Ed Kieser is the chief meteorologist at WILL AM-FM-TV. He's been educating the public about tornadoes for 16 years with free public tornado safety seminars. This year's seminar is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 11, at the Beckman Institute Auditorium. On the evenings of March 12 and April 2, he and other WILL meteorologists stayed on the air on WILL-AM and WILL-FM continuously to broadcast warnings and updates for tornadoes and high winds that were spawned across central Illinois by fierce thunderstorms. He was interviewed by WILL's Mary Barrineau.
What made the March 12 tornado outbreak in central Illinois unusual?
The storm that produced the tornadoes was a classic super-cell thunderstorm, but it had the most well-defined hook echo I've seen in my 18 ½ years of weather forecasting in central Illinois. I was surprised that we didn't have a tornado rated an F-3 or higher because it really looked nasty on Doppler radar and several spotters described seeing a large tornado. As bad as the damage was in Springfield, Ill., it could have been worse. Springfield had two tornadoes of note and they reached the F-2 category, with estimated wind speeds of 120 miles per hour. The March 12 thunderstorm was also unusual in that it originated near the Oklahoma-Kansas border and it held together until it reached western Michigan.
(View radar and track the storm's path)
What were the factors that led to your decision to broadcast continuous weather reporting on WILL-AM and WILL-FM the evening of March 12, and again on April 2?
On March 12, I had just flown in from out of town, and I came to work because I knew there was a chance of bad weather. The second I saw the radar I knew we had big trouble. I said this thing is going to hit Springfield and I have to get on the air. From 8:16 to 11:30 we were on the air continuously with weather reporting. On April 2, once reports of tornado touchdowns started coming, along with several warnings, it was an easy decision to stay on the air with weather. It was a more complex situation than March 12, because it was a line of storms with some embedded super-cells. These storms had many areas of damaging straight-line winds on the front flank.
Some people think they can get their weather from the Internet or from broadcasters who just read the forecasts and warnings. But on nights like those, our meteorology training and experience really paid off for our listeners. Because we are trained to understand thunderstorm structure and to interpret the radar, we were able to tell listeners who was in the most danger and specifically where the storms were heading.
Should people take cover when a tornado warning is issued for their county, or can they wait until they hear the warning sirens? Where's the best place to go?
The National Weather Service is now issuing warnings for partial counties, which is an improvement. So if a warning is issued for your part of the county, and the warning says your town is in the path of the storm, by all means take cover. A tornado warning is issued if the Doppler radar indicates signs of a tornado or if a reliable spotter sees a tornado. Sirens are sounded only if a reliable spotter sees the tornado and radios in. So if you hear warning sirens, certainly you should take shelter immediately.
The best rule of thumb when a tornado is approaching is to go to the lowest floor possible and put as many walls between yourself and the tornado as possible. I like those guidelines because they work anywhere. You might not be at home or at work when a tornado hits.
The use of Doppler radar has resulted in more tornado warnings than ever before. Do you think this has caused people to ignore warnings more often than they used to?
I do think there's a risk of the cry wolf syndrome. Doppler has been useful in indicating storms with potential tornadoes ahead of time. Before Doppler, we didn't get a warning until someone saw the tornado. The problem is that storms that produce the strong rotation picked up by the Doppler don't always produce a tornado. There's research going on right now that may help meteorologists in the future determine which storms are most likely to produce tornadoes. And as technology improves, radars will be upgraded.
2005 was a record-breaking year for hurricanes. Has there been an increase in the number and strength of tornadoes that could be due to global warming?
In recent decades, the pure number of documented tornadoes in the U.S. has increased. There are now well over 1,000 annually. However, all the increase has come in the weaker F-0 and F-1 categories. The reason for the increase is that the population has spread out. People see more of the small tornadoes that occur and there are more structures that can be damaged. There has been no increase in the number of strong or violent tornadoes thus far.