How Oklahoma Forecast the Future of Severe Weather Prediction - 405 Magazine

How Oklahoma Forecast the Future of Severe Weather Prediction

Norman’s National Weather Center keeps Oklahoma on the cutting edge of meteorology.

Norman’s National Weather Center keeps Oklahoma on the cutting edge of meteorology. 

In March 1948, two meteorologists at Tinker Air Force Base issued the United States’ first official tornado warning in an effort to protect aircraft and base personnel and divert any air traffic. Just five days earlier, a tornado had hit the base and caused millions of dollars in damage, but they were correct—hours after their prediction, Tinker was hit by a second tornado, one which caused no injuries thanks to their warning.

Four years later in 1952, Harry Volkman at Oklahoma City’s WKY-TV, now KFOR, became the first weather broadcaster to issue a tornado warning on television. At the time, the federal government banned warnings or broadcasts about tornadoes for fear of creating a panic. But the success of Volkman’s advisory led the U.S. to lift the ban. Today, severe weather warnings come often in Oklahoma, which is in an area of the country dubbed Tornado Alley because of the higher number of occurrences.

Oklahoma is synonymous with volatile severe weather, but the state has risen to the challenge and led the way in forecasting such events with increasing accuracy and advancing technology.

In the late 1800s, weather data and observations from military sites were telegraphed across the country to forecast offices, including one in Oklahoma City, which then alerted post offices, railroad stations and newspapers to help warn others about severe storms.

The U. S. Weather Bureau’s central Oklahoma office first opened in 1890 in the Overholser Opera House on the southeast corner of Robinson and Grand boulevards, which is the current location of Prairie Surf Studios. The office relocated and split up its operations several times over the next 100 years.

The idea for a national weather center solidified during a visit from President Bill Clinton in 1999, when he and then OU President David Boren surveyed damage to the metro area after an EF5 tornado. They discussed a center, and before he left, President Clinton offered his support.

In 2006, the National Weather Center opened on the southern edge of the University of Oklahoma’s campus. Norman’s massive center is a nucleus of scientific research, advanced technology and weather forecasting with more than 550 scientists, meteorologists and climatologists, as well as students and staff from OU and federal and state agencies working together.

Many institutions and organizations are represented there, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the NOAA Cooperative Institute, OU’s School of Meteorology, the Storm Prediction Center, the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, the Radar Operations Center and the National Weather Service Forecast Office, according to a June 2022 story in The Oklahoman.

“The National Weather Center is unique,” said Dr. Berrien Moore, director at the weather center and dean of OU’s College of Atmospheric & Geographic Sciences. “There is no place like it on the planet. Having all the components together allows NOAA partners to have access to the latest scientific information, enhancing their ability to save lives and protect property.”

The National Weather Service runs regular seven-day forecasts for 48 counties in Oklahoma and eight counties in western north Texas. The local forecast office produces watches, warnings and advisories for all these counties, and the Storm Prediction Center issues severe thunderstorm and tornado watches.

The Norman National Weather Service office also produces aviation and fire weather forecasts, maintains climate data and records for various observation sites and keeps records and provides forecasts for various rivers around the area.

With the National Weather Service and the National Weather Center working together, one can only wonder how we might advance in predicting the unpredictable in the next 100 years.