Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


As the nicknames "Tornado Alley," "Dust Bowl," and "blizzard country" imply, weather has a major impact in the Great Plains. The variety and intensity of Plains weather justify its description as a "climate of extremes." For these reasons, the region is home to a sizable percentage of the country's weather and climate research institutions, government service agencies, and weather information businesses. Among what is nationally a relatively small sector of specialized business, the "weather industry" in the Plains has a substantial impact, especially in certain local areas. The potential impact of severe weather on such weathersensitive industries as aviation, highway and rail transportation, insurance businesses, and agriculture creates a high demand for weather data, weather-monitoring equipment, and weather professionals. Private weather enterprises include weather data and hardware vendors, wind energy generation, aviation and agricultural weather forecast services, and even weather modification companies that provide cloud seeding for hail suppression or precipitation enhancement. Television weather coverage in the Plains, with an emphasis on tornado warning dissemination, is extensive and highly detailed, with stations in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Wichita devoting more resources to weather coverage than their counterparts in large markets such as Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.

Significant concentrations of private businesses devoted to weather and climate data analysis and forecasting are found in the Dallas– Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, and Wichita metropolitan areas. Major centers for public weather research include Boulder, Colorado, Lubbock, Texas, Rapid City, South Dakota, and, most notably, Norman, Oklahoma. Numerous agencies of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, are headquartered in the Plains. The Aviation Weather Center, responsible for worldwide weather forecasting for American civilian airlines, is located in Kansas City, and its military equivalent is in Omaha.

The emergence of Norman as the world's primary center for research, monitoring, and prediction of tornadoes and severe local storms began in 1948 at nearby Tinker Air Force Base, where tornado forecasting was pioneered. The evolution continued in 1964 with the establishment in Norman of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), where Doppler weather radar was developed and tested. In 1997, under modernization initiatives of the National Weather Service (NWS), the Storm Prediction Center, responsible for the issuance of severe weather watches and hazardous weather guidance nationwide, relocated to Norman from Kansas City. Additional NOAA agencies, including an NWS office, the NEXRAD (National Weather Service's Next Generation Weather Radar) Radar Operational Support Facility, and numerous federal and state atmospheric research institutes associated with nssl and the University of Oklahoma, were placed under one cooperative umbrella in 1998 as the Oklahoma Weather Center. The center, with emphasis in the development of numerical forecast models, environmental monitoring systems, tornado research, and severe weather forecasting, directly employs 600 people and injects more than $60 million annually into the economy.


Matthew D. Biddle University of Oklahoma

England, Gary A. Weathering the Storm: Tornadoes, Television, and Turmoil. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Grazulis, Thomas P. Tornadoes of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Penn, David. Impact of the Oklahoma Weather Center on the Oklahoma Economy. Norman: Center for Economic and Management Research, University of Oklahoma– Norman, 1998.

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