5.1 The 2011 and 2012 tornado seasons: Questions for the SPC and NSSL that were asked (and weren't asked) by the media, the public, and other government groups

Tuesday, 6 November 2012: 8:30 AM
Symphony I and II (Loews Vanderbilt Hotel)
Harold E. Brooks, NOAA, Norman, OK; and G. W. Carbin and K. Pirtle

Deadly tornadoes in 2011 and early 2012 sparked a great deal of interest and speculation about tornadoes from the media, the public, and in high levels of the US government. The major outbreaks of April 2011, particularly the 27 April event, the Joplin tornado and Oklahoma City area tornadoes of May 2011, the Springfield, Massachusetts tornado of 1 June 2011 and the late February/early March 2012 tornadoes all led to opportunities to provide information. As part of our jobs at the National Weather Center, we are responsible for a large part of response to inquiries about tornadoes, particularly in the aftermath of big events, especially from national media outlets. Starting in April 2011, we have dealt with a vast array of questions about tornado activity in the US in the process of conducting hundreds of media interactions. Questions about the aspects of the tornado activity were pondered by the public and media:

Is this the worst (insert different aspects of a particular tornado/outbreak) ever? Does global warming play a role in tornado occurrence and intensity? How has tornado season shifted? Has “tornado alley” moved? Did the well-above normal winter temperatures portend an earlier and more active severe weather “season” in 2012? Because of the very early start to tornadoes in 2012, will the year be similar to or worse than 2011? Why don't we have seasonal tornado forecasts like we have seasonal tropical storm forecasts? If (insert organization name) issues seasonal forecasts, why doesn't NOAA? How often does the Storm Prediction Center issue different kinds of convective outlooks (e.g., high risk in March, high risk on Day 2 or 3? Some of the speculation was fueled by members of the atmospheric science community who demonstrated a lack of understanding of the historical record of observations or, even, a physical understanding of tornadoes. We weren't asked very often about why there were so few tornadoes in the first 3 weeks of May 2011 or in the month of May 2012. We will look into these interesting questions and provide answers for some of them, in addition to discussing how we dealt with the media onslaughts and what it might take to improve our response. We'll also discuss the challenges to being able to provide answers, given the state of the science.

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