of developing and potentially devastating/deadly severe weather outbreaks. How did the U.S. severe weather spotting and reporting network come into being? Brian Smith explains in his presentation.

Video clips from Fermilab 2012

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