The Death Of Bill Paxton Reminds Us That 'Twister' Changed Meteorology

The Death Of Bill Paxton Reminds Us That ‘Twister’ Changed Meteorology

Like many of you, I was relaxing on a quiet Sunday afternoon when I learned of the death of actor Bill Paxton. He died of complications related to surgery according to numerous reports. I fondly remember him from two of my favorite movies, Weird Science and Apollo 13. The movies that he appeared in read like a Hollywood blockbuster highlight reel. As a meteorologist, the first movie that came to mind is Twister. Twister was a hit movie but it probably has legendary status with many weather enthusiasts and meteorologists. The movie probably change meteorology and storm chasing as we know it.


Photo by: Westcom/STAR MAX/IPx 1/14/09 Bill Paxton at the premiere of “Big Love”. (Hollywood, CA)

The movie chronicle’s Bill Harding, a storm chasing, weather researcher (Paxton’s character) and his interactions with meteorologist ex-wife (Jo), love interest (Melissa), and a privately-funded meteorologist (Jonas). The team was trying to deploy a research system called DOROTHY that would release small sensors into the tornado environment for scientific research. It is a wild ride and an instant classic.

While many of meteorologists like me understood that there were many creative liberties taken with the script, it was a movie. It is not a documentary. It is entertainment. Eric Adler interviewed NOAA Storm Prediction Center meteorologist Rich Thompson and National Weather Service webmaster (at that time) Daphne Thompson in 1996. The real-life husband and wife storm chasers noted several things in the article posted on the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS) website:

1. In a real twister, air and debris whooshes in toward the tornado, not out, with debris, 18-wheel oil trucks, farm equipment, cows and houses being flung away. At the least, the stars’ hair should have been blowing forward, not back.

2. Lightning and thunder? Check your physics books, Steven Spielberg. They don’t flash and crash at the same time. Light travels faster than sound, so lightning is seen before thunder is heard unless a storm is di rectly overhead.

3. Yes, tornadoes wander, alter their path and change in intensity, but they don’t skitter back and forth across roads like jittery rabbits, take sudden U-turns or drop out of sunny and virtually windless skies. Storms just don’t move east, then west, then stop.

4. Chasers don’t check radar and whoop “Whooeee! We’ve got ourselves an F3!” as the movie suggests.

Maybe item 4. does happen more these days if you have watched You Tube. Adler’s piece also noted that tornado intensity is assessed after the storm.

Focusing on Hollywood interpretations overshadows the real influence of Twister. I reached out to my friend and colleague Dr. Chuck Doswell, a highly-regarded mesoscale meteorologist that has contributed greatly to our knowledge of severe storms and flood-producing systems. He also runs a storm chasing enterprise called Tempest Tours.  He said,

Right after I saw Twister for the first time that if it served to inspire people to pursue storm science, it will have done some real good, and isn’t just another Hollywood version of fake reality. The science in Twister is simply awful, but if it managed to inspire someone to become a real scientist, it isn’t a total loss…..And it has inspired several people to become real scientists!

The movie certainly served that purpose. Weather Enthusiast Rob Bailey is Computer Systems Administrator and a certified weather geek. He has a passion for weather that is obvious on his Twitter feed. He shared with me,

Since I was a kid before that movie, I was and always shall be a weather geek. After the movie I was more interested in reading more on the studies of tornado development and digging into looking at radar more than the storm reflectivity itself but also velocities.

On the day Paxton’s death was announced, storm chasers and spotters aligned themselves to produce a stunning tribute to him. University of Illinois’s Dr. Jeff Frame tweeted the image below, but he did not organized the tribute.

Tribute to Bill Paxton by storm chasers and spotters. Used with permission of Jeff Frame.

We also saw explosive growth in enrollment in meteorology and atmospheric sciences programs. University of Georgia Professor John Knox analyzed growth in the meteorology field in recent decades and identifies a “Twister Effect.” The Twister Effect is likely apparent in the rise of storm chasers too.

Twister’s influence is likely found in research and life-saving initiatives too. Scientists have suggested that the movie changed public perception of tornadoes and raised awareness. A 2016 article in The Oklahoman pointed out that NOAA selected the University of Oklahoma as the home of the National Weather Center a few years after the movie came out.

The movie also highlights an aspect of storm chasing that is beyond the adrenaline rush or “money” shot. The chasers in Twister were actually trying to advance science. Scientists and engineers like the late Tim Samaras have always been interested in probing near storm environment with probes and sensors. Other scientists like Josh Wurman have leveraged mobile Doppler radar systems to advance our knowledge of near-storm environments. Researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Nebraska are even using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (drones) to probe tornadoes.

My former NASA colleague Dr. John Manobianco has even been exploring, for years, the possibility of DOROTHY-type dispensable observing systems. I remember when John first shared this system with me, Twister was my first thought. The abstract from Manobianco’s recent American Meteorological Society presentations says,

GlobalSense system features an ensemble of completely disposable, airborne probes, mechanisms to deploy probes, and receiver platforms to gather data from probes. The ultra-compact probes called environmental Motes (eMotes) will integrate micro- and nanotechnology-based components to provide low cost, wireless sensing capability and will function as passive drifters using no active propulsion or flight

Some will argue that real scientists pass unheralded but do not get the attention Paxton will likely get. I would agree. Let’s change that. The reality of our society is that Paxton is a movie star whose character and movie were influential to our field.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks, 2013 AMS President

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