Episode 13: Kelvin Droegemeier talks about the past, present and future of weather prediction

Dr. Kelvin Driegemeier // Jun 7, 2016

When Kelvin Droegemeier watched the Wizard of Oz as a child, the tornado scenes scared him so much that he didn’t want to look. Today, the esteemed meteorologist watches storms for a living—with a particular interest in tornados.

From his upbringing in central Kansas—where he grew up marveling at weather and storms—to his undergraduate internship with the National Severe Storms Lab, Droegemeier was primed for a brilliant career in meteorology.

Droegemeier is currently the vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, where he is also Regents Professor of meteorology; Weathernews Chair Emeritus; and Roger and Sherry Teigen Presidential Professor.

He is also the vice-chairman of the national science board at the National Science Foundation. In 1989, he co-founded CAPS, the Center for the Analysis and Prediction of Storms. This center pioneered storm scale numerical weather prediction with data simulation, which ushered in a whole new science of studying the weather.

Droegemeier talks with STEM-Talk Host Dawn Kernagis and co-host Tom Jones about the past, present and future of weather prediction, both in the U.S. and globally.

For more information on Droegemeier, check out his home page at the University of Oklahoma: as well as his biography at the National Science Board:

Here is also the report that came out of that, entitled “Hurricane Warning: The Critical Need for a National Hurricane Research Initiative:

00:47: Ken Ford describes Droegemeier as a pioneer in understanding thunderstorm dynamics and predictability, computational fluid dynamics, aviation weather, modeling and predicting of extreme weather, among other areas.

1:13: Dawn says: “Kelvin has greatly shaped the scientific landscape in meteorology and storm prediction and tracking. His work has no doubt saved many lives.”

2:00: Ford was co-chairman on the National Science Board Task Force on Hurricanes, Science and Engineering in 2005-06. “Living in Pensacola and having just experienced Hurricane Ivan, and then Hurricane Katrina, I was highly motivated to work on this problem…. Around here we’ve come to fear hurricanes with Russian names like Ivan and Katrina.”

3:20: Ford reads iTunes review from “ARFO6C”: “Brilliant, just brilliant.”

4:37: “Growing up in central Kansas, I was exposed to interesting weather year-round. I remember as a child being fascinated by the power and the grandeur of the atmosphere, and how quickly the weather could change.”

7:00: Droegemeier is especially interested in spring storms and wind. “To me, the perfect day is 60 degrees, low clouds, winds at 40 mph…. [There is something] so wonderful and powerful about the wind.”.

11:06: As a child, Droegemeier was interested in science, but it wasn’t until his undergraduate work study job at the National Severe Storms Lab, where an advisor suggested graduate school, that his academic interest in weather was sparked.

12:35: He went to graduate school at the University of Illinois to work with a person who was a pioneer in using super computers to make 3D models of thunderstorms. They looked at storms’ rotation, or the pathways to understanding how tornados form.

13:50: He describes “seminal changes in the last 20-30 years in meteorology, driven by high-performance computing.”

15:04: Twenty years ago, the first national network of Doppler weather radar also emerged. This allowed sensing the directional movement of precipitation particles.

17:30: He says the data simulation models have “dramatically improved over the last two decades. We are able to predict up to 72 hours more precisely than what we were able to do twenty years ago [predicting] up to 36 hours.”

18:00: CAPS is one of the first 11 science/technology centers funded by the NSF. It was selected out of 323 applicants. The premise was the following question: ‘Could you use a computer model to predict thunderstorms in advance of their occurrence?’

21:45: Droegemeier talks about project Hub-CAPS, with American Airlines, to predict storms. They then created a private company to commercialize the forecasting technology to different types of industries worldwide, including communications and transportation. That company was called Weather Decision Technologies, Inc.

22:49: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

26:05: Climate models are much more driven by boundary conditions than initial conditions. Boundary conditions include vegetative cover, changes in biogeochemical cycles, the solar cycle, volcanic eruptions and things like that.

28:01: “Science never ends, and models are never perfect, but I think they’re getting better and better all the time,” Droegemeier says, in describing new climate models that include information about microbiomes and organisms in the ground and how these influence the carbon cycle.

28:33: “The amount of money we spend on research is a pittance compared to the massive economic loss we have from devastating storms.”

