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Triumph from Tragedy: How a Discovery from the 1974 Super Outbreak Saved Countless Lives

  • By Bob Henson
  • Mar 25, 2024

As rain-cooled air descends from a thunderstorm, it can produce damaging winds in excess of hurricane force. These descending winds emerge from a much different process than the updrafts that generate tornadoes. This microburst in the Pawnee National Grasslands of northeast Colorado occurred on 4 September 1982. Dust and debris were picked up and swirled around. A few minutes after this picture was taken, the wind gusted above 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour. (Photo by Ed Zipser, courtesy NCAR/UCAR Image and Multimedia Gallery)

It took quite a while for scientists to gauge the full scope of the damage produced by the 1974 Super Outbreak. One fateful step in this process was when the eminent tornado researcher Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita flew over and photographed damage tracks. What Fujita discovered in those survey flights a half-century ago ended up transforming aviation safety, and likely saving many thousands of lives.

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