Minn. Native Leading Weather Warning Revolution

May 22, 2018 10:38 PM

Thirteen minutes.

 That's the average warning time the public receives before a tornado strikes, according to data from the National Weather Service. The nation's top meteorologists are working to improve tornado lead time by eventually giving people up to an hour of warning.


KSTP  traveled to the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma, where Minnesota native Lans Rothfusz is leading the charge to modernize severe weather warnings.

"I saw there were gaps," he said. "I saw there were things we could do better."

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 Rothfusz serves as deputy director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory at the National Weather Center.

Most people are familiar with the current weather warning system. When the NWS identifies the potential for tornadoes, it will issue a watch, often to a vast area with a large number of counties. As the storm moves in, the NWS will issue severe thunderstorm or tornado warnings to smaller, more targeted areas. The warnings often appear as polygon shapes on the weather maps.


The new warning system -- dubbed FACETs (Forecasting a Continuum of Environmental Threats) -- would bring the alerted area down to specific cities or neighborhoods. Rothfusz said the goal is to warn only the people who need to take action.

"What we're trying to do here is minimize the false alarm," Rothfusz said. "And you get to the point that when the message that this tornado or hail storm is coming to you, it is you we're talking about and not another part of the county that you don't have to worry about."

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The information would stream in much earlier too. Rothfusz wants to better alert people during the watch period, before a warning is issued and a tornado becomes more imminent. Rothfusz said the information would be targeted down to every two miles, updating every two minutes, creating a constant flow of data for specific locations. He realizes that could lead to an overwhelming amount of information, so researchers are trying to find a balance.

"We are employing social and behavioral scientists to help us through that process that the information becomes extremely useful and the public does the right thing," Rothfusz said.

Tornadoes killed 35 people across the United States in 2017, according to NWS data. Rothfusz said the new system would be most beneficial for the most vulnerable people.

Local emergency management officials applaud the work being done to improve warnings. 

"These events change and they can change fast and dramatically," said David Unze, Sherburne County communications media specialist.

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An EF-1 tornado ripped through rural Sherburne County near Zimmerman in March 2017. With winds as strong as 110 miles per hour, the storm damaged several homes.  Unze said it's up to county leaders to decide when to sound the sirens, so they depend on the best information possible from the NWS. 

"The earlier you notify that there is a potential danger coming, the more time they have to prepare to get home to get in the right location to be as safe as they can," Unze said.

In Oklahoma, meteorologists continue to experiment with the FACETs system, with the hope of implementing it in the next five to ten years.

Rothfusz, who grew up in Glencoe, said the deadly Tracy tornado in 1968 inspired him to pursue meteorology as a career. Nine people were killed in the southwest Minnesota town. He could only see the aftermath 40 years ago, but hopes the work he and his team are doing will ultimately save more lives.

"We are moving from technology that was built in the teletype area -- in the fifties and sixties -- to the new generation where people have cell phones everywhere," Rothfusz said.


Zach Tecklenburg

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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