Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Warnings ... you can't have it both ways

Probably the biggest story to emerge from Saturday morning's tornado in the Reedy Creek area was the lack of a watch or warning preceding the storm.

Some of the same people who regularly criticize meteorologists and me for reporting about the possibility of severe weather are now complaining that there was no tornado watch and no severe thunderstorm or tornado warning issued.

(I didn't include myself among the meteorologists, because I'm not one ... and I had the high school Physics grades to prove it.)

You can't have it both ways.

The tornado watch that was issued for parts of the Charlotte area in the early-morning hours Saturday came only as far east as Gaston County, and didn't stretch above the N.C.-S.C. border. That's because a wedge front -- separating warm, unstable air over South Carolina from a cool air wedge pocket in North Carolina -- was sitting somewhere near the state line.

Mecklenburg was in the cooler, more stable side.

Obviously, in the early-morning hours Saturday, that front pushed northward -- just long enough for a line of powerful thunderstorms to roar through. No severe thunderstorm or tornado warnings were issued, and that topic has been fully covered already this week. Whether the Charlotte area needs a better radar system is another topic, for another day.

I've been told that forecasters wrestled with the issue of whether to include Mecklenburg and some other N.C. counties in the tornado watch area.

In the past, though, some people have complained that the media engages in scare tactics, warning about snowstorms, ice storms, thunderstorms and floods that never happen. The critics call it sensationalism.

I understand that. People probably feel as if they're being jerked around.

The problem is that meteorology is not an exact science. Astronomers can't figure out where the universe ends. Biologists and botanists are still discovering new types of plants and animals. Medical doctors have many, many questions that need answers.

Meteorologists don't have all the answers either. They have more resources now than they had 30 years ago, with computer modeling and satellites and more. But doctors have more information and resources than they had 30 years ago, and we still don't have a cure for the common cold or stomach viruses.

One day, long after I'm gone, meteorologists will know exactly when and where tornadoes will form, and they'll hit the forecasts on the money every time.

Until then, there's guesswork. Maybe the next time, the Storm Prediction Center and the National Weather Service offices that cover the Carolinas will be a bit more aggressive when they list counties for a thunderstorm or tornado watch area. Maybe the storms will never form. And some people will complain that TV meteorologists are scaring them needlessly.

Perhaps meteorologists can't win, in this case.


Anonymous said...

There was a warning on the NOAA website for the North Carolina area before it happened. Come on people, this is life. The government can't protect you from everything.