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Why Forecasters Were Once Banned From Using the Word “Tornado”

Before meteorologists developed reliable prediction techniques, the t-word was off the table

A close-range view of a landspout tornado in western Kansas, 2008. (Jim Reed/Jim Reed Photography - Severe &/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1948 near Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, a big storm was brewing. Only days before, the base had been hit by an unexpected tornado, which caused over $10 million in damage.

The base’s Major General was determined to avoid another disaster. So, according to Chris Kridler at the Baltimore Sun, he ordered two meteorologists, Captain Robert Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush, to figure out a reliable way to predict tornados. And that’s just what the forecasters were trying to do on March 25 as the conditions for a twister began to materialize in the distant skies.

That day, Miller and Fawbush would become the first meteorologists to make an official, accurate tornado prediction. It was a watershed moment in weather forecasting—up until then, tornados were so difficult to predict that it usually wasn’t even attempted. At various points until 1950, in fact, the Weather Bureau completely forbid or highly discouraged forecasters from using the word “tornado” altogether.

“This was in an era when very little was known about tornadoes compared to today, by both scientists and the public at large,” writes the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center on their website. “Tornadoes were, for most, dark and mysterious menaces of unfathomable power, fast-striking monsters from the sky capable of sudden and unpredictable acts of death and devastation.”

Research undertaken in the 1880s had created a list of criteria for conditions that could lead to a tornado, but the efforts “fell out of favor, partly because the government was afraid of causing panic,” writes Kridler. The idea was that even uttering the word would risk a needless fear frenzy amongst the public. But Miller and Fawbush’s work would help change that. Kridler explains:

Miller's study of the ocean's layers of temperature and currents helped him to think of the air in terms of levels, too, according to Charlie Crisp, a meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman. Miller and Fawbush created composite charts that juxtaposed data from different altitudes and noted wind direction, temperature and moisture.

When they tied all of their data together, they came to the conclusion that a twister was more than likely that March day, and put out the call for alarm. The base took protective measures and the storm did indeed hit, despite the extremely slim probability that a tornado would strike on the same grounds one had less than a week before.

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