28:58: “Fifty percent of the population in the U.S. lives within fifty miles of the coastline.” One area in need of improvement is better building codes.

29:16: Cumulative disruptive events, not just big events, have a major impact/economic toll. They cause delays in construction projects, cancelled flights and energy plant closures.

30:05: Droegemeier emphasizes the importance of the human element in storm tracking and prediction. “The key thing is we are dealing with people who have to make decisions. It’s also a human behavioral problem.” The key to preventing death, he adds, is taking a more comprehensive view of the issues.

31:16: “When someone receives a warning, the first thing they do is seek confirmation: they call a neighbor, turn on the TV. They lose time.”

33:30: In 1956, 519 people died in tornados. In 2011, 550 people died. The population has increased, so this is a successful result, but to reduce the death toll even further, Droegemeier insists on the human element.

34:12: “Understanding how people receive, interpret and act on information. Those pieces are very important. I think once we crack the code on that, we’ll see the death toll go down.”

34:53: Droegemeier says “My mantra is zero deaths.” He compares his goals to reduce tornado deaths to the reduction of wind shear accidents in commercial aviation: There were a lot of deaths in the 1970s; but through training, and better technology, there has not been a crash since the mid-80s.

35:48: The big snow storms in Washington D.C. and New York City last January were well-forecasted. “People saw it coming from a long way away.”

37:20: Droegemeier talks about intense storms in Moore, Oklahoma, where he lives.

38:20: “During a tornado, the last place you want to be is in your car, which becomes like a missile.” Despite this, people will flee en masse in cars after hearing the media report tornado warnings.

39:50 Hyperbolic messaging inspires people to flee instead of stay put (which they often should do.)

40:10: “We have to become more sophisticated in our messaging. It’s not a one-size-fits-all audience.”

42:00: Social media is having a more prominent role in weather prediction/messaging. The challenge is that people are now bombarded with multiple sources of information. The National Weather Service is the single authoritative source. Television stations have their own radars, add their interpretations.

43:00: “How do people navigate this tremendous blast of information? Trust is extremely important; most people seek confirmation.”

43:43: Droegemeier says misinformation risks creating upheaval, but he has never (fortunately) seen that happen.

44:25: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

45:05: There are computing facilities in Maryland, and a back up facility in Florida; plus 168 Doppler radar networks (with dual polarization capability; they can detect/distinguish different types of precipitation.)

47:28: Cybersecurity is extremely important for National Weather Service.

48:00: Social scientists at Oklahoma University gather data from Facebook and other social media sources.

49:00: Droegemeier and Ford, when they were on the National Science Board, proposed a National Hurricane Research Initiative. This involved researching hurricanes in a new way; creating a virtual lab; modeling both human behavior and buildings’ reactions.

51:30: The proposal received some Congressional support for a couple of years, but no money was appropriated. That was ten years ago, and the ideas in the report haven’t gone away.

53:03: Hurricanes such as Ivan, Katrina and Rita still have lingering impacts, particularly the economics of closed businesses, lost insurance coverage, etc.

53:40: A lot of building codes just aren’t enforced. A lot of property loss could be prevented.

54:17: Ed Lorenz said that large scale events have greater predictability because the physics driving them is simpler; two dimensional. Forecasting individual clouds/cloud coverage is very difficult.

56:48: Two weeks is the theoretical limit of weather prediction, which we will never be able to surpass.

57:30: Droegemeier foresees the development of a global model for individual thunderstorms in the next 30-40 years.

58:30: Every part of the atmosphere talks to every other part of atmosphere.

58:50: There is a lot of storm energy in the space from the ground up to two or three miles high in the atmosphere, but we don’t have sensors sitting in this area. Drones show promise for getting information.

1:02:39: Droegemeier has personally been very close to tornados, but he has not yet been in a hurricane. He has experienced winds at 120 mph, and been in a situation where his car was totaled.

1:04:30: Studying weather can be comprehensive, involving even humanists: He knows a classics professor studying climate change in Ancient Greek culture/how that affected human health.

1:06:25: The Space program has been valuable in weather forecasting since the 1960s, with the use of satellites. Thunderstorms produce X-rays.

1:08:00: We still have students willing to chase storms and lightning.

1:08:15: Dawn thanks Kelvin for being on the show.

1:09:00: Dawn and Ken sign off.