1 July 2013
Ask ten people in America if they know the difference between a watch and a warning, and you will likely find that many do not. I’m asked this question very frequently, and this in spite of the fact that we forecasters have been talking about it for years. Here in America, we’ve used the same system for five decades now, and perhaps it is time to look at improving it.
There were a couple of talks about this at the AMS Broadcast conference in Nashville last week (It was actually a joint conference on weather warnings), and I pointed out after one talk that the UK Met office has developed a system that is very good. I know this because I was driving in the UK awhile back, and heard a yellow warning for heavy rain. A few hours later as the weather worsened, and the water began rising it was changed to a red warning for flooding. Now, I did not know how their system worked, but I didn’t need to. Red means danger in my book, and is more serious than yellow.
The trick here is that they USE THE COLOURS IN THE WARNING MESSAGE!
Imagine my surprise when we stopped for a coffee break, and Patricia Boyle of the UK Met Office comes over and introduces herself. She thanked me for my comments because it was she who developed the system!
We do use colour coding in our warning maps on TV now and the NWS is using them on their website, but unfortunately it is far from standard. One station may use orange for a tornado warning and another red. There was a lot of talk among the broadcast mets about working to standardize it. In some cities this has already been done when local stations got together with the NWS.
It will be difficult to modernize our warnings, and we will have to make it so that it does not conflict with what people learned in the past, albeit not all of them! Perhaps something along the lines of a yellow alert tornado watch, and a tornado red warning? Using colour works, I know this from my own experience. We already use Amber alerts for missing kids don’t we!
Pat Boyle said they are getting many inquires about it from other countries, and a NOAA employee indicated that they have been looking at it as well. Change is never easy, and it will take a thick skin on the part of NOAA, and local broadcast meteorologists, but I can tell you as a group we have pretty thick one.
You cannot do this job for 30 years without developing one!
Note: “Colour” can be spelled “color” as well. I have always spelled it colour because a teacher once told me to pick one way and stick with it. So I did!