An appreciation of Dr. Ted Fujita’s contributions to meteorology

I was quoted in a recent blog post by Dr. Bob Henson regarding the legacy of the late Dr. Ted Fujita. This post was released in the build-up to a new television documentary about Fujita’s life, scheduled to premiere 19 May 2020 as part of the PBS series American Experience. Definitely appointment viewing!

Here’s a longer version of the essay that I sent Bob:

As a tornado nerd growing up in Minnesota in the 1980s, Dr. Tetsuya (Ted) Fujita was a supernatural figure. Much of what I knew about him, I learned from the compilation “Tornado Video Classics”, as well as reading some of his papers at my local library. Although I never met Dr. Fujita in person (he passed away in 1998, when I was still an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin — Madison), I, now a professor of meteorology, consider myself an heir of his scientific legacy. No matter which line of scientific inquiry I make in my tornado research, I always seem to come back to Fujita’s books and papers.

Dr. Fujita’s expertise was forged in disasters, starting with his team’s analysis of the Nagasaki atomic bomb blast zone. He provided meticulous and detailed analyses of tornado events, providing convincing evidence of suction vortices, tornado families, and anticyclonic tornadoes, and the discovery of downbursts and microbursts as a phenomenon particularly dangerous to aviators, among others. Not one to remain satisfied with case studies, Dr. Fujita also unified his observations into conceptual models for downbursts and tornadoes, the Fujita-Pearson scale for rating tornadoes, and the first tornado climatologies.

Dr. Fujita’s influence on the field of meteorology is unindelible. Possibly his best-known paper, Tornadoes and Downbursts in the Context of Generalized Planetary Scales (J. Atmos. Sci., 1981), which provided the atmospheric science community with a unified conceptual framework for classifying atmospheric motions by scale (macroscale, mesoscale, etc.), has garnered more than 500 citations according to Web of Science. Its figures have been reproduced in countless textbooks.

I reflect with amazement on the years of intense and expensive research that went into creating the original Fujita scale of tornado intensity back in 1973. Even today, with mobile Doppler radars, accurate wind measurements in the surface layer of tornadoes are exceedingly rare. Fujita recognized that the only consistently available indicator of a tornado’s wind speed is the damage path that it leaves behind. By studying hundreds of tornado damage tracks, Dr. Fujita was able to correlate damage to a standard indicator (a well-built house) to wind speeds, thereby creating the Fujita scale that is the basis for the Enhanced Fujita scale that we use today. All of this research was done without the aid of Doppler radars, drones, or machine learning. Photogrammetry, hand-drawn analyses, and brain power were his primary tools.

I was struck, as a child first learning about Fujita’s work, by how even I could understand many of his graphics. They were simultaneously highly complex and yet crystal clear in their content and messaging. Removed from their journal or report context, Fujita’s figures are practically works of art, even more so because each image or frame of animation was painstakingly drafted by Fujita’s own hand. As a junior scientist, the lesson I took is that one can almost never spend too much time perfecting a figure. It will be remembered long after the accompanying, explanatory text is forgotten.

Lastly, as an American tornado scientist of Japanese ancestry, I was pleasantly surprised to learn from his autobiography that Dr. Fujita hailed from the Japanese island of Kyushu, which is the same place from which my ancestral relatives immigrated to this country. My Japanese relatives, who are not scientists, were pleased to learn that this region of Japan produced such an influential figure as Dr. Fujita. It is fascinating to think that his ancestors and mine may have walked the same streets of Fukouka prefecture in the early 20th century.

1 thought on “An appreciation of Dr. Ted Fujita’s contributions to meteorology

  1. Thank you for this tribute to Ted Fujita and his massive scientific legacy. You’ve expressed most of my feelings about him so well. He certainly was an inspiration to many of us. His study of the 1957 Fargo tornado formed the basis for much of the science coming out of storm chasing – it was a major factor in the 1979 paper I co-authored with Les Lemon. We severe convection folks owe him a massive debt of gratitude. There can be no one to fill his shoes. Condolences to Koko and the rest of his family.

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