UAH hosts 15th annual Rocket City Weather Fest with meteorologists focusing on communication: "We have to do better"

Three students standing outside holding a weather balloon.
UAH atmospheric and earth sciences graduate research student Zeb Leffler (L) prepares to launch the first of three UPSTORM balloons at the 2024 Weather Fest on the UAH campus.
Russ Nelson | UAH

On a misty Saturday just right for weather mavens, The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, hosted the Rocket City Weather Fest for the 15th year. The campus event was organized by the American Meteorology Society and featured tours of the UAH Severe Weather Institute and Radar & Lightning Laboratories (SWIRLL), the Shelby Center for Science and Technology, UAH UPSTORM balloon launches, student projects by the Department of Atmospheric and Earth Science and storm watch exhibits, all targeted to increase weather awareness and safety.

Zeb Leffler, a UAH graduate research assistant, offered tours of the UAH Mobile Alabama X-Band radar (MAX) Dual Polarization radar truck, a vehicle used during severe weather deployments to detect tornadic debris and provide confirmation of dangerous storms. “Setup time is only about 30 minutes,” Leffler explained. “The radar is critical to collecting data for research. When I first applied for my undergraduate degree and MS at UAH, I was impressed with all the opportunities here.”

The indoor activities were kicked off by longtime Birmingham meteorologist James Spann and keynote speaker Grace Anello, a meteorologist at WAAY 31. Spann opened the day by recounting the harrowing night of March 25, 2021. “A total of 10 tornadoes, three EF3s, all long track, six fatalities, 28 injuries. A classic Deep South outbreak. You can look at an event and learn what went wrong,” the broadcaster said, noting his own home was ravaged by the storms while he remained on the air. “This is a battle. You can’t abandon ship when you’re in that battle. Every human life is precious. I’ll never forget the people who helped in my own neighborhood. It was a life-changing experience for me.”

The forecaster offered nearly 70 years of data to demonstrate Huntsville/Madison County sits squarely in the heart of the highest concentration of tornado outbreaks in the state, most occurring from November through May.

James Spann speaking at podium.

Birmingham forecaster James Spann highlighted 2024 Weather Fest activities.

Michael Mercier | UAH

“We have to do a better job,” the meteorologist declared. “We need to de-emphasize the attention paid to the categorization of tornadoes. We don’t have sexy tornados here. We have rain-wrapped tornadoes. They are not going to be on the world news tonight. But every tornado is a big deal. We have to come up with better systems. An intermediate product between a watch and a warning. Only about eight percent of Americans have a weather radio. And everybody should wear a helmet during these events. Why do people die in tornadoes? It’s blunt force trauma above the shoulders.”

Lastly, the forecaster detailed how rapidly his field is changing. “We still do some things like Ron Burgundy. We spend too much time on radar. When people see it on TV, they see a bucket of spilled paint. We need to innovate in order to survive. We have learned so much from structural engineers. We have to do better for people who live in manufactured housing. We have to go where the real people are.”

WAAY keynoter Grace Anello agreed, focusing in particular on how a meteorologist communicates her message during an extreme weather event to provide vital information without causing panic.

“We are in the heart of Dixie Alley, which means we research significantly more tornadoes than Tornado Alley,” the forecaster said. “You all feel a lot more like neighbors rather than viewers. Weather can bring us together. I can’t look straight into the camera and tell you everything is going to be okay. What I can tell you is that I’m not going anywhere. I’m your neighbor and this is a call to action. How much is too much information? What is more important, to analyze the system before them or the two coming right after it? When we eliminate doubt, we effectively usher in peace.”