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Forecasts getting better (and bigger)

You've probably heard about the savvy teenager who, when asked what he would like to do in life, said he wanted to be a meteorologist "because it's the only job where you can be wrong half the time and not get fired."

While there may have been something to that in decades past, it's far from true today. The science of weather forecasting has come a long way with advanced technology, an ever-increasing mass of data and highly trained meteorologists who know how to put it all together.

Seven-day forecasts today are usually just as accurate as two-day forecasts were 20 years ago, records show.

I'm writing about weather today for two reasons. One is to make note of our redesigned weather report - on B7 today - which is bigger and brighter with an easier-to-read type font.

After hearing complaints about the small type size, I asked the folks at AccuWeather, who provide our report from their offices in State College, Pa., to come up with a new look, and we now have a more legible package. AccuWeather, with a staff of more than 400, serves 600 newspapers and hundreds of corporate customers.

The other reason is a visit I paid last week to the National Weather Service at Barkley Regional Airport in Paducah, which made me more aware of the frequency of extreme weather here and the importance of reliable forecasts. I'm familiar with temperature extremes - I've coped with 20-below cold in Minneapolis and 120-degree heat in Phoenix - but never been close to a tornado. Odds are, that will change.

Beverly Poole, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office here, said this area ranks in the top 10 percent nationally for EF2 or higher tornadoes and other severe weather events. The two peak months for tornadoes in this region are April and May.

Over the past 20 years, the Paducah region has seen an average of 25 tornadoes a year. The frequency has been even greater the past three years with 79 in 2011, 35 in 2012 and 55 in 2013. If those numbers seem high, keep in mind that this weather service region includes 58 counties in western Kentucky, southeast Missouri, southern Illinois and southwest Indiana. A large majority of the tornadoes are of relatively low intensity - EF0 and EF1.

The EF Scale, if you were wondering, was developed by Dr. Ted Fujita (aka Mr. Tornado), a research scientist at the University of Chicago. His original F Scale was introduced in 1971 and was followed by the Enhanced Fujita (EF) in 2007. The scale ranks tornadoes based on the damage they cause, ranging from EF0 (wind speed of 65 to 85 miles per hour) to EF5 (over 200 mph).

The deadliest tornado in U.S. history came within 60 miles of Paducah, sweeping across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925. The Tri-State Tornado claimed 695 lives and destroyed 15,000 homes.

The reason for so much severe weather in this part of the country is primarily geographic; this is a "sweet spot" for cold air from the north to collide with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. Topography - mainly the lack of mountainous terrain - plays a role, too.

The local weather service office, one of 122 across the nation, is a big league operation. I would have guessed maybe four or five meteorologists work there, but the number is 17, along with nine other staff members. They monitor and process data from multiple sources, keep a large room packed with computers humming, and watch multiple monitors that display weather forecast models along with satellite and radar data.

The office also has a hydrology unit that keeps a close eye on the region's river and lake levels, issues flood warnings and works with other agencies to mitigate drought problems.

And yes, the office includes a storm shelter reinforced with steel and concrete, so if a tornado hits it won't take away the people working to warn the rest of us.

Poole, who has spent 36 years with the weather service, has seen dramatic change during her career.

"We've gotten to a whole different level in storm prediction, saving lives and protecting property like never before," she said. "We're never going to be perfect, but boy, are we getting better."

That's good to know, though I doubt that for all its progress the National Weather Service will ever top the prediction accuracy of the late comedian George Carlin:

"Weather forecast for tonight: dark."

Steve Wilson is executive editor of The Paducah Sun.

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