We recently sat down with our severe weather expert Dr. Forbes to discuss his 44 year career, favorite weather memories, advice and more!
What made you interested in studying tornadoes/got you interested in severe weather?
Originally I became interested in meteorology in the seventh grade. We had a teacher that taught weather as a module, and at that time, I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but wasn’t sure what kind.
As a seventh grader you learn about biology and chemistry. Biology, I figured, there were already so many people that had done things, and I wasn’t keen on dissecting icky frogs. In chemistry there had been so much study – you might go your whole lifetime and not discover some new formula. Then along came this teacher that showed weather forecasting was a science.
You could make a forecast based on actual data and find out the next day if you were right or wrong and learn from that. It was kind of like detective work and science combined, and I said, “Oh that’s for me.”
Besides, we lived out in the country, and if it was a sunny day, my mother would hang the clothes out on the clothesline to dry instead of using the dryer. So by making daily forecasts you can help people with their daily lives.I thought, “well this is pretty cool.”
Once I got to Penn State and started studying meteorology, I was taught and read about the work Dr. Fujita was doing at the University of Chicago on severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. So I thought, “well that’s pretty exciting. I want to learn how to become a severe weather forecaster and save lives.” After writing to Dr. Fujita, I was lucky enough that he was able to get some grant money that allowed me to have an assistantship while getting my master’s degree and PhD. I studied under Dr. Fujita for nearly 6 years while acquiring those degrees.
I originally intended to just get a master’s degree, and then go off to be a forecaster at what is now the Storm Prediction Center. I had heard it was hard to get a job there with only a bachelor’s degree, so I thought I’d get a master’s degree studying under Dr. Fujita about tornadoes – that’s a great way to get in.
Studying under Dr. Fujita was so exciting that when someone of that stature says you should stick around and get your PhD – you do that! At that time, I was educationally overqualified for the Storm Prediction Center, and headed off to academia where I wound up being a professor at Penn State for 21 years teaching other people to do severe weather forecasting – some of which wound up at the Storm Prediction Center.
What made you make the transition to television?
Well in the back of my mind, I still wanted to be a severe weather forecaster, but I just thought I was out of that possibility until The Weather Channel started expanding their expert team. They already had two hurricane experts and a winter weather expert. After there had been some tornado outbreaks, they decided they wanted to have a severe weather expert. So I was asked if I wanted to apply, and I was lucky enough to get the job. I started at The Weather Channel on June 1, 1999.
What is one weather memory that you will never forget?
Well I have a lot I will never forget. Two of them involve Super Outbreaks – 1974 and 2011.
I was a graduate student under Dr. Fujita during the 1974 Super Outbreak. It was getting late in the evening and Dr. Fujita was about to head home to eat dinner when he spoke to Allen Pearson, director of the Storm Prediction Center. Allen told him to be ready for damage surveys because it was getting to be a pretty bad outbreak.
But the irony in that was that Dr. Fujita had run out of research grant funding for me to continue studying tornadoes with him. Literally the day of the outbreak, I had an interview for a position to be an aircraft observer meteorologist on a project to study the formation of tropical storms off of Africa.
During the interview, a hailstorm with a rotating supercell thunderstorm came over our building at the University of Chicago, and one of the meteorologists came running in and said, “Sorry to interrupt but you might want to come out here and see this. There’s a wall cloud over the building.” The moment I’ll never forget is as Fujita was leaving the building that day, he said, “Well if you can sort of hold off on that job for a little bit, I think I’m going to get some new funding out of this tornado outbreak, so you will probably get to keep studying tornadoes after all.”
He went home to rest up, and his wife had actually collected some of the hailstones and put them in the fridge. Dr. Fujita told us that he had a cocktail “on the rocks” or “on the hailstones.”
And the other, certainly, is the Super Outbreak of 2011, and seeing the debris ball over Tuscaloosa, Ala., as the tornado touched down and started decimating into the community there and moving along its 80+ mile path. We had meteorologist Jeff Morrow on-air near Birmingham, and moments later he’s talking about shingles falling down from the sky there while the tornado is still 15+ miles away. It was the damage from Tuscaloosa that had been picked up into the storm and hurled forward and was coming down along the future path of the tornado, quite a few minutes ahead of time.
How many tornadoes have you seen in person? What were they like?
At least three. It’s exciting. Exhilarating. The three that I saw were all sort of different. The first one was a little, tiny gustnado-type tornado in The Netherlands in 1983. I was working as a visiting scientist at the Dutch Weather Service. It was a holiday, and I was in the kitchen by the window. All of a sudden, the window started rattling and there was a big green whirl outside, and I sort of thought to myself, “Gee if that’s a tornado I better get away from these windows.” So I ran to the other side of the house to look out of the other windows, but curiosity got the better of me and I ran back to the window where the tornado was. In the meantime, a tree had gotten knocked down but didn’t damage the building. I went up on the roof and could sort of see a little bit of a funnel near the cloud base, mostly a whirling, weak, gustnado heading northeast, and I did a damage survey on my bicycle.
Then, May 2010, Mike Bettes and I were out storm tracking for The Weather Channel during a Vortex 2 research day. We were following along with one of the Doppler radars in the area near Oklahoma City. There were tornado warnings, and we could see big hook echoes on radar, but we were trying to find an open space where we could look at the part of the hook echo. Then, we finally came to this opening and, wow, there’s a big wedge tornado that’s sitting over there. We jumped out of the van and the cameraman set up the camera as fast as he could, and we started to broadcast live. Within a minute or so it had gotten rain-wrapped, and we were getting rained on – we couldn’t see the tornado anymore. It was an EF3 tornado that was maybe two miles at most away, but it was still pretty big even from our vantage point.
