Storm Week: Heat Warning - KAUZ-TV: Newschannel 6 Now | Wichita Falls, TX

Storm Week: Heat Warning

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"With heat, there have been no significant advances in the forecasting or the science of telling people that it's coming." Warning Coordination Meteorologist Rick Smith, with the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, says this could be the reason we have not seen a decline in heat-related fatalities, as tornado deaths have, over the past few decades.

In 2012, heat was responsible for more deaths than tornadoes, lightning, and hurricanes combined. Heat also has the highest ten-year average number of deaths. Even though heat is something we deal with every year in Texoma, Smith said some people underestimate how bad heat can be, especially when coupled with a lot of humidity.

One of the deadliest heat waves to hit the United States killed an estimated 17,000 people in 1988. Compare that to the deadliest tornado on record, the 1925 Tri-State Tornado, where 700 people were killed.

Smith said tens of thousands of people are at risk from this type of weather if a heat wave were to settle over the Texoma area, impacting the city of Lawton and Wichita Falls. In 2011, Texoma's hottest summer on record, 46 Texans were killed due to the extreme heat.

There is new research that hopes to lower heat-related fatalities by increasing the warning time for potentially deadly heat waves. Scientists with the National Center for Atmospheric Research have fingerprinted a weather pattern that could potentially enable forecasts of U.S. heat waves 15 to 20 days in advance.

The weather pattern is known as a Wavenumber-5 pattern. The pattern refers to a sequence of alternating high and low pressure systems which form a ring that circles the northern mid-latitudes. This pattern can lead to slow-moving weather features, raising the odds for a prolonged heat spell.

The research team analyzed a 12,000 year simulation of the atmosphere over the northern hemisphere. A major summertime heat wave was more likely to build over the U.S. during the times the Wavenumber-5 pattern was observed.

Even though there are questions surrounding the reliability of any long-range forecast, Smith said it would be easier to give a long-range forecast for something like a heat wave, because heat waves typically impact very large areas.

Heat and drought are directly related. Texoma's ongoing drought makes us more susceptible to extreme heat. Smith said, "The heat makes the drought worse, the drought makes the heat worse." He added that the worst heat usually occurs when we are having these dry conditions.

Wichita Falls Public Operations Manager Daniel Nix said this advanced warning would be helpful to his office and the city. "It would help us in saying, well we may see a little bit more evaporation than we had predicted...and so we would move up the possible triggering of a successive drought stage."

Heat plays a big role in how much evaporation of our lakes takes place. Nix said during the summer months, the combined total could drop as much as 1 1/2% per week in a severe heat spell.

Nix said 2011 weather data is used as a worst case scenario. Planning and projections as to when the lakes might dry up are done based on a situation where we have another year like 2011. Nix is hoping this summer will be cooler and wetter.

Nix said Wichita Falls residents have gone above and beyond when it comes to conserving water. However without any additional rain, Nix said, "we're going to stay in Stage 2, Stage 3...we're never...we're not going to come out of those until we see above average rain and below average temperatures.

Despite this new research, Smith does not believe new watches or warnings are needed. He said the new research could allow for better communication of the heat threat. "One of the big benefits of having that much lead time, if you think a big heat wave is coming, is being able to work with the media to get the information out there to tell people, 'Things are going to change in the next week or two...we're looking at the potential for some exceptionally hot weather. Maybe you could change your work schedule or something like that.'"

Jake Reed, Skywarn 6 Meteorologist