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Severe Weather Expert: James LaDue ’86

Last May, two tornadoes ripped across Oklahoma, including the Oklahoma City metro area killing 25 people and wounding 390 more. Less than two weeks later, a third tornado ripped through Oklahoma, injuring and killing scores more, including professional and amateur storm chasers.

SUNY Oswego alumnus and national weather scientist James LaDue ’86 discussed these extreme natural disasters during a Dec. 6 presentation in the Shineman Center for Science, Engineering and Innovation.

“Forecasting science has drastically improved,” LaDue told the 80 students, faculty and community members in attendance. “We can tell with pretty good confidence where there will be a tornado. But while forecasting has improved, getting the desired reaction from the public remains a challenge.”

With more than 20 years of experience as a meteorologist and a storm chaser, LaDue works as a meteorologist instructor at the National Weather Service Warning Decision Training Branch in Norman, Okla., a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The office is responsible for training NWS personnel on warning methodology and situation awareness to better serve the public in hazardous weather warning situations.

LaDue said the National Weather Service is working to improve communications with the public, including using social media alerts in addition to radio, TV and standard media outlets. He also said mobile technologies can help NWS customize warnings to people based on their specific location.

“We can’t issue a one-size fits all warning and accommodate everyone,” he said. “Warnings have to be personalized.”

He explained how the intensity of the hazard often depends on an individual’s vulnerability to accurately determine the risk to a specific person. For example, someone on a large shipping vessel would fare better in a storm than someone in a small rowboat.

Through his work, he has witnessed devastating destruction as well as stories of good planning, preparation and execution of emergency plans. LaDue shared ideas about how we can improve the resiliency of our communities to severe weather through smarter building construction, different kinds of materials and better design.

“What’s troubling to me is that the houses built in 1960s withstood the storm better than those built in the 2000s,” he said, showing images of various neighborhoods from a community that experienced a tornado. “We should be getting better, not worse, at building more resilient homes and schools.”

He predicted the future role of the human forecaster in meteorology will be more about risk management and interpretation of data than on creating models and calculating statistics, which computers are already doing better and faster than humans.

“There are whole books written on that topic,” he said. “But I encourage meteorology students to take courses in crisis communications, risk management and human behavior in addition to meteorology courses.”

He earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology in 1986 from SUNY Oswego. His previous work experience includes creating new satellite-based techniques to assist in improved forecasting of short-term hazardous weather.

LaDue’s presentation was made possible by the Alumni-In-Residence program and by the Science Today Lecture Series, which brings together top names and developments from throughout the sciences, while also showing how the different avenues of science intersect. The content is geared toward a general audience.

-Margaret Spillett