20 Years Ago: “Twister” Released

May 10, 2016

Weather geek Touchstone.


Much about tornadoes remains a mystery, especially the details about what is
happening inside the tornado at the surface of the Earth. Researchers have been
trying to collect weather data on the ground from inside a tornado since the early
1970’s. Their mission has always been to discover new clues that will help increase
tornado warning times and reduce false alarms, saving lives.
Dr. Al Bedard and Carl Ramzy from the NOAA Environmental Research
Laboratory (former parent organization of the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory) created the first device designed to take weather measurements in the
actual path of the tornado. The TOtable Tornado Observatory (TOTO), named
after Dorothy’s little dog from the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” was a 55 gallon barrel outfitted with anemometers, pressure sensors, and humidity sensors, along with devices to record the data. In theory, a team would roll TOTO out of the back of the pickup in the path of a tornado, switch on the instruments, and get out of the way. Several groups,
including those led by Dr. Howie Bluestein from the University of Oklahoma and
later by NSSL, tried to deploy TOTO over the years, but never scored a direct hit.

The closest TOTO ever came to success was in 1984 when it was sideswiped and
knocked over by the edge of a weak tornado. TOTO was retired in 1987.

TOTO inspired screenwriters Michael Crichton and Ann Marie Martin to develop
a story around a similar device that became the 1996 movie “Twister.” “Dorothy”
was a barrel designed to release hundreds of sensors into the center of a tornado,
sending the data back to the weather researchers on the ground, played by actors
Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. To add to the drama, a competing team of storm
chasers attempted to deploy a similar device named “D.O.T. 3.”
The screenwriters, along with producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, consulted with Kevin Kelleher, Harold Brooks, and other NSSL scientists to make sure their script
was realistic.
The Universal Studios production with digitally-created tornadoes became a blockbuster, making $500 million at the box office.
The movie also inspired the special effects attraction “Twister…Ride it Out” with
simulated tornadoes and severe weather located at Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla.

8 Responses to “20 Years Ago: “Twister” Released”

  1. Bob Doublin Says:

    I love that movie. Still enjoy watching it.

  2. Twister had a lot of implausible hooey in it, but it also got some things right and remains enjoyable. But I do find a bit of amusing irony to see tip of the hat to Twister on this site when writer Michael Crichton has turned into a rabid climate denier in subsequent years. I guess he’s upset that facts don’t match his politics!

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      M.C. passed away a few years ago.

      • Hmm. Well, RIP for some interesting novels and films, but I lost a ton of respect for him after he entered the fantasyland of DenialWorld….

        • greenman3610 Says:

        • dumboldguy Says:

          For a medical doctor, he wrote some good (and pretty broad) science fiction—-I’ve read just about all of the books and seen all the movies, and he made even the scientifically “implausible hooey” plausible enough and certainly entertaining. If he had stopped there, he would have been well-remembered.

          It’s unfortunate that he, like so many other retired and “emeritus” types like Happer, have found it necessary to cross into areas where they have little or no expertise (like climate change) and run their mouths. What drives them to do so? Their politics?

          • Yeah, I was pretty fascinated by The Andromeda Strain when I was a kid, and Jurassic Park seemed about one step away from being possible. I also loved the historical fiction of The Great Train Robbery, fanciful but based on an amazing true crime. (All three turned into pretty decent films.) I even read and enjoyed some autobiographical stuff of his. But I can only assume that dearly held political beliefs drove the rabid denialism. It’s almost like someone going postal when they are laid off jobs: the job WAS the person’s sense of self esteem and identity; when that sense is taken away, the person gets very angry. Maybe it’s similar with deniers.

            Another famous denier who recently passed on was Dr. William Gray of my home town in Fort Collins, Colorado. He at least had some expertise in hurricane forecasting and did good work with establishing a hurricane forecast center. But when he retired and tried to pass himself off as a climate expert with a seat-of-the-pants theory of ocean thermohaline cycles causing climate change, well, it just got downright embarrassing even as it made him a right-wing darling. It seemed very much that his politics influenced his later “science” more than any facts and research did….

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