Fallout From False Tornado
Updated: Apr 18, 2022
The fundamental aspect to an effective life saving warning system is confidence. That was severely rattled last Friday night as a monster supercell tracked across northern Arkansas. There must be improvements in the system and legal action must be on the table to fix it.
9 tornado reports originating from emergency managers, trained spotters, and broadcast media were all wrong.
How could something like this happen in 2022? Those reports along with an ominous radar presentation lead meteorologists at the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock to issue a tornado warning, then a tornado emergency. What is a tornado emergency? This is how it's defined by the National Weather Service.
Severe threat to human life is imminent or ongoing
Catastrophic damage is imminent or ongoing.
Reliable sources confirm (either 1 or 2)
2. Radar imagery strongly suggests the existence of a damaging tornado (a debris ball signature, for example).
If you're a meteorologist at the NWS office and in what I call the "hot seat" do you issue the warning last Friday night? Absolutely! We can have a debate about the emergency, but the radar operator that night did the right thing beyond any shadow of a doubt.
It all comes down to the reports and how to make them better. I truly believe most of them were not malicious. They did not knowingly send in bad information. They were truly trying to save lives.
I have heard reports there may be an investigation pertaining to an individual or individuals knowingly sending false weather reports to the National Weather Service and Friday night was not the first time it has happened.
Dennis Cavanaugh, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock told me, “When someone maliciously spoofs their lat/lon on a very visible platform (like spotter network) and reports something that COULD be plausible based on all of the facts and pictures you shared in your blog, it’s mentally noted by those observers and public servants that we all normally trust for accurate reports. If someone hears or sees a report of a tornado headed for their location, they will go outside and look for a tornado. With the report of a tornado already in the back of their mind due to the maliciously placed false report, observers become psychologically predisposed to see that low-hanging cloud as a tornado. Since someone else reported a tornado, and it’s dark and an EM/police/firefighter sees a low-hanging cloud they think they’re also seeing a tornado due to “confirmation bias”. That’s what makes maliciously placed false reports so insidious is that it causes honest, hard working and trusted members of the community to report something they may otherwise have not been out looking for.”
It's imperative we have complete confidence in the warning process from the observers on the ground, to the radar operator, and to those who communicate it to the public. If we don't, the cry wolf syndrome will get somebody killed.
What were law enforcement officers and trained spotters seeing? It looked like a tornado, but it wasn't. It was most likely a low hanging wall cloud and was mistaken as a wedge tornado. It's very difficult to see at night in those hills unless it's lit up by lightning. In those brief flashes, it's difficult to know if there is rotation. Also, some of the reports may have been scud clouds and those are harmless. They are what we sometimes refer to as "SLC", Scary Looking Clouds.
While this may look like a tornado, it's impossible to see if it's making contact with the ground with trees in the way and a building.
How do we make the warning system better? Law enforcement and spotters must be better trained. This has been difficult during the pandemic with only online classes offered. In person instruction is more effective. If, and I hope this isn't the case, someone knowingly sent out false reports, that person must be held accountable with every legal option possible and there are laws against false reporting.
To all the storm chasers and spotters, it's crucial you continue to work and stay safe. We appreciate your reports! Please remember this, it's just as important to tell us there's not a tornado when observing. If you're not sure, just say so. There's nothing wrong with that. You are a valuable asset in the warning process.