“Tomorrow’s weather will get nasty. We have a Blizzard Watch in effect for northern Iowa” — Elisa Raffa, ABC9 Weather
Words we hear all too often, but do you truly know what they mean? The current United States weather Watch Warning Advisory system has been in place since 1948… that’s nearly 70 years. Both technology and our weather has evolved since then, does our system still work?
The National Weather Service has teamed up with social scientists to try to answer that question.
Dr. Gina Eosco, Senior Social Scientist and Weather Risk Communication Expert has been studying how much people understand current weather terms, determining if they’re useful, and If a new system would be worthwhile.
“There is a spectrum of understanding of these terms across the United States. You have everything from complete understanding of the Watch Warning Advisory terms to perhaps people who need a little bit of assistance on the other end” says Dr. Gina Eosco, Senior Social Scientist & Weather Risk Communication Expert.
As it stands, a Watch is issued in advance of the weather event to let you know to keep a heads up. Both Warnings and Advisories are issued as imminent weather is occurring, suggesting you take action, with a warning signaling a more dangerous impact.
But, does the public understand the difference? Will a few inches of snow change their routine in any way? Todd Heitkamp, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls isn’t too sure.
“I think it’s foolish of us to really sit here and think that a person is going to change their daily routine based upon an advisory that we issue when we say it’s just going to be a nuisance event… ‘It’s a nuisance? Then don’t tell me” says Todd Heitkamp, Warning Coordination Meteorologist, NWS Sioux Falls.
There’s also what Dr. Eosco likes to call the “giant Crayola crayon box” of National Weather Service hazards. The current system uses 124 colors to represent weather hazards. Is that too many?!
“Yes, that’s way too many! We have too many shades of colors that are too close to each other, that people who are color blind are having many issues with it. Even myself, who is not color blind, I look at that map and I can’t tell if it’s the same shade of red or not….But when you’re talking about that many different colors, there’s that many different types of hazards out there. So they we have to take a look at really, do we need to issue all those watches, warnings, and advisories for each one of those hazards?” says Todd Heitkamp, Warning Coordination Meteorologist, NWS Sioux Falls.
Some have suggested a stop light color system, similar to the weather hazard system our friends in Europe use, encompassing action words and using only three or four colors to show severity of particular weather hazards.
“I think all users, including the public, would like to see a hierarchical tiered system. In other words, perhaps it’s low, medium, high risk… or ‘no action required’, ‘stay aware’, ‘begin preparations’, ‘take action now’, for example” says Dr. Gina Eosco, Senior Social Scientist & Weather Risk Communication Expert.
But will a simple system like this work in a place like Siouxland where weather hazards range from tornadoes to ice storms to flooding rains?
For this reason, the National Weather Service is rolling out experimental products across the country this year to ensure that whether you live in tornado alley, tropical Florida, or the seasonal Northeast…the new system works for you.
“We want to make sure that we are consistent enough, such that you could travel around the country and you would understand your weather risk anywhere, but again on the other hand you want to make sure the system has enough flexibility to work for each of the unique audiences” says Dr. Gina Eosco, Senior Social Scientist & Weather Risk Communication Expert.
It may be a challenge… But Dr. Eosco says it’s a fun one.