In 2013, a couple days before the Moore, Okla., tornado, we were up in Kansas and several tornadoes formed on a gust front. One of them was all roped out horizontal. It was on the ground 300 yards away from us off to our east, but the funnel was right over top of us. You could hear the whirring, it sounded like a waterfall, so that was pretty exciting. And then all of a sudden, another tornado formed just down to our south along that gust front, and it went scooting down and broke a big branch off a tree. So there were one or two that day, little landspout tornadoes.
Were you scared at all?
No, I was pretty sure that we were safe. There was a real strong cold, windy gust front, so I knew we were in stable air right where we were, but a few hundred yards beyond us – where the edge of the gust front was – at the edge of the interface, another tornado spun up, so it was exciting more than scary. We were scared on the 2010 day, not so much by the tornado, but that we were driving around sort of blind. We knew there was probably a tornado there, but it was hard to see because of the trees. The first spot we got out and it was boom boom boom, lightning bolts coming down, so we were a little more scared of that. We decided not to stay there. We couldn’t really see from that long of a distance. We were more likely to die from a lightning bolt than a tornado.
What advice would you give to someone who is in an area forecasted for severe weather? Someone in the direct path?
Well, you hope that people have positioned themselves in a sturdy building. The danger is if they are in a mobile home or a vehicle or some outdoor setting, you worry about that. But if they are in a sturdy building, you tell them to hunker down in a safe position in the lowest, innermost portion of that building. And if you have time, then you expand on that and tell them to go to the basement and get under some heavy object: a workbench, a table or stairs.
Some safety measures we talk about ahead of time are putting on a helmet or something to protect your head in your safe shelter, because most fatalities come from head injuries. Also, if you are running around barefoot, put shoes on. In case your house is damaged, there will be a lot of rubble with broken glass, sticks, nails and sharp objects. You don’t want to suddenly have injuries because you’ve had to walk around barefoot in the debris.
If you’re caught in a vehicle, you have to make a quick decision whether you’re going to stop the vehicle and get out, if there’s a ditch nearby, or stay in the vehicle. If you’re going to pull over and hunker down, get down low in the vehicle and let the body of the vehicle, the airbags and things like that, give you some protection.
What are safety precautions when there is lightning?
There is a higher risk of getting hit and killed by lightning in your lifetime than from a tornado, by virtue of the fact that there are a lot more thunderstorms than tornadoes each year. I try telling people many, many times per year that when thunder roars, go indoors. However, even that could be too late. I try to say not to wait for the first thunder because sometimes the deadliest bolt winds up being the first lightning strike that comes down while people have been waiting for the thunder instead of seeking shelter.
If it’s a day where thunderstorms are predicted and you see the sky is dark, that is the time to be heading indoors. Or if you can’t go indoors, go into a vehicle with a metal body or roof.
So do go under metal? I would think distinctively to stay away from metal.
Definitely in the case of a metal vehicle, but not something like a metal storage shed that isn’t grounded.. As long as you’re not touching metal parts of the vehicle. The metal body serves as an electric “Farraday” cage that is the conducting object. The air is not a very good conductor.
So if a lightning bolt hits the vehicle, electricity quickly travels through the metal and doesn’t normally go back into the air. It goes around the body of the vehicle, down in the axles and sometimes in the process it blows out the tires as it goes down in the ground. You don’t want to be touching the radio or the steering wheel. Though staying inside the vehicle probably isn’t 100% safe, it’s pretty close.
Same with the inside of a house. Normally, the lightning will go through a house, maybe through the plumbing or wiring, so you do not want to be touching anything inside the house like a corded telephone, washing the dishes or taking a shower, where you could be in contact with electrical current from the lightning. There have been instances of people doing the dishes or even under a chandelier when the lightning has come down and part of the charge is arced over to them.
Are there any severe weather myths that you hate or always correct?
I think it is largely gone away now, but back probably around 1970 there was a safety rule that said when a tornado was approaching to open the windows. There had been a myth that building would explode during a tornado because tornadoes have low pressure inside them, and the house, if you had the windows closed, would have higher pressure. Then when the tornado would come over the building you would have sort of like a balloon expanding and it would blow up.
If the tornado is strong enough that it has low enough pressure to make the house explode, it’s going to have strong enough winds that it will break the windows or take off the roof, so you don’t want to be spending precious seconds opening windows. You want to be spending those seconds going to the basement or your safe place. Besides houses have chimneys, air vents etc. that are easily able to let the pressure equalize even if pressure is what would be doing the damage. It’s the wind, not the pressure, that damages buildings.
Another one was perpetuated by a video from 1992 where some TV folks were out chasing a storm in Kansas. When they saw a tornado coming, they jumped out of the vehicle and ran under an overpass yelling, “Get under the girders,” which is definitely the wrong thing to do in that situation. They should’ve gotten into a ditch, not gotten out of the car to go up under an overpass where there’s nothing to grab on to. If the tornado is coming at them, those embankments are going to constrict the airflow, so if anything, the air is going to squirt faster in that area. Also, every foot you rise above ground allows less friction and causes the wind to increase quite a bit as you go up, so you’re going up into faster winds in a constricted area. That’s why we try to tell people not to get under overpasses and stay as low as possible.
What is the most rewarding part about being a tornado and severe weather expert?
I got into the business because I wanted to save lives. Back in 2002, LaPlata Maryland got hit by an F4 tornado. I had a person from LaPlata mail me and say that they had been watching my broadcast that day. Before the tornado had formed, I told viewers that I thought it was going to form, and I was pretty worried about it. They said that the concern in my voice prompted them to take shelter. So there are some moments where you feel like what you’re doing can save some lives.