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Op-Eds :: July 7, 2009

Research Reveals Troubling Statistics [Davis]

Published in The Tennessean, Nashville, Tennessee, Copyright 2009

By Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-TN)

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Ensuring the public's safety should be on the top of every elected official's mind, whether a county mayor or a member of Congress.

Last month, Bart Gordon, my colleague and chairman on the House Science and Technology Committee, and I held a two-panel roundtable discussion in Murfreesboro with meteorologists from all the local Nashville television affiliates, the National Weather Service and emergency response directors to examine ways of improving tornado forecasting, preparedness and response.

As I did research in preparation for the roundtable discussion, I learned a very disconcerting statistic: Tennessee has led the nation in tornado fatalities over the past 10 years. This should not come as a total surprise, given the severity of tornadoes and the widely reported tragic loss of life in Madison, Sumner, Macon, Warren, Cumberland and Rutherford counties, to name a few, the past several years.

Hearing from the experts

Rep. Gordon and I felt it was fitting to hold such a hearing in Middle Tennessee to help raise greater public awareness and allow us the opportunity to hear from the experts on the front line. As members of the Science and Technology Committee, which has jurisdiction over all federal non-defense research and development, we both have taken what we learned and will continue pushing for resources to be used in the pursuit of new technologies that allow for earlier detections and warnings.

Currently, meteorologists trained in atmospheric sciences rely on Doppler radar imagery, wind measurements, trained storm spotters on the ground, and employ the use of traffic cameras to predict and monitor severe storms.

According to the National Weather Service, over the past 20 years warning time has almost tripled, from five minutes to 14 minutes for an impending tornado. During that period, we have also seen an increase in false alarms. Without question, these false alarms lead people to pay less attention to warnings.

As scientists progress in the development of more accurate modeling and radar technology, forecasting and the reduction of false alarms will better ensure that people take tornado warnings seriously and respond appropriately. There are several advanced radar technologies already under development, along with continued research on how storms work.

The panel of Nashville-area meteorologists discussed and touted research currently being conducted on the next generation of weather forecasting technology, which includes the Phased Array Radar and Warn-on Forecasts. The National Weather Service said that while the Phased Array Radar is still "way down the road," it could allow for the detection of a tornado 22 minutes before formation. The Warn-on Forecasting system would be a shift from the currently used warn-on detection, which is based upon either visual confirmation of the phenomena or radar observations. In short, a Warn-on-Forecast system would incorporate in-storm observations into a high-resolution simulation model.

While our country has come a long way in the research and development of tornado forecasting, we still have a way to go. It's imperative that the funding for research of this kind continues not only for scientific examination but for the safety of our communities, homes and families.

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