…said a NOAA meteorologist this afternoon at the Weather Ready Nation meeting.
I immediately replied that is because we never tell anyone about our successes!
|Panel discussion at the Weather Ready Nation meeting this afternoon
There were 17 speakers in the morning session and only one — a social scientist — said “things went pretty well” with this year’s violent tornadoes. The rest were versions of “woe is us” — too many people in the U.S. died. “We failed,” the thinking went. I strongly disagree.
Now, so I am clear: Too many people did die in tornadoes this year! But, it is now confirmed, more than 99% of the people killed by tornadoes this year were in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning when the storm arrived. That is an absolutely amazing scientific accomplishment.
But, until I tweeted it from the meeting (@usweatherexpert), no one outside of the meteorological profession knew it.
So, given better than 99% warning accuracy, the cause of the unusually high death toll likely lies elsewhere.
Take a look at the graph below, it is the tornado death rate (logarithmic scale — this was a meeting of scientists after all) since the late 1800′s:
|From Dr. Harold Brooks, NOAA; click to enlarge
Fifty years ago, most everyone lived in a permanent home or apartment building. In recent decades, mobile and manufactured home use has exploded. The different in death rates is illustrated on the graph. The open squares are the death rate in permanent buildings. In those building types, the tornado death rate has plummeted and continues to do so.
However, the black squares are the year death rates in mobile homes. Keeping mind that only a few states require shelters in mobile home parks and that death rates in mobile homes are 15-20 times that of permanent buildings, you get giant death tolls like the U.S. experienced this year when tornadoes hit areas highly populated with mobile homes. Combine strong tornadoes in densely populated cities (Joplin, Minneapolis, Birmingham, etc.) and you get high number of deaths regardless of warning accuracy, especially when most of the cities happen to be ones where basement construction is not the norm.
Meteorologists, in general, do a terrible job of promoting ourselves and our work. So, people too often think of meteorologists as “people who get to keep their job when they are wrong all the time” rather than scientists who provide a tremendously valuable service to America at a very low cost to our society.