@gannweather On this day in 3-25-1948. First time #Tornado wording was used in a forecast. #oneminuteweather #weatherhistory #weatherfacts ♬ original sound – Gannweather
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — What do “the Ed Sullivan Show,” “I Love Lucy,” and early 20th-century weather reports have in common? Censorship.
74 years ago, the first Tornado Warning was issued and the first tornado forecast delivered, but it wasn’t until 1950 that the word “tornado” was allowed to be used over the airwaves. Just like Elvis’ gyrating hips were cropped from view on “the Ed Sullivan Show” and the word “pregnant” was forbidden when Lucille Ball was “with child” on “I Love Lucy,” the word “tornado” was thought to be too provocative. Some feared the word would panic the public, so it was not used on TV or radio.
Before Dr. Fujita (for whom the current tornado severity scale is named), there was an Army Signal Service Officer and meteorologist named John Park Finley. Finley was a tornado forecast pioneer and is the first known author to pen a book specifically about the study of tornadoes. Finley conducted two studies, one in 1884 and another in 1885, where he made 57 predictions that tornadoes would occur. 33 of these predictions were verified. This kind of predictive weather forecasting was unheard of at the time.
Despite his accuracy of nearly 60%, F.C. Bates of the University of Kansas noted “that a general consensus was reached in the science that forecasts of tornadoes would do more harm than good in panicking the public. It also appears that there was consensus that the level of skill in such forecasts did not merit their issuance.”
Thus, from 1887-1939, the word “tornado” was never seen in any weather information distributed by the Weather Bureau or other local weather watcher groups organized by the U.S. government.
This decision even became part of the federal weather station regulations, as mentioned in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society: “in 1905, and in their revisions in 1915 and 1934, there was a specific prohibition of tornado forecasts. It was possible to forecast destructive local storm but the word, ‘tornado,’ was banished.”
In March 1948, Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma was struck by two tornadoes within one week. The first tornado, on March 20th, had winds equivalent to an F-3 (designed by Fujita in 1971) and destroyed over 50 aircraft. At the time, it was the costliest tornado in US history with a price tag of $10 million (in today’s world, that’s closer to $117 million).
The next day, March 21, Air Force investigators turned to Airforce Captain Robert C. Miller and Major Ernest J. Fawbush to see if they could determine a way to predict these kinds of tornado-producing storms. They immediately started to gather archived data of upper air and surface charts. They started to see a pattern and believed that based on their findings they could forecast tornadoes.
Just 5 short days after the first March 1948 tornado struck Tinker AFB, Miller and Fawbush were able to put their theory to the test. The upper air charts, leading up to March 25th, were similar to the charts of other tornado-producing events.
On the morning of March 25th, a standard forecast was issued with the wording “heavy thunderstorms”, by afternoon Miller and Fawbush updated the forecast to include the word “tornado’ because the storm’s conditions mirrored those of March 20th. Their forecast was the first official tornado forecast.
“This official tornado forecast was instrumental in advancing the nation’s commitment to protecting the American public and military resources from dangers caused by natural hazards” from the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
Although the first issuance of a tornado forecast was given in 1948, it wasn’t until 1950 when the restrictions of the word tornado were reversed. 2 years after that, the Air Weather Service developed rules and procedures for tornado prediction and their service was expanded to national military forecasts of severe weather with the establishment of the Severe Weather Warning Center of the Air Weather Service in 1952, according to Bates from the American Meteorological Society.
The Severe Weather Warning Center of the Air Weather Service is now known as the Storm Prediction Center, based in Norman, Oklahoma. They are still responsible for issuing all watches pertaining to severe storms and tornadoes.