I received many thoughtful and passionate responses to my previous post regarding the upgrade of the El Reno / Piedmont /Guthrie tornado in Oklahoma to EF-5 based, in part on radar observations of 60 m AGL wind speeds. As I noted there/then, the EF scale, as was the F-scale before it is a damage scale, not a wind speed scale. Some have argued that, for this reason, actual wind speed measurements should have no bearing on the EF-scale rating, while others have argued that we should try to incorportate wind speed measurements in EF-scale ratings whenever they are available.
Let’s climb into our “way back machine” and go back to 1971. (Granted, this precedes my own birth by nearly a decade, but I digress.) Dr. Ted Fujita was motivated by the question, “How fast are tornado winds?” Doppler weather radar was still in its infancy, photogrammetry was only possible with high-quality, well-documented film, and in situ measurements of the winds were, logistically, all but impossible to collect (despite valiant attempts to do so). The way I see it, Dr. Fujita asked, “What evidence for wind speeds do tornadoes most consistently leave behind?” His answer: Damage. In 1971, in a paper proposing the Fujita scale, he writes,
“…one may be able to make extremely rough estimates of wind-speed ranges through on-the-spot inspection of storm damage. For instance, the patterns of damage caused by 50 mph and 250-mph winds are so different that even a casual observer can recognize the differences immediately. The logic involved is that the higher the estimate accuracy the longer the time required to make the estimate. Thus a few weeks of time necessary for an estimate with 5-mph accuracy can be reduced drastically to a few seconds if only a 100 mph accuracy is permissible in order to obtain a large number of estimates with considerably less accuracies… high wind-speed ranges result in characteristic damage patterns which can be distinguished by trained individuals with the help of damage specifications…”
Fujita clearly spells out his rationale for the scale; his strategy was to use damage as a proxy for wind speeds in the absence of near-surface wind speed measurements. Forty years later, thanks to innovations like miniaturized, in situ probes and mobile Doppler radar, obtaining near-surface wind speeds in tornadoes is not so far-fetched. Because only a handful of such instruments exist, and deployments are challenging (the presence of a mere tree or building between the radar and tornado can compromise the measurements), we are still not collecting near-surface wind speed measurements in tornadoes with any consistency. And, we are finding that the wind speed bins don’t always match up with the damage indicators in the EF scale.
In my opinion, this means the scale needs to be made more flexible, or possibly supplemented by a wind measurement-based alternative (i.e. two ratings, one damage based and one measurement-based). One could envision expanding the EF-scale into a second dimension (i.e. an EF matrix), the second dimension only expanded if reliable wind measurements (M) are available, and collapsed if they are not. The El Reno / Piedmont / Guthrie tornado would, for example, be rated EF-4 based on its damage, but M-5 based on the RaXPol wind measurements extrapolated to the surface via an objective method.
What I outline above is merely my own half-baked idea, and I am eager to hear other suggestions from people closer to the subject area. I am not a tornado damage expert; I am an observationalist. Keeping the damage-based scale certainly has its merit, primarily in the interest of maintaining consistency with the last 40 years of records (fraught with uncertainty though it may be; see Doswell and Burgess 1988). However, a blanket disregard for reliable remote or in situ wind measurements seems unwise, when obtaining tornado wind speeds was precisely Dr. Fujita’s objective.
- Fujita, T.T., 1971: Proposed characterization of tornadoes and hurricanes by area and intensity. Satellite and Mesometeorology Research Project Report 91, The University of Chicago, 42 pp.
- Doswell, C.A. III, and D.W. Burgess, 1988: On some issues of Unites States tornado climatology. Mon. Wea. Rev., 116, 495-501