Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Spotlight: Dr. Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita

Tidal Basin with cherry blossoms and ducks (NPS photo)

By AMS President Anjuli S. Bamzai

Blossoming cherry trees are stars of springtime in Washington, D.C., and the most popular place to visit the cherry blossom trees is the Tidal Basin. Their bloom is one of the most joyful events of the year, awaited with much anticipation by tourists, meteorologists, local businesses, and the National Park Service.

Celebrating the friendship between the Japanese and American peoples, the Tidal Basin cherry trees were a gift from the Mayor of Tokyo to the United States in 1912. While the precise timing of peak bloom varies from year to year (April 4 on average, driven largely by winter/early spring temperatures), peak bloom has been occurring earlier due to warming trends. Furthermore, a combination of rising sea level and sinking land has necessitated plans for a new seawall that requires many existing trees to be removed. Yet the government of Japan has promised new trees to replace those that were lost.

This year’s beautiful blossoms strongly reminded me of the remarkable contributions of Japanese Americans — in particular Japanese American meteorologists. Our science would be especially bereft without the contributions of several scientists who, after receiving their advanced degrees at the University of Tokyo in the so-called “Syono school” of dynamic meteorology, immigrated to the U.S. from postwar Japan. Among them were Tetsuya Fujita, Akio Arakawa, Akira Kasahara, Kikuro Miyakoda, Takio Murakami, Katsuyuki Ooyama, Michio Yanai, and of course, Syukuro ‘Suki’ Manabe, one of the three recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2021.

Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month, in this post I chose to showcase the contributions of the legendary Dr. Tetsuya Theodore ‘Ted’ Fujita. Nicknamed “Mr. Tornado,” he linked tornado damage with wind speed and in 1971, developed the Fujita scale for rating tornado intensity based on ground and/or aerial damage surveys. He is also recognized as the discoverer of downbursts and microbursts, which are serious potential threats to aviation safety. Thus his discoveries made aviation safer.

Fujita (left) with John McCarthy, Inaugural Director of NCAR-RAP/RAL, in 1982. After studying tornadoes for over two decades, Fujita had just seen his first one in person. Photo: Texas Tech, found in Fujita’s memoir, “Memoirs of an Effort to Unlock The Mystery of Severe Storms During the 50 Years, 1942–1992,” in the Texas Tech Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.

But let’s take a step back. How did Fujita get interested in tornadoes in the first place? In part, his involvement was yet another legacy of the Manhattan Project: Fujita began his life’s work studying damage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath of the atomic bombs.

Fujita was working as assistant professor in physics at Meiji College of Technology in Tobata, exactly halfway between the two cities. A couple of years earlier, in compliance with his dying father’s wishes, he had opted to go to Tobata for his studies in mechanical engineering rather than Hiroshima. In the month following the bombings, Fujita and his team of students went on an observational mission to study the blast zones at both sites. At Nagasaki, through studying the burn marks of various objects, Fujita had the goal of estimating the position of the atomic bomb when it exploded. At ground zero, most trees, though scarred black by radiation, were still standing upright while buildings were in ruins. Seen from above, it looked like a giant starburst pattern.

After WWII ended, he joined the University of Chicago. By a stroke of genius, the Japanese American meteorologist was able to draw comparisons between severe weather and the nuclear shock waves he had studied some twenty-five years earlier at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through studying the debris and damage of tornadoes before cleanup. He led the development of the Fujita Scale to categorize tornado intensity, a modified version of which remains in use today.

Following the Super Outbreak of 3–4 April, 1974, which covered over 2,600 miles and produced nearly 150 tornadoes in an 18-hour period, Fujita carried out aerial and ground damage surveys covering over 10,000 miles. Through meticulous analysis of the observational data, he demonstrated the existence of smaller tornadoes — suction vortices — within the parent tornado. The aerial surveys also led to the discovery of microbursts.

Photo: Dr. Fujita as a professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, photo taken in April 1961. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

You can read more about his discovery of the downburst and its contributions to aviation safety (including his work as a principal investigator for the National Intensive Meteorological Research On Downburst [NIMROD] project) here.

In 2000, two of his former students organized the “Symposium on the Mystery of Severe Storms: A Tribute to the work of T. Theodore Fujita,” held at the 80th AMS Annual meeting. They were none other than Gregory S. Forbes from The Weather Channel and Roger M. Wakimoto from UCLA, both distinguished meteorologists in their own right. Roger was of course our AMS President in 2017–2018. The photo below shows the three of them at an event at the University of Chicago from the early 1980s.

Dr. Roger Wakimoto (left), Dr. Ted Fujita (middle) and Dr. Gregory Forbes (right), taken in the early 1980s when all were at the University of Chicago. Photo Courtesy of Roger Wakimoto, honorary member of the AMS.

You can read the proceedings of the Symposium here to get a fuller sense of Fujita’s immense contributions to atmospheric science. In this short piece, I have barely scratched the surface.

You can also learn about Fujita through the PBS American Experience series, which describes events and people who have shaped the landscape over the course of history. Fujita is profiled in the episode titled, “Mr. Tornado.”

Featured image: Cherry blossoms surround the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Photo: National Park Service, Kelsey Graczyk

Anjuli is grateful to Katherine ‘Katie’ Pflaumer for providing useful edits.

Be There: Estimating Wind Speeds of Tornadoes and Other Windstorms

Tornado photo

By James LaDue, NOAA/NWS Warning Decision Training Division (symposium co-chair)

Did you know that the AMS is co-branding a standard with the American Society for Civil Engineers and that you can be involved as a member? For the past several years, both organizations have signed together to develop a standard on wind speed estimation for tornadoes and other severe storms. To learn more about this standard, and the methods it’s developing, the standards committee on Wind Speed Estimation is hosting a symposium this Thursday at the AMS 104th Annual Meeting, aptly named “Estimating Wind Speeds of Tornadoes and Other Windstorms.” In this conference you will learn more about how you can be involved in the process.

Ever since the EF scale was implemented in 2007, damage surveyors found reasons for improvement. They formed a grassroots stakeholder group in 2010 and published a paper in 2013 highlighting areas needing improvement. Then after the Joplin, MO tornado of 2011, an investigation led by NIST recommended that a committee be formed to improve the EF scale. But that’s not all there was to estimating wind speeds. New methods were maturing quickly to estimate winds in severe storms: methods such as Doppler radar, tree-fall patterns left behind tornadoes, probabilistic wind speed analysis forensics, multispectral passive remote sensing, and in-situ observations. Many of these methods can also be applied to other windstorm types.

The committee on Wind Speed Estimation, begun within the ASCE in 2015, is devoted to refining all of these methods into an ANSI standard (American National Standard).  Comprised of engineers, meteorologists, architects, forest ecologists, an arborist, and an emergency manager, we are now deep in the internal balloting phase of the standard’s individual chapters. While the ASCE provides the logistical support for our committee, the AMS was added and the standard co-branded under both organizations. The process by which a standard forms is one of the most rigorous vetting processes known in the STEM fields and often can take a decade or more. We’ve been conducting internal ballots for several years, and this may last a couple more. Once the internal balloting phase is over, the standard goes to a public comment phase.  

The Wind Speed symposium is designed to let you know how and why we have this standards process, how the methods are designed in the standard, and how you can be involved, especially when the public comment period commences. We have a panel discussion at the beginning to give you a chance to engage with the committee, followed by more in-depth presentations on the methods. There are also oral and poster presentations regarding new science coming out that could provide more advances in the standard and its application. We hope to see you there! 

Featured image: Photo of tornado with dust cloud near power lines in Matador, TX, taken 21 June 2023. Image credit: James LaDue.

The Estimating Wind Speeds of Tornadoes and Other Windstorms Symposium will be held Thursday, 1 February, 2024 at the AMS 104th Annual Meeting, in Baltimore and online. Learn more about the Symposium and view the program.

AMS 2024 Session Highlight: Transition to Carbon-Free Energy Generation

A line of wind turbines

The AMS 2024 Presidential Panel Session “Transition to Carbon-Free Energy Generation” discusses crucial challenges to the Energy Enterprise’s transition to renewables, and the AMS community’s role in solving them. Working in the carbon-free energy sector on research and development including forecasting and resource assessment, grid integration, and weather and climate effects on generation and demand, the session’s organizers know what it’s like to be on the frontlines of climate solutions. We spoke with all four of them–NSF NCAR’s Jared A. Lee, John Zack of MESO, Inc., and Nick P. Bassill and Jeff Freedman of the University at Albany–about what to expect, and how the session ties into the 104th Annual Meeting’s key theme of “Living in a Changing Environment.” Join us for this session Thursday, 1 February at 10:45 a.m. Eastern!

What was the impetus for organizing this session?

Jared: With the theme of the 2024 AMS Annual Meeting being, “Living in a Changing Environment,” it is wonderfully appropriate to have a discussion about our in-progress transition to carbon-free energy generation, as a key component to dramatically reduce the pace of climate change. But instead of merely having this be yet another forum in which we lay out the critical need for the energy transition, we organized this session with these panelists (Debbie Lew, Justin Sharp, Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald, and Aidan Tuohy) to shine a light on some real issues, hurdles, and barriers that must be overcome before we can start adding carbon-free energy generation at the pace that would be needed to meet aggressive clean-energy goals that many governments have by 2040 or 2050. The more that the weather–water–climate community is aware of these complex issues, the more we as a community can collectively focus on developing practical, innovative, and achievable solutions to them, both in science/technology and in policy/regulations. 

Jeff: We are at an inflection point in terms of the growth of renewable energy generation, with hundreds of billions of dollars committed to funding R&D efforts. To move forward towards renewable energy generation goals requires an informed public and providing policy makers with the information and options necessary.

Required fossil fuel and renewable energy production trajectories to meet renewable energy goals. Graphic by Jeff Freedman, using data from USEIA.

Since now both energy generation and demand will be dominated by what the weather and climate are doing, it is important that we take advantage of the talent we have in our community of experts to support these efforts. We are only 16 years out from a popular target date (2040) to reach 100% renewable energy generation. That’s not very far away. Communication and the exchange of ideas regarding problems and potential solutions are key to generating public confidence in our abilities to reach these goals within these timelines without disruption to the grid or economic impacts on people’s wallets.

What are some of the barriers to carbon-free energy that the AMS community is poised to help address?

Jeff and John: From a meteorological and climatological perspective, we have pretty high confidence in establishing what the renewable energy resource is in a given area. .. We have, for the most part, developed very good forecasting tools for predicting generation out to the next day at least. But sub-seasonal (beyond a week) and seasonal forecasting for renewables remains problematic. We know that the existing transmission infrastructure needs to be upgraded, thousands of miles of new transmission needs to be built, siting and commissioning timelines need to be shortened, and we need to coordinate the retirement of fossil fuel generation and its simultaneous replacement with renewables to insure grid stability. This panel will discuss some of the potential solutions we have at hand, and what is/are the best pathway(s) forward. 

On the other hand, meeting the various state and federal targets regarding 100% renewable energy generation also implicates other unresolved issues, such as:  how will we accelerate the necessary mining, manufacturing, and construction and operation by a factor of nearly five in order to achieve these power generation goals? Not to mention how all this is affected by financing, the current patchwork of … regulatory schemes, NIMBY issues, and a constantly changing landscape of policy initiatives (depending on how the political wind is blowing–sorry for the pun!). And of course, there is the question of the “unknown unknowns!”

What will AMS 104th attendees gain from the session?

Nick: Achieving the energy transition is fundamental for the health and success of all societies globally, and indeed, may be one of the defining topics of history books for this time. With that said, the transition to carbon-free energy will not be a straight line, and many factors are important for achieving success. This session should provide an understanding of the current status of our transition, and what obstacles and key questions need to be overcome and answered, respectively, to complete our transition.

Header photo: Wind turbines operating on an oil patch in a wind farm south of Lubbock, Texas. Photo credit: Jeff Freedman.

About the AMS 104th Annual Meeting

The American Meteorological Society’s Annual Meeting brings together thousands of weather, water, and climate scientists, professionals, and students from across the United States and the world. Taking place 28 January to 1 February, 2024, the AMS 104th Annual Meeting will explore the latest scientific and professional advances in areas from renewable energy to space weather, weather and climate extremes, environmental health, and more. In addition, cross-cutting interdisciplinary sessions will explore the theme of Living in a Changing Environment, especially the role of the weather, water, and climate enterprise in helping improve society’s response to climate and environmental change. The Annual Meeting will be held at the Baltimore Convention Center, with online/hybrid participation options. Learn more at annual.ametsoc.org

Flying the Fastest Skies

How fast can an airliner go? Monday night a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787-9 reached 801 m.p.h. en route from Los Angeles to London. Matthew Cappucci of the Washington Post reported the jet reached this amazing speed—a record for the Boeing 787-9 and probably the highest speed for a non-supersonic commercial flight—while cruising at 35,000 feet over the central Pennsylvania.
Clearly the plane was hurled along by an intense jet streak; Cappucci showed a sounding at 250 mb—a level nearly as high as the plane—that night over Long Island: the jet stream was moving at 231 m.p.h. This is what pushed the aircraft more than 200 m.p.h. beyond its top airspeed. (The plane’s record speed was relative to the ground, not the swiftly moving air around it.) The Post article states that the sounding “sets the record for the fastest 250-millibar wind speed ever recorded over New York and, probably, the country.”
This raises the other question of speed: just how fast can a jet stream go? It turns out the question is not so easy to answer. To find out, we e-mailed an experienced weather records sleuth, Arizona State University’s Randy Cerveny, who is the World Meteorological Organization’s rapporteur of weather and climate extremes. Cerveny replied,

I had set up a WMO committee this past summer to look into that very question—the strongest tropospheric winds (and so the strongest winds recorded on the planet). As we started to look at the data, we found that by far the strongest tropospheric winds are found east of Japan in the Pacific and normally occur right at this time of the year. They are associated with the normal area when polar and subtropical jets merge. The second area of max tropospheric winds are over New Hampshire and has the same thing happen—polar and subtropical jets merge. BUT unfortunately we ran into serious problems with the quality of extreme tropospheric wind measurements. My experts say that right now the quality of the data for those upper air extreme winds is not good enough to support an investigation for global fastest tropospheric winds. So we are not investigating that record until (and if) NCEI and other groups can establish a viable record for an extreme. We have seen data (again, not good to accept) that has winds in excess of 133 m/s or 297 miles per hour. It is likely that some of those values ARE good but we are still quality-controlling the radiosonde extreme dataset.
With that in mind, we dug into the AMS journals archive and found a February 1955 Journal of Meteorology article by Herbert Riehl, F. A. Berry, and H. Maynard detailing research flights into the jet stream over the Mid-Atlantic states. They record one case of a 240-knot jet stream (276 m.p.h.) and another of 210 knots (241 m.p.h.), each representing averages over 28 miles of flight path.
These can’t be counted as definitive—Riehl et al. emphasized the difficulties of their measurement process. And Cerveny emphasizes that, “No measurement that we have seen at extreme values has been judged of sufficient quality to warrant a full evaluation at this time.”
So for now, just sit back and enjoy the flight.