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The History (and Future) of Tornado Warning Dissemination in the United States

Timothy A. ColemanDepartment of Atmospheric Science, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, Alabama

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Kevin R. KnuppDepartment of Atmospheric Science, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, Alabama

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James SpannWBMA Television (ABC 33/40), Birmingham, Alabama

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J. B. ElliottThe Weather Company, Birmingham, Alabama

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Brian E. Peters*National Weather Service, Birmingham, Alabama

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Since the successful tornado forecast at Tinker AFB in 1948 paved the way for the issuance of tornado warnings, the science of tornado detection and forecasting has advanced greatly. However, tornado warnings must be disseminated to the public to be of any use. The Texas tornado warning conferences in 1953 began to develop the framework for a modern tornado warning system and included radar detection of tornadoes, a spotter network, and improved communications between the U.S. Weather Bureau, spotters, and public officials, allowing more timely warnings and dissemination of those warnings to the public.

Commercial radio and television are a main source of warnings for many, and the delivery methods on TV have changed much since 1960. NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) was launched after the 1974 Super Outbreak of tornadoes, with the most important feature being the tone alert that allowed receivers to alert people even when the radio broadcast was turned off. Today, NWR reaches most of the U.S. population, and Specific Area Message Encoding technology has improved its warning precision. Outdoor warning sirens, originally designed for use in enemy attack, were made available for use during tornado warnings around 1970.

“Storm based” warnings, adopted by the National Weather Service in 2007, replaced countybased warnings and greatly reduce the warning area. As communications advances continue, tornado warnings will eventually be delivered to precise locations, using GPS and other location technology, through cellular telephones, outdoor sirens, e-mails, and digital television, in addition to NWR.

* Retired

Since the successful tornado forecast at Tinker AFB in 1948 paved the way for the issuance of tornado warnings, the science of tornado detection and forecasting has advanced greatly. However, tornado warnings must be disseminated to the public to be of any use. The Texas tornado warning conferences in 1953 began to develop the framework for a modern tornado warning system and included radar detection of tornadoes, a spotter network, and improved communications between the U.S. Weather Bureau, spotters, and public officials, allowing more timely warnings and dissemination of those warnings to the public.

Commercial radio and television are a main source of warnings for many, and the delivery methods on TV have changed much since 1960. NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) was launched after the 1974 Super Outbreak of tornadoes, with the most important feature being the tone alert that allowed receivers to alert people even when the radio broadcast was turned off. Today, NWR reaches most of the U.S. population, and Specific Area Message Encoding technology has improved its warning precision. Outdoor warning sirens, originally designed for use in enemy attack, were made available for use during tornado warnings around 1970.

“Storm based” warnings, adopted by the National Weather Service in 2007, replaced countybased warnings and greatly reduce the warning area. As communications advances continue, tornado warnings will eventually be delivered to precise locations, using GPS and other location technology, through cellular telephones, outdoor sirens, e-mails, and digital television, in addition to NWR.

* Retired

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