How one scientist reshaped what we know about tornadoes

Pioneering research by late UChicago scholar Ted Fujita saved thousands of lives

Decades into his career, well after every tornado around the world was classified according to a scale bearing his name, the scientist known as “Mr. Tornado” … had never actually seen a tornado.

Every time there was a nearby thunderstorm, colleagues said, Prof. Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita would race to the top of the building that housed his lab at the University of Chicago to see if he could spot a tornado forming.

The dream finally came true in the spring of 1982, when Fujita happened to stop off during a field trip to watch a Doppler radar feed at Denver International Airport. Ahead, in an approaching wall of thunderstorms, a small white funnel formed and rotated as Fujita’s camera clicked furiously. That night, he and his students had a party to celebrate Mr. Tornado’s first tornado.

It couldn’t have happened to anyone more well-deserving. Born on Oct. 23, 1920, Fujita shaped the field of meteorology in the 20th century. His scale for classifying the strength of a tornado is still used today, half a century after its introduction; he made pioneering contributions to our understanding of tornadoes as well as to the use of satellites; and he is responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of lives through the discovery of microbursts—a breakthrough that helped transform airline safety.

Fujita, who died in 1998, is most recognizable as the “F” in the F0 to F5 scale, which categorizes the strength of tornadoes based on wind speeds and ensuing damage. Originally devised in 1971, a modified version of the ‘Fujita Scale’ continues to be used today.

“But he was so much more than ‘Mr. Tornado,’” said Prof. Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist who worked on the same floor as Fujita for many years. “He had a way to beautifully organize observations that would speak the truth of the phenomenon he was studying. He taught people how to think about these storms in a creative way that gets the storm, its behavior. He has so many legacies.”

The storm damage detective

When people describe Fujita’s approach to science, they often compare him to Sherlock Holmes. He logged hundreds of miles walking through the fields and towns after a tornado had gone through, meticulously photographing and measuring the damage so that he could reconstruct what had happened. Later, he would do the same from Cessna planes to get the aerial view.

But his first experience using this approach wasn’t in a cornfield in Iowa. It was in the aftermath of an atomic bomb.

On the morning of Aug. 9, 1945, a U.S. plane carried the ‘Fat Man’ atomic bomb toward the Kokura railway—three miles away from where Fujita lived as a young scientist. But clouds obscured the view, so the plane flew on to its backup target: the city of Nagasaki.

The explosion killed more than 50,000 people. The Japanese authorities asked Fujita to survey the wreckage to understand what had happened.

“The Japanese had the habit of sticking pieces of bamboo into the ground at cemeteries to hold flowers,” said Prof. Emeritus Alfred Ziegler, who co-taught a class on paleoclimate reconstruction with Fujita for many years. “So he went to all of the graveyards around town and measured the burn shadows on the insides of the bamboo flutes—the sides that had been facing away from the explosion. And just from that, he was able to triangulate very precisely where the bomb had come from and how far up in the sky it had been when it exploded.”

Fascinated by storms as a teenager, Fujita spent his time in postwar Japan applying this insight to understanding storm formation. After reading a paper of Fujita’s, meteorologist Horace Byers invited him to join the University of Chicago in 1953. In the aftermath of World War II, the government wanted to use the new advances in satellite photography and aircraft to improve weather forecasting; those efforts led to the formation of the United States Weather Bureau’s Thunderstorm Project, which Byers directed.

With a whole new set of mysteries before him, Fujita blossomed.

One of his earliest projects analyzed a devastating tornado that struck Fargo, North Dakota in 1957. To recreate the formation of the tornado in astonishing detail, Fujita reconstructed evidence from photos taken by residents and his own measurements on the ground. His groundbreaking paper introduced several terms that are now widely used in meteorology, such as “wall cloud,” the low, wedge-shaped storm cloud from which tornadoes often descend.

Another insight: While puzzling over odd marks tornadoes left in cornfields, Fujita realized that a tornado might not be a singular entity—there might be multiple smaller vortexes that circled around it, like ducklings around their mother. This concept explains why a tornado may wipe one house off its foundation while leaving the one next door untouched.

Over the years, he made a name for himself as a storm damage detective. Thus it was that in 1975, when Eastern Airlines Flight 66 crashed at New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport, killing 122 people, the airline called Fujita.

‘He didn’t back down an inch’

The airline industry was in turmoil. Flight 66 was just the latest incident; large commercial planes with experienced flight crews were dropping out of the sky, seemingly out of nowhere. Though there had been a thunderstorm in the area at JFK, a dozen planes had landed safely just before and afterward.

Fujita spun up his full detective procedure, reviewing radar images, flight records, and crucially, interviewing the pilots of the planes that had landed safely just before EA 66 crashed. He began to suspect that there could be a phenomenon occurring called a downburst—a sudden gust of wind out of a storm that took the lift right out of the plane’s wings. If the gust was small enough, what he termed a “microburst,” it might not have been picked up by weather monitors at the airport.

His fellow meteorologists were skeptical. They had a hard time believing such a phenomenon would never have been observed, and openly disputed the idea at conferences and in articles.

Undeterred, Fujita set out on a years-long quest to catch a microburst on radar. “He didn’t back down an inch,” said Roger Wakimoto, a former student of Fujita’s who headed the National Center for Atmospheric Research for years. He and Fujita’s other students traveled all over the U.S., eventually collecting indisputable evidence of the phenomenon.

In the following years, the National Transportation Safety Board made a number of changes, including mandatory preflight checks for wind shear.

There has not been another microburst-related crash since 1994.

“Every time I get on a flight, decades later, I listen for that wind-shear check and smile,” said Wakimoto, now UCLA’s vice chancellor for research. “I was there when we were doing that research, and now to hear it as everyday and to know I contributed in some small way—it impacts me deeply.”

Fujita would continue to make pioneering measurements and discoveries, including unnoticed phenomena in the winds of hurricanes. Though he died on Nov. 19, 1998, his legacy lives on across the world of meteorology. “If you watch TV news and see the severe weather forecasting office in Norman, Oklahoma, it’s full of people trained by Fujita,” said MacAyeal.

Wakimoto counts himself among the many who still feel Fujita’s influence.

“He told me once, ‘Look, in baseball, if you bat .300’—which remember, is three hits out of every 10—that’s a fabulous average,’” Wakimoto said. “He said people shouldn’t be afraid to propose ideas. You don’t want to be so scared that you don’t propose something you believe in.”