Weather expert uncovers hurricane myths, exposes truths

By Robyn Sanders

Dr. Steve Lyons, the former Tropical Weather expert on The Weather Channel, explored the “Five Toes of the Hurricane Footprint” in a seminar Thursday evening in the Baylor Sciences Building.

Lyons said the five toes are wind, waves, water rise, flooding rain and tornadoes.

Lyons said a misconception about hurricanes is that their biggest threat is wind. According to the National Hurricane Center website, hurricanes are categorized by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale from Category 1 to Category 5, where one is the least severe and five is the most severe in terms of wind speed and storm surge.

Lyons said the wind speed doesn’t say much about what’s going to happen, and that all five toes have to be considered in gauging the possible impact of a hurricane.

“If you can paint a picture of what’s going to happen before it happens, you’ve done a fabulous service,” Lyons said.

The seminar was presented by the Baylor environmental sciences and The Institute of Ecological Earth Environmental Sciences.

Dr. Joseph White, associate professor of biology and director of the institute, said he wants to ensure that Baylor is bringing in speakers with a broad public appeal.

“We’re trying to bring in people who have national profiles,” White said.

For 12 years, Lyons was the tropical weather expert on The Weather Channel, and since 2010 he has been the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service forecast office in San Angelo.

He is also the temporary deputy director of the southern region of the National Weather Service and an adjunct professor of meteorology at Texas A&M University.

“Obviously he’s been a big face for weather,” White said.

“One of the reasons that we brought him here this evening is his conversation about how we are affected by weather and how we as scientists have to communicate that to a broader public.”

While he was on The Weather Channel, Lyons would use his five-toe concept when hurricanes were approaching to show viewers which toe would provide the biggest threat for a particular hurricane.

Lyons said he had a limited amount of time on the air, so he needed to provide a simple way for people to understand hurricanes so they could adequately prepare.

“Your time to explain stuff on TV really hurts your message, so you’d better be simple,” Lyons said.

“I think the message, how you tell people stuff, is so critical.”

Lyons said his interest in hurricanes developed from his fascination with waves as a surfer in southern California, where he grew up.

Lyons said he was curious as to why the waves would be small one day and huge the next.

What he learned was that hurricanes would generate many of the big waves in California, even if the storms were farther south.

“It turns out that often times,you can have fair weather and yet you’ve got this wave that’s 10 or 15 feet high that’s come from a hurricane that’s far away,” Lyons said.

“That’s one neat thing about waves — they can cause damage way away from the hurricane, even if the hurricane never even makes landfall.”

During a question and answer session following the seminar, one of the audience members asked if there is any accuracy to the yearly forecasts of the number of hurricanes that will develop.

Lyons said the number of forecast storms does not necessarily equate to how many will actually impact the U.S. coast.

“The only thing that really matters is being prepared for it, knowing the threats that can come from it, the five primary threats, what those are going to be, and acting accordingly to reduce the threat to your property, to your family and to yourself,” Lyons said.

“I’ve always told people, ‘Don’t get scared, just get prepared.’”