On Monday afternoon, citizens of Moore, Okla., were given a mere 16-minute warning time before the tornado struck their town. That small amount of time might be how long it takes to hard-boil an egg, or take a long shower.
Unfortunately, victims of other tornadoes have been given even less time than that. While the National Weather Service has made advances in tornado-detection technology in the last few years, the public and the NWS still rely on some of the same techniques that have been in place for decades, including human eyewitnesses who call in to report tornadoes.
Today, the NWS uses a combination of Doppler radar, satellite imagery, and analysis programs to detect tornadoes -- just as it has done for years. The Doppler and satellite technology have improved over time, making those detection options more effective. But the National Weather Service also relies on a network of about 290,000 volunteer severe-weather spotters that has been in place since the 1970s, the BBC reports.
Just recently, there was a nationwide upgrade from radar technology that had been in place since 1988, Mike Mihalik, a meteorologist at Weather Works, told The Huffington Post. The upgrade gave national radar better resolution and increased its sensitivity. Even better radar is in the works, but it's probably still a couple years off, Mihalik said. For now, meteorologists still rely somewhat on old-fashioned, word-of-mouth reports to find tornadoes. They can find tornadoes faster if a spotter calls in and reports a tornado on the ground, Mihalik said.
"Typically the advance warning on tornadoes is about 13 minutes," Mihalik said. "The reason why it's so difficult to give you that lead time is because we have to see [the storm] on radar, and once we see that, it raises a red flag and we look for a tornado vortex, also on radar." The warning time hasn't changed much over the years. Residents of Greensburg, Kan., had 10-12 minutes of a warning before a huge tornado hit their town in 2007.
The citizens of Oklahoma City were warned on Monday of the oncoming tornado via 181 emergency sirens that have been in place around the city since 2002. First installed around the U.S. during the Cold War, sirens have been used to warn of weather events and emergencies for decades. There are an estimated 20,000 sirens around the U.S., according to USA Today.
The ability to spot dangerous weather patterns may soon take a turn for the worse, however. The U.S. uses two types of satellites to predict weather patterns. Soon, one of the main satellites that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses is going to die, Gizmodo reports. When that satellite goes out, it will take between 17 and 53 months for a new one to go up. "According to NOAA program officials, a satellite data gap would result in less accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings of extreme events," the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports.