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Scientific leaders provide insight into our state’s dangerous weather and the anxiety that it causes.

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Dr. Berrien Moore, Dean of the College of Atmospheric & Geographic Sciences and the Director of the Nation Weather Center in Norman, in the central atrium near the entrance at the National Weather Center in Norman.  mh
  • Dr. Berrien Moore, Dean of the College of Atmospheric & Geographic Sciences and the Director of the Nation Weather Center in Norman, in the central atrium near the entrance at the National Weather Center in Norman. mh

It seems there are some things that every Oklahoman knows, such as our state’s Native American history, the sporting implications of the word “bedlam” and probably the lyrics to at least one Garth Brooks song.

There’s another fact, though, that has far more impact on our safety and well-being: Our weather is scary.

We know that every spring is bound to bring extreme, potentially deadly weather, most specifically tornadoes. With historic F5-level storms ripping through Moore in 1999 and El Reno and Moore (again) in 2013, the threat of dangerous tornadic events continues to inspire wonder and curiosity in some and deep fear, both passing and paralyzing, in many others.

That fear and anxiety helps boost news ratings and turn local meteorologists and storm chasers into celebrities, but it also informs a large segment of the state’s cultural and economic identity. Oklahoma’s storm shelter industry is more profitable than ever, and the National Weather Center (NWC) at the University of Oklahoma (OU) employs hundreds of people who provide groundbreaking and state-of-the-art atmospheric research not just for the state, but for the planet.

NWC’s research has given us the ability to forecast severe storms with remarkable accuracy, but to those residents most scared and nervous about major tornadoes, its data also seems to be shaping into a pattern of greater frequency and danger, especially in those places that seem to be hit more often.

Unfortunately, most disaster-related anxieties and related disorders like PTSD often are more emotion-driven than rational, making them particularly difficult to overcome using statistics or positive odds.

Don’t panic!

NWC researchers in Norman use science and facts to help make sense of the chaos overhead as they are confronted almost daily with the potential power and dangers of weather.

Few are better qualified to discuss the postive impact of well-reasoned  facts can have on a mind than Berrien Moore III. As NWC director, College of Atmospheric & Geographic Sciences dean and vice president of Weather and Climate Programs at OU, he’s aware of the persistent irrationality that storm-based anxiety can cause, even in the face of good information.

“Forecasting a specific tornadic event is a little bit like forecasting a terrorist,” he said. “It is highly localized in time and space. It’s going to occur in a very small piece of landscape over a very short period of time.”

That localization and seemingly random nature, he said, is what makes these extreme weather events feel “spooky” — but is also the reason we shouldn’t worry too much.

“We probably have, in Oklahoma, because of the NWC, the best information on the planet for what we’re being faced with,” he said. “Our forecasting capability is really quite significant. In some ways, I think that people should feel knowledgeable, and that knowledge should make them feel a little more comfortable.”

The key to staying calm and levelheaded, he said, is teaching and spreading the appropriate information.

“We ought to be spending a good deal of money on the social dimension,” he said.

When asked if there was one area in particular that he believes we should be focused on, he had an answer ready.

“The nature of our communication and what we tell people to do and how they get that message,” he said. “One thing we may need to do is to start a lot earlier and have it be more in the educational program. Part of the reason you train is to gain confidence that you know what to do and that you’ll take smart action and not panic.”

“Statistical fluke”

Much of those same beliefs are echoed by Howard Bluestein, an OU meteorology professor and a man who is no stranger to the awe-inspiring power of tornadoes.

His expertise and passion for studying and chasing severe weather has taken him all over the country and made him one of the most respected researchers in the field.

So what does a man so well-versed in the paths and behavior of tornadoes make of the frightening retracing of massive storms through parts of the Interstate 44 corridor in recent years and within relatively short time spans?

“Well, that’s a statistical fluke,” he said. “It happens, but it happens rarely. The chances of being hit by a tornado are very slim. The chances of being hit by a tornado twice within a several-year period, which can happen, are also very slim. But if you’re the one it’s happening to, then, obviously, you’re in trouble.”

Oklahoma Weather Lab Student Forecast Office, inside OU's National Weather Center in Norman.  mh
  • Oklahoma Weather Lab Student Forecast Office, inside OU's National Weather Center in Norman. mh

Bluestein explained how some of the scariest perceived storm frequency trends actually might not be occurring.

“The number of years for which we have good data is not large enough to really say whether or not tornadoes are getting more frequent or that they’re getting stronger,” he said. “Remember that the population is growing. Houses are being built. More people are around. So even if tornado frequency isn’t going up at all, the probability of someone getting hit by a tornado is going up.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t believe that facts and statistics alone are enough to calm many people’s worst weather fears.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell them that their chances of being hit by a tornado are very small, even though that’s true,” he said. “I think to calm people down, you should let them know what to do in the event that a tornado is possible and that they should check the media quite a bit and just be aware and be prepared.”

Beauty myth

If there is one thing to be learned from these weather researchers and scientists, it’s that fear doesn’t have to fully control our perceptions of the weather if we can give it the understanding and reverence that it requires.

Bluestein himself formed his fascination of weather science at an early age when confronted by a tornado sweeping through his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.

He recalled how his mother’s concerns for his safety only translated to wonder and curiosity in his young mind and how that fueled his respect for what he calls the “aesthetic beauty” of tornadoes and extreme weather. His life is an example of how understanding can keep you calm, and he still maintains that he has never been personally affected by weather anxiety and he still passionately loves the weather.

Moore similarly believes that solid, realistic thinking about the weather should trump rumor and legend, especially regarding years-old beliefs like tornadoes never crossing rivers or that they won’t hit Norman.

“You do have this urban mythology that persists, and that, I think, is just a way in which people try to deal with something that they don’t have a better way of dealing with,” he said. “They create myths. You do have a better way of dealing with it. You’re getting good information. You’re getting far better forecasting than almost any other place on the planet, and you just need to be in a situation to utilize that information, and therefore, you need not feel helpless.”


Print headline: Hazardous gales, Scientific leaders provide insight into our state’s dangerous weather and the anxiety that it causes.

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