A Prescient Forecast

Stormtrack.org is discussion group of meteorologists, storm chasers, and weather aficionados. Four days after the Greensburg tornado of Friday, May 4, 2007, the group was talking about a then-rarely used National Weather Service message called a “tornado emergency” (TE) that was issued by Mike Umscheid of the NWS office in Dodge City as the tornado approached the town. 

Most of the commenters were complