Meteorological Fact Check

It is always interesting when tv shows or movies delve into talking about weather and in particular how accurate they are in describing the situation.  From landfalling hurricanes, to massive blizzards to the onslaught of severe weather.  Well, this past Sunday (October 9th) the CSI:Miami episode "Blown Away" revolved around a tornado that hits south Florida during an intense investigation.  The first 5 minutes were probably the most "scientific looking", including depictions of Doppler radar, dark threatening clouds and a tornado barreling down on the home where the CSI folks were trying to round up all of the evidence prior to the the storm hitting. 

Now before I do my meteorological fact checking of the show, a few notes.  Many a times, the directors or producers will hire a consultant to make sure what is being described or done by the characters is actually true.  Just think of medical dramas that feature various treatments and surgeries, to a movie like "Moneyball" on how baseball executives work to draft players and run a major league baseball team.  Ask anyone who might have a career in that given field and they'll probably point out a few flaws.  By having these consultants on hand, hopefully a majority of these inaccuracies are avoided.  I know from talking with forensic scientists in regard to shows like CSI, there are a few liberties that are taken.  For instance, an investigation can take many weeks if not months before all of the crime scenes and evidence are examined.  In addition, those tests that they run, which usually involve dramatic music and cool effects, could literally be tv magic or just a much more advanced depiction of what is really done.

So how true to meteorological form was CSI:Miami?  I'm sad to say, it wasn't the most accurate.  The episode kicks off with a tv news person saying that "...the National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning in effect for the day..." and that people have been evacuated in advance of the high likelihood of tornadoes.  First off, a tornado warning would never be in effect for more than an hour at a time and if there was such an increased risk of twisters, there would be a tornado watch instead.  As for evacuations, I could only see that happening if a hurricane was about to make landfall.  Even then, the amount of time needed to evacuate a given location would take at least a few hours.  Being able to pinpoint a certain part of a city where a tornado was going to hit more than an hour in advance is still not possible.  At the same time, if you were in the path of a tornado, that wouldn't be the time to evacuate, but rather to take shelter in the lowest level of a sturdy building.  Then again, I think we've imparted this information upon viewers in North Central Wisconsin many a times this past spring and summer when tornado warnings have been issued.

Now of course as Lt. Caine is racing around town in his Hummer, the imposing tornado is zipping along not too far in the distance.  Meantime, there are two CSIs in the home of the victim in the middle of the living room, as the twister is blowing apart the house.  Yes, they were in the lowest level, but not away from windows, or protecting themselves from flying debris.  I should mention, it was a mobile home which they were hunkering down.  A big No-No for trying to ride out a tornado!  Anyway, when the wall disappears and in a last ditch effort, they use a string of Christmas lights to keep the one detective from being pulled into the twister.  It is all for not. Whether that detective would have survived or that they would have been able to find the body of the deceased person from the crime scene just a short time later is questionable.

Then in the aftermath of the tornado, which again seems like just an hour later, they describe the tornado as being "a F-2, with 150 mph winds."  Once again, a consultant would have clarified that the Fujita (F) scale which had been used since the 1970s was replaced in February 2007 with the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale.  Checking my tornado reference books, a F-2 tornado would have been categorized to produce winds of 113-157 mph, while an EF-2 tornado would have winds of 111-135 mph.  Thus they were in the ballpark with the old Fujita scale, but probably should have called it an EF-3 tornado and they would have been more on target for this day and age.

Last but not least, I will at least give CSI:Miami some credit for having realistic simulated radar loops.  As the camera is quickly panning by a tv in the CSI lab, it shows a 3D cross section of a supercell storm, followed by an hour loop of storms, including one with a hook echo, shifting north through South Florida.  To the untrained eye, it appears all heck is breaking loose on the radar. From my viewpoint, I was having a hard time seeing if the tornadic storm was headed for where the the story was unfolding.  There are a few parts of the episode later on that involve storm chasers and their "Twister" type observation pods that where able to capture the suspect.  I won't go into whether all of that would have played out, but it does make for an interesting plot.

No less, the morale of this story is most of what you see on the small screen during prime time shows or in the theaters will not necessarily be 100% factual.  However it is safe to say plenty of liberties will be taken for special effects in weather scenes, and they will likely strive to depict a lot of worst case scenarios.

If you would like to check out the episode in question, follow the link to CSI:Miami-Blown Away.

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