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Tornado Week: Advancing tornado warning time

Twenty five years ago the U.S. averaged a three-minute tornado warning lead time.

Today, it’s just less than 15 minutes.

The dreaded red box, it’s all too familiar this time of year in Oklahoma.

Right now the average lead time is 14 minutes but imagine if you had 30 or 60 minutes.

David Stens-Rude of the National Severe Storms Laboratory plans to find out if that is possible with the “warn-on-forecast.”

“Hopefully we can give forecast information before the storm is severe,” he said.

Current tornado warnings are issued based on a storm already on radar.

The warn-on forecast aims to accurately predict a storm before a cloud even forms.

But don’t expect to see this anytime soon.

“Our projections based on current events is that within 10 to 15 years, affordable computers will be fast enough that we can do this,” Stens-Rude said.

In addition to the computers and science, Rick Smith of the National Weather Service said researchers need to study the social aspect.

“If you tell someone a tornado is coming in one to two hours, what do you do with that information,” Smith said. “Do you start sounding sirens at that point? Do you take shelter at that point? What are people going to do in terms of getting on the roads and driving?”

Smith said May 24 last year shows how a warn-on forecast may work.

“At 10 a.m. that morning we had specified a two-county wide area along either side of I-35 and said, ‘Between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. there was a high potential for strong and violent long-track tornadoes.”

With the help of the media, smith said people reacted and prepared.

Graduations moved, businesses closed early, likely saving lives.

Researchers plan to start testing the forecasts in the next two years.

Project leaders hope to get a better understanding of model accuracy in the next five years.