By Niki Morock, meteorologist
It's rare that I shed a tear over the passing of an actor, but yesterday, I did when I learned of Bill Paxton's sudden death. There was shock, sadness, and the realization of how much the man influenced so many of my friends by portraying a meteorologist doing his best to catch a tornado without becoming a victim of it. The character was everything budding meteorologists wanted to be — brave, tenacious, and just crazy enough to do it.
"Twister" came out in 1996, which was the year that I graduated with my mass communication degree and the year that I realized I should have gotten a meteorology degree. An elective meteorology course for non-science majors that last semester at N. C. State University gets the credit for that realization, but the movie just added to my intense fascination with tornadoes and severe storms. Despite all the editing flaws and some occasionally iffy science, it wasn't long before I had every line memorized.
When I returned to NCSU at the age of 30, I quickly learned that my younger atmospheric science course classmates also knew every word of that movie. An entire generation of meteorologists felt the same love for Bill Paxton's character that I did. Some of those students went on to take part in Vortex 2 — a real life research project in 2009 and 2010 with the goal of using instrumentation to gain a better understanding of why some severe storms produce tornadoes and some don't. They got to live the dream that "Twister" portrayed in its Hollywood style without quite so many overly risky decisions. For example, driving through a tornado-tossed farm house and exploding gas tanker might not look quite as good on a research report or resume as it did on the big screen even if that opportunity had presented itself.
When I worked at Weather Eye Radio Network in Minnesota, I had the opportunity to become a Skywarn spotter trainer as well as attend the Minnesota Skywarn Workshop. I met a number of fellow storm enthusiasts, and I learned how to train people to recognize parts of severe storms from a safe distance and call helpful storm reports in to the National Weather Service. At the workshop, I listened to storm chasers tell their stories, NWS employees explain how they categorize tornadoes based on damage, and statisticians explain some of the data behind what we knew so far about tornadoes.
I thank John Wetter for putting so much of his heart and soul into educating and training spotters and chasers. John runs the Minnesota Skywarn Workshop and is the president of the Spotter Network - a group that gained national attention yesterday when they organized a heartfelt tribute to Bill Paxton by spelling out his initials on the map using gps coordinates. It was a fitting and touching tribute to the "Twister" star.
I've written before in a different blog about how Skywarn spotters save lives by helping provide ground truth to the National Weather Service's severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. Severe storm researchers and serious storm chasers should get credit as well. Every bit of video and data that they glean from a successful chase or instrument reading adds to our understanding of how and why storms form and tornadoes occur. We still have a long way to go toward complete understanding of why some storms produce tornadoes and some do not, but we get a little closer every year.
On Wednesday, our local Skywarn spotters may have a chance to put their skills to use here in North Carolina. The Storm Prediction Center has already predicted a slight risk for severe thunderstorms over much of the state with a 15% chance of severe weather within 25 miles of any point highlighted in yellow on the map to the right. A slight risk usually means that someone in the area will experience a short-lived, isolated intense severe thunderstorm, but there just won't be a lot of severe storms over the whole region.
What makes a storm severe? A storm reaches the severe threshold when it has winds in excess of 58 miles per hour, one-inch in diameter (quarter-sized) hail, and/or a tornado. So, by definition a tornadic storm is severe, but not all severe storms are tornadic — hence, the amount of research that is poured into why and how tornadoes form.