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Clearing up the confusion of what weather ‘watches’ and ‘warnings’ mean

The words carry the weight of life and death, but can get confused in a weather emergency when bellowed through a cell phone in the middle of the night, or scrolled on a screen during a hurricane forecast when all eyes are on the cone.

Watch, warning — which means what? Both have specific definitions that differ based on event, but the underlying connotations are the same.

Watch means the ingredients are there for potential trouble.

Warning means the trouble is happening or imminent.

The National Weather Service knows its messages get muddled. It has been working since 2014 to make over its severe weather alerts, which include a painter’s palette of 122 colors such as peach puff, thistle and multiple shades of cyan.

With hurricane season days away, and the rainy season crash-landing last week with three tornadoes statewide and a lightning-related death, communicating weather emergencies was a key theme at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference. The conference was Sunday through Friday at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach.

“As scientists, we categorize things like we want and understand, but what the general public hears and understands can be very different,” said Dan Kottlowski, an Accuweather senior meteorologist who spoke at the conference.

In addition to watches and warnings, the weather service also issues advisories. Advisories highlight special weather conditions that are less serious than a warning but are happening or expected to happen soon and may cause “significant inconvenience” or if caution is not taken, could lead to “life threatening situations.”

Loxahatchee residents who were in the path of Tuesday’s tornado had varying degrees of understanding of the watch and warning system.

Lazaro Santos, whose property got beat up by the EF-0 tornado, knew the general definitions of watch and warning, but had them reversed.

Mary Burgio had windows in her home blown out and a 60-foot tree split in half by the tornado. She knew the correct order and definitions of watch and warning, and didn’t think the terms could be made much clearer.

“I think it’s too ingrained to change,” she said about the alert system. “What should they say? ‘Run like (heck)?’”

Too many words to remember? 

That’s what Eli Jacks, who is leading the weather service’s alert overhaul, is trying to find out. He’s including social scientists, meteorologists, emergency managers and the public in a methodic analysis of what words and colors work, and what can be replaced.

For example, he said although a “warning” is more serious than a “watch,” people may associate a warning with getting out of a speeding ticket with a written warning — a less severe punishment than a citation. At the same time, someone might scream “watch out!” when a foul ball is about to whack someone on the head — an imminent threat.

“First of all, watch and warning both start with the letters W A, which can be confusing,” said Jacks, whose research is part of the Hazard Simplification Project. “Then underneath of the watch, warning and advisory, you have all these individual messages — hurricane warning, high wind warning, winter weather advisory — and sometimes you have multiple messages at the same time.”

As Hurricane Irma approached South Florida on Sept. 9, Palm Beach County was under a hurricane warning and storm surge warning. Specific areas of the county were also under a flash flood watch, flood watch and a tornado warning.

Because hurricane preparations should be finished before tropical storm-force winds are felt, a hurricane warning is issued 36 hours before the arrival of tropical storm winds and when they are expected to be followed by hurricane-force winds.

A hurricane watch is issued 48 hours before tropical storm-force winds arrive, followed by the possibility of hurricane winds.

“It gets very confusing,” Jacks said. “The question I’ve been asking is, is there a simpler and better way?”

The weather service started consolidating winter hazards this year so that alerts frequently issued together now fall under one umbrella term. For example, a lake effect snow watch and blizzard watch, were combined under a winter storm watch. A lake effect snow advisory and freezing rain advisory were combined under a winter weather advisory.

Replacing the actual words watch, warning and advisory is trickier, but Jacks has considered using the word “possible” instead of “watch.”

Jacks said the weather service would also like to reduce its 122-color alert system to a handful of hues. On a nationwide hazard map, it can be hard to tell the difference between the colors Peru and dark goldenrod, or peach puff and moccasin.

“These are significant challenges,” Jacks said.

Tornado technology has improved immensely

One impetus for the simplification project, as well as an operational review of the entire National Weather Service, was a 2011 tornado outbreak that killed hundreds of people despite watches and warnings being issued in record lead time.

A tornado watch means the atmosphere is primed for tornadoes to develop. A tornado warning means a twister has been seen on the ground, or indicated by radar.

Bill Hopkins, executive vice president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said pinpointing tornadoes on radar became easier when Doppler radar was introduced in the early 1990s. Before that, he remembers trying to detect tornadoes using the WSR-57 radar, which was designed in 1957 and first used at the Miami hurricane forecast center in 1959.

“There’s been such a swing in technology,” Hopkins said. “It went from reading a hardcover book to having a laptop computer put in front of you.”

Jacks’ Hazard Simplification Project faces challenges beyond semantics, including public education and apathy.

Santos, the Loxahatchee resident who experienced Tuesday’s tornado, said he did not get a tornado alert on his cell phone until after the damage was done. Even if he had, it may have made little difference.

“We see a lot of alerts, we get alerts all the time, but we never see anything,” Santos said. “Even if we had gotten the tornado alert before, we probably would have ignored it like we usually do.”

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