I experienced my first tornado warning the night before my 10th birthday. The sirens outside convinced me to move downstairs to watch TV weather updates.
Staring into the darkness before flipping the switch, I paused and pondered a serious question: How could the meteorologists see that a tornado was forming if it was already dark outside? This question, among others, led me to pursue a career in science. Saturday, people here in Kansas City, in our nation’s capital, and around the globe will unite in support for science at the March for Science. I will attend in Boston, and I hope you will join wherever you are.
After this lightbulb moment, I learned all I could about meteorological radars and satellites. My 10-year-old self was relieved to learn that they function even in darkness. Even more interesting to me was the way in which meteorologists combine these advanced technologies with observations made by the human eye and from weather balloons in order to produce forecasts.
My passion for physical sciences was further nurtured by the Math and Physics Institute (MPI) in the Independence School District. This program, available to high school seniors, offers college classes in calculus and physics while building in guest seminars to learn about careers in science and engineering. Last fall, I returned to MPI to share my own experience working for NASA and conducting Ph.D. research at MIT.
Recently, I had the opportunity to put my knowledge to use when a severe weather outbreak produced a tornado heading for Columbia, where my sister was celebrating her 21st birthday. Being a protective big brother, I sent her a forecast every 15 minutes. Not everyone fared as well as she did. She merely witnessed spectacular lightning and small pellets of hail; others, as in Oak Grove, saw their homes destroyed. Thankfully though, the advanced warnings from local meteorologists and the National Weather Service, aided by recent innovations such as mobile phone emergency notifications, helped to ensure there were no fatalities.
We have recently improved our ability to predict other types of weather. In 2015, to mark the 10th anniversary of the devastating Hurricane Katrina, scientists demonstrated the power of technological advances by simulating a re-forecast of Katrina’s track. The results showed that using today’s technology the National Hurricane Center would have predicted a direct hit on New Orleans days in advance.
These major advances in our understanding of weather are the result of years of public support for science. The diligent meteorologists employed by local National Weather Service offices and the Storm Prediction Center are federal employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. High-resolution weather satellites, like GOES-16 launched this past November, are increasing the accuracy of weather observation and prediction, especially due to a new real-time lightning sensor. New classes of Doppler radar are being developed that can increase precision in forecasting precipitation and tornado formation.
These life-saving technologies require both funding of basic research and high-quality science education to train the next generation of meteorologists and engineers. This will not happen without broad support for science from the public. Raising the profile of the role science has played in improving our lives with a March for Science is a first step in building that support. Whether people march to support budding scientists like me, seasoned meteorologists keeping us safe, or the next generation of young explorers, I hope to see the streets full across the entire country.
Michael McClellan grew up in Independence, and is a Ph.D. candidate in atmospheric science at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.