Few may have ever heard of Ted Fujita, the professor of meteorology who diligently researched the paths of tornados after arriving from Japan in the 1950s. But his work changed the way people in the United States prepare for weather, go about their lives and travel by air.
His ways of analyzing wind, weather and related phenomena were unique, based on his own home-brewed forensic techniques. His mix of keen observation, statistical acumen and persistent pursuit of details are a guidepost for anyone pursuing any kind of analysis. Determination to counter and rise above the criticism of staid colleagues helped too.
He brought to the world a greater understanding of tornados, which were still a near mystical event in the American Midwest in the early and middle 20th Century, but one that gained greater attention as military aviation and commercial air travel expanded. His endeavors also included a vital study toward the end of his career of the effect of wind shear on passenger jet takeoffs and landing. In all his work, he took on the heroic role of applied scientist. He was the creator of the F scale for measuring tornado damage, and a force behind the use of Doppler radar in aviation.Fujita is the subject of current PBS American Episode dramatically entitled “Mr. Tornado.”
The show begins by covering his early life in Japan – his study of astronomy to ascertain tidal motions that could threaten the local clam fishermen, his penchant to wander about in storms taking measurements, making weather maps for local school teachers, and such.
A very haunting what-if cloaks Fujita, whoe served as a high school teacher in Kikura, Japan during World War II. This placed him in the city that was the original target for the second US atomic bomb. On August 9, 1945 the B-29 carrying the great weapon encountered fog over Kikura – over Fujita — and eventually headed to its secondary target, Nagasaki.
Not long thereafter, he joined a crew tasked to map the Nagasaki devastation, and to estimate at what altitude the bomb went off. His study on the ground gave him a native feel for the force of downdraft, which was a recurring theme in his studies. The techniques he applied at Nagasaki would reappear in his later studies of the US tornado belt. And the pattern of ground damage there he would see again in the wake of a historic air crash near JFK in New York City in the 1980s.
Fujita’s early life saw a grand fascination on his part with weather in all its small eddies and rivulets. That was coupled with resolute but creative application of analysis to understanding the problem.
The PBS show starts out with a big what-if. As a high school teacher in Kikura, Japan during World War II, he was in the city that was the original target of the second US atomic bomb. On August 9, 1945 the B-29 carrying the great weapon encountered fog over Kikura, and eventually headed to its secondary target, Nagasaki.
Fujita’s drawings of weather patterns for local school teacher, which accompany his post, are fascinating. He worked with atmospheric data gathered by local weather stations, but then went further, adding his own observations. His detailed maps revealed things others overlooked. He took measures from high on the mountaintop. He measured temperature, pressure, wind speed over the course of the passing storm. Where others took hourly readings, his were more frequent.
His maps had more information. The style of the time would see the bumps and wiggles of local weather smoothed out for a macro level presentation. Fujita felt people were throwing precious information by those methods.
This was due to the fact that weather researchers at this time were looking at the planet level. It was Fujita’s want, instead, to study local thunderstorms themselves very closely.
He came to believe there were downdrafts within the thunderstorm. He presented papers on this, and somebody handed him a paper – the story goes – found in the trash at a US base. It was a paper from 1942 entitled “Non-Frontal Thunderstorms”. Fujita saw similarity to his work.
The author, Horace Beyers, was a University of Chicago professor, who was on to downdraft too. Boldly Fujita sent a copy of his own research to Beyers. (By the way, this was before personal computers and Google translator – he took a major part of his saving to purchase an English language typewriter to convey his own paper to Beyers.)
Serendipity happened. Beyers invited Fujita to come to the University of Chicago. On the flight, his first, he classified and graphed the clouds amid which he flew versus time and location. Graphs, some very delicate, all very imaginative, were a constant form of thought experiment for Fujita. The Nova show even depicts one he created toward the end of his career that mapped out the cost of rice from his birth to the time of his retirement. He graphed everything, and beautifully.
The Midwest was a great place to study thunderstorms. And, tornados! The rapidly spinning vortices of summer would appear on the horizon with little warning – then come and go like a terrible swift sword. Then Fujita would come to town.
He’d quickly study the scattered refuse, hopefully before people cleaned it up. The refuse of tornados was evidence. He’d go around and interview residents while their sensations were fresh. “Did you take any pictures?” he’d ask. “What time did it hit here?”
In the days of Walt Disney – but before GIFs – Fujita imaginatively combined still photos in animations to provide some of the first actual pictures of tornados coming down. He said there are storms within storms, and for this encountered considerable criticism at learned events. He stuck to his guns. He eventually became a full professor at the University of Chicago.
Most any viewer of his graphs or drawings would walk away with a sense that these somewhat resemble Japanese calligraphic arts. In his drawings I find some of the feel of the work of artist, Katsushika Hokusai, whose classic drawing of waves in motion – “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” — is a fractal fiend’s delight that appears whenever tsunamis, financial, natural or other, hit the news. Hokusai reflected deeply on weather and its forms, and, in a way, like Fujita, he ruminates on the effect of dangerous weather on commerce in prints such as “Express Delivery Boats Rowing Through Waves”.
How would Ted approach the pandemic? It’s on my mind in these days of COVID-19. One would guess he would: Analyze travel patterns within travel patterns, chart scatter plots, scour victim’s apartments, get verbal accounts, trace their friends and friends’ friends for infection and graph the data in a way others would not contrive.
I found this story of Fujita and his life’s work stirring, dub him the Watcher of the Airways who saw what others saw not, and hereby recommend him for a place in the pantheon of Great Analyses.