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date: 21 January 2021

History of Convective Storm Sciencelocked

  • Charles A. Doswell IIICharles A. Doswell IIIDoswell Scientific Consulting


Convective storms are the result of a disequilibrium created by solar heating in the presence of abundant low-level moisture, resulting in the development of buoyancy in ascending air. Buoyancy typically is measured by the Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) associated with air parcels. When CAPE is present in an environment with strong vertical wind shear (winds changing speed and/or direction with height), convective storms become increasingly organized and more likely to produce hazardous weather: strong winds, large hail, heavy precipitation, and tornadoes.

Because of their associated hazards and their impact on society, in some nations (notably, the United States), there arose a need to have forecasts of convective storms. Pre-20th-century efforts to forecast the weather were hampered by a lack of timely weather observations and by the mathematical impossibility of direct solution of the equations governing the weather. The first severe convective storm forecaster was J. P. Finley, who was an Army officer, and he was ordered to cease his efforts at forecasting in 1887. Some Europeans like Alfred Wegener studied tornadoes as a research topic, but there was no effort to develop convective storm forecasting.

World War II aircraft observations led to the recognition of limited storm science in the topic of convective storms, leading to a research program called the Thunderstorm Product that concentrated diverse observing systems to learn more about the structure and evolution of convective storms. Two Air Force officers, E. J. Fawbush and R. C. Miller, issued the first tornado forecasts in the modern era, and by 1953 the U.S. Weather Bureau formed a Severe Local Storms forecasting unit (SELS, now designated the Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service). From the outset of the forecasting efforts, it was evident that more convective storm research was needed. SELS had an affiliated research unit called the National Severe Storms Project, which became the National Severe Storms Laboratory in 1963. Thus, research and operational forecasting have been partners from the outset of the forecasting efforts in the United States—with major scientific contributions from the late T. T. Fujita (originally from Japan), K. A. Browning (from the United Kingdom), R. A. Maddox, J. M. Fritsch, C. F. Chappell, J. B. Klemp, L. R. Lemon, R. B. Wilhelmson, R. Rotunno, M. Weisman, and numerous others. This has resulted in the growth of considerable scientific understanding about convective storms, feeding back into the improvement in convective storm forecasting since it began in the modern era. In Europe, interest in both convective storm forecasting and research has produced a European Severe Storms Laboratory and an experimental severe convective storm forecasting group.

The development of computers in World War II created the ability to make numerical simulations of convective storms and numerical weather forecast models. These have been major elements in the growth of both understanding and forecast accuracy. This will continue indefinitely.

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