28 April 2009

The Future of Severe Weather Warnings

Posted by Dan Satterfield

It amazes me that in the 21st century that people are still clamoring for more tornado sirens in their communities. These sirens are outrageously expensive, and perhaps the least effective way to warn people of severe weather. Yet, after every severe weather event, I will get several emails from folks complaining that they have no siren in their neighborhood.

No Weather Siren? No problem.

No Weather Siren? No problem.

Just to be clear, the reasons these sirens are and should be a thing of the past:

1. They are not designed to be heard indoors

2. They are frightfully expensive.

3. They give no immediate information to citizens.

I personally feel that not  another single penny of tax money should ever be spent on them.

So what to do instead?

Several options.

The Midland WR100 or WR300 are good NOAA Radios

The Midland WR 100 or WR 300, are good NOAA Radios

Most importantly, get a NOAA weather radio. If you are in Canada, they have a weather radio system there as well. Other countries do not, but you should pester your MP to develop a system. There is a major need in the UK for one. I’m surprised that “Disgusted in Tunbridge Wells” has not made a big deal about this! (That’s a joke only the UK folks will get, but trust me, it was a good one! 😉 )

The World Meteorological Organization is working with HAM radio operators in Africa to gather and report weather information. Ham radio operators around the world have long been actively involved in storm spotting and weather data relay efforts. I am a HAM lic. holder myself (KC4ZUX). These people do a wonderful service, their spotter reports are invaluable during severe weather.

For those that have these radios, do not set it for any other county than your own. The way the system works, it may not even work if you do this. The U.S. Federal Government is working toward being able to warn only parts of counties with the NOAA radios, but for some reason (Likely money) it’s not up and running yet. Still, you should have one.

If you live in a mobile home, your risk of being injured by severe weather is many, many times greater and a NOAA radio is an absolute must.

Another option I really think is great is the new automated calling systems. Dekalb County Alabama was struck by tornadoes this year and last. It’s a fairly rural county and sirens are not an option. They  just purchased a system that will allow them to call resident in the path of severe storms.


Hopefully, other counties and cities will follow their lead. I know of several of these systems that are already operating. With everyone carrying a mobile phone now, this is real 21st century technology.

Vortex 2 is underway- Click for more info.

Vortex 2 is underway- Click for more info.

All of this will be of little use, if forecasters like me cannot see dangerous weather developing. Believe me, there is a ton of research underway to improve warnings. This Spring, NOAA and several universities are working together to get high resolution data of severe storms. This experiment is called VORTEX 2. It’s the largest and most ambitious effort ever undertaken to better understand how tornadoes form.

The average lead time, for a tornado warning, is about 13 minutes in the USA. Higher if you exclude tornadoes in hurricanes. There was an excellent paper, in the March issue, of the AMS Journal Weather and Forecasting on Tornado warnings that were too late. These negative lead time warnings still happen, but they are rare. Forecasters are looking at how and why these tornadoes were missed, so there will be fewer of them.

Interestingly, these late warnings happen very often with the first tornado of the day, and in months when tornadoes are not common. They also are more likely in areas of the country that see few twisters. As we learn more, and get higher resolution numerical weather prediction models (NWP), the lead time for tornadoes should increase.  Just as importantly, the false alarms will decrease.

Keep safe,