So far, it’s 0-for-2 on significant severe weather chances for the Kansas Flint Hills this spring.
Last Friday, as you see with the Storm Prediction Center graphic, the day started with an enhanced severe weather risk for most of Kansas. That risk eventually developed — largely, not completely — in western Kansas, but the risk here waned because of what happened in the second enhanced risk area across a good chunk of north Texas. End result? You can have all the dynamics in the world screaming supercells and tornadoes, but if you don’t have the moisture to work with, none of that’s going to happen.
The risk was actually moderate on April 8, increasing from slight and continuing through enhanced as the day progressed, but a strong capping inversion layer held down convection for most of the day and also kneecapped almost all storm activity if thermals did poke through. There were several severe weather reports to our south and a few tornadoes, but I later told several people that was as much nothing as I had ever seen with a moderate risk area.
Two similar but different situations with just about the same meteorological result.
The season has gotten fairly active after a very slow start, and the business of severe weather meteorology has certainly followed suit. In case you haven’t been paying attention the past three decades or so, you can pretty well see just how prevalent that business is.
I can’t speak for private companies, but I can tell you our local broadcast department takes the weather’s role in our daily lives very seriously, so when severe weather is a possibility we let you know. We try to do so (emphasis on the word “try”) in such a way so you can gauge the level of risk without sending you into a tizzy about what might be coming. And we try to give as much lead time as possible. As far as I’m concerned, it’s civic duty. And it’s one not to be taken trivially or to be replaced by the rush for listens or website clicks, although as often as we remind people to get local information from us and not other prospective media sources I can certainly understand that’s how it may seem.
In a way, we untrained weather broadcasters have become very good information regurgitants, especially in the days from the Palm Sunday Outbreak (1965), original Super Outbreak (1974), Omaha (1975), Wichita Falls and Grand Island (1980) to Moore (1999 and multiple times since then), Dixie Outbreak (2011), Joplin (2011) and El Reno (2013). We take what we generally know about severe weather situations and meld that with the information from the National Weather Service, Storm Prediction Center and, in our case, WIBW-TV to give you a sense of what you maybe facing as much as a week out. And as you can see, sometimes things pan out as expected. Sometimes they still don’t.
At least now there are very few instances where we can’t say we weren’t warned anymore. That certainly wasn’t the case up through the early 1950s, when the approach was to say as little as possible so as not to panic the masses, and even into the 1970s — albeit to a progressively lesser extent — as tornado knowledge slowly increased.
Unfortunately, the risk always exists that people will start tuning out severe weather forecasts when things don’t develop as expected in our back yard. We as humans have a tendency of compartmentalizing information very well, and in severe weather we can brush off the fact that a forecast was overall about 90 percent correct if that remaining 10 percent happened in our neck of the woods.
The last four forecasts were off. It’ll never happen here.
I have been a severe weather nut, as I’ve blogged previously, since the Omaha twister of 1975. Since getting into this field almost 20 years ago, it has meant the world to me to make sure what I say — and now that I’m running the news department, what we say — is both factually accurate and reflective of what the situation entails, whether we are dealing with maybe one storm dumping pea-sized hail or an entire community beginning to sift through the wreckage of a significant tornado.
My takeaway from the last two severe weather chances is we in the media, myself included, have to be mindful of the balance needed in broadcasting severe weather situations. Especially the way media is developing these days, it’s now way too easy to overhype. Once that happens, you run an increasingly enhanced, moderate or high risk of people tuning out right before Mother Nature rolls out that dreaded worst-case scenario.