NORMAN — On certain days, especially this time of year in Oklahoma, decisions made in a five-story building have life-or-death consequences for hundreds or even thousands of people.
That building houses the National Weather Center, a one-of-a-kind weather collective of federal, state and academic entities on 22 acres on the University of Oklahoma’s south campus.
From here, every severe thunderstorm and tornado watch for the entire country is issued — along with all tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings for central and western Oklahoma, and a portion of north Texas.
What Hawaii is for big-wave surfers, the National Weather Center is to those studying, forecasting and warning about tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.
“You can’t get this anywhere else,” said Patrick Hyland, coordinator of external relations for the center. “The collaboration that goes on here, ... it’s awesome.”
Potentially dangerous weather conditions are discussed by meteorologists at the center, posted online and on social media, then used by news media outlets, emergency managers, researchers, storm chasers and others.
Cutting-edge weather research is also done here, including the development and testing of new radar technology and computer models to better predict and understand the formation and behavior of severe storms.
Opened in summer 2006, the $69 million center has 16 federal, academic and research and development partners, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service Norman/Oklahoma City forecast office; the OU School of Meteorology, the nation’s largest and routinely one of the top-ranked; the Storm Prediction Center; and the Oklahoma Mesonet.
In addition to the 250,000-square-foot main building, four smaller buildings nearby house about 20 private meteorology companies providing forecasts for private clients, such as ocean shipping companies and the Masters golf tournament, and producing products such as weather smartphone apps.
The public agencies and private companies give about 350 graduate and undergraduate meteorology students unique opportunities to learn from top experts in the field and find internships and employment.
More than 40,000 people a year tour the center, including school, church and senior citizen groups, as well as federal and state officials.
Before the center was built, federal, state and academic weather entities were housed in various buildings scattered around the OU campus.
Now, students might be riding in an elevator with the person who wrote their textbook; researchers in different fields might be in the center’s cafe grabbing a cup of coffee and telling each other about their latest work.
“Before, you might have people working on the same project or similar projects and they would say, ‘Wait a minute, I was working on the same thing,’ ” said Kevin Kloesel, director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.
“Now, you have people working together because this central location makes it so much easier for different researchers and academics to collaborate.”
Former OU President David Boren for years was a major proponent of putting all of the entities under one roof, but it wasn’t until after the May 3-4, 1999, tornado outbreak — 20 years ago Friday — that federal and state officials took action to get it built.
On the second floor of the center are the NOAA Storm Prediction Center and the weather service’s Norman/Oklahoma City forecast office. Both have rows of monitors showing the latest satellite and atmospheric information, along with computer models displaying anticipated patterns.
The SPC issues tornado and severe thunderstorm watches for the entire country and also gives regular “convective outlook” updates several times a day.
Convection, or heat transfer, is involved in the formation of thunderstorms.
“The vast majority of severe weather events that occur nationally are handled by the people that you see here, because we deal with severe weather almost every single day in the spring and summer,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations for the SPC.
“In fact, it’s essentially every day.’ ”
Severe outlooks are divided into five categories, from “marginal” to “high,” and are plotted on a map of the U.S. as they are issued.
When atmospheric conditions and models start showing the potential for severe weather, meteorologists at the SPC coordinate with local weather service forecast offices and then decide to issue severe thunderstorm or tornado watches for parts of the country at risk.
Tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings are issued by local weather service forecast offices, but the SPC is usually the first agency through which public notice is given with a watch.
“For a lot of people, their plans change when a watch is issued,” Bunting said.
Future severe potential days are also issued by the SPC, but forecasters currently can only go out four to seven days.
“We’re looking into week two. Once we get to that we’ll be asked about week three, week four, even the season,” Bunting said.
“A very frequent question is ‘What does the (severe weather) season look like?’
“At the moment we really can’t answer that with any quantification. If there’s only one tornado in the state and it hits your house, it’s a really bad year.”
Steps away from the SPC operations center is the Norman/Oklahoma City weather service forecast office.
“This office has always been at the forefront of technology and innovation,” said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist.
“We’ve always been the office that got to test everything first ... new radar technology, new computer models. We get to see everything and be the guinea pigs.”
With all of its experience dealing with powerful, deadly tornadoes in western and central Oklahoma, the office has become the national flagship for severe weather warning and tracking.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” Smith said. “You have everyone wanting information, from the governor to the TV stations to storm chasers and emergency managers to FEMA.”
While both radar and weather computer modeling technology have made giant strides in the past several decades, difficulties in predicting tornadoes and severe storms remain.
“It’s not an easy problem to solve,” said Bunting, who has decades of experience in weather service forecast offices before joining the SPC.
“Providing warning of a storm that hasn’t yet developed — it essentially requires great modeling skills and scientific understanding so that the model replicates reality pretty darn well.”
In another part of the center, Pam Heinselman is working on a new computer model that has the promise of pinpointing almost exactly where severe storms will form — up to six hours before they fire up.
She is program manager of the Warn-On Forecast model, which researchers hope might be able to fill the gap between when a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch is issued and when storms form.
“What we are trying to do is look at short time frames, let’s say zero to three hours out or zero to six hours out,” said Heinselman, chief of forecast research development with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory.
“Can we predict individual thunderstorms or a line of thunderstorms, and then the attributes associated with those storms that will tell us whether or not they will produce severe weather hazards.”
The model, which is currently in its third year of a testing phase, has already shown promise — correctly predicting in 2018 a severe thunderstorm with 3 inches of rainfall in nearly the exact spot the model said it would form.
That is important, Heinselman said, because a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch could cover an area of several hundred square miles.
Forecasters currently still cannot pinpoint exactly where within the watch area storms will form, and thus, exactly where tornadoes, hail or flash flood-producing rains might occur.
The Warn-On system can cover a maximum area of about 560 square miles, she said. But researchers can narrow the area to the highest risk, based on data from the SPC.
“The research we are doing really fills a gap between a warning and a watch. There is no frequent updating model information that’s available right now between those two scales,” she said.
“It’s exciting stuff.”
Social media and trust
In the main lobby of the center are props from the movie “Twister,” including “Dorothy” and “D.O.T. 3,” along with “TOTO,” a real instrument that the movie props were based upon.
Nearby is the Flying Cow cafe.
Because of the movie and countless documentaries and storm-chasing videos, along with the advances in technology and social media, interest in severe weather has never been higher.
That especially includes those who work at the center.
“The people who work in this building live for severe weather,” said Keli Pirtle, NOAA public affairs specialist and spokeswoman for the center.
On severe weather days, “It’s crazy to me how people will even come in on their day off because they want to be a part of it here,” she said.
And yes, the center does have a place for employees and students to go in case a tornado is headed toward the building — a below-ground auditorium that serves as a storm shelter, Pirtle said.
Smith and Bunting said the explosion of social media and the public availability of weather data, outlooks and tracking has been a double-edged sword.
While more people than ever are following the weather service and the Storm Prediction Center for updates, social media also has its downsides.
“Social media has been a huge benefit to the office, but it has changed the way we operate,” Smith said.
“There’s events, severe weather events, winter storms ... where before social media we might not even be confident to even talk about it until it’s four days away,” he said.
“But now as soon as anybody on social media sees one run of a computer model that says 12 inches of snow eight days from now, we’re kind of forced to start talking about it, because we’re getting calls from the governor’s office or the emergency managers saying ‘My city manager saw somebody on Facebook who said it’s going to snow 10 inches. What do you know about that?’
“Everybody tries to be their own meteorologist. Everybody tries to be a forecaster. And everybody with social media can second-guess and analyze.”
Bunting said people who may feel overwhelmed with all the weather information out there should ask themselves, “Who do I listen to? Who do I trust?”
“It could be the Storm Prediction Center, it could be the Tulsa (NWS) forecast office, it could be your favorite broadcast meteorologist.
“And it’s probably a combination for most people. Monitor multiple sources and look for agreement. Find those trusted sources and rely on them,” he said.
Smith also said people should keep updated on current forecasts.
“You can’t look at the weather on TV or whatever at 6, 7 o’clock in the morning and have a good handle on what’s going on, on a severe weather day,” he said.
“My advice to Oklahomans, always, is that if there is a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms for that day, check the forecast often throughout the day.
“Don’t assume that the information you have in the morning is going to be the same information that’s there in the afternoon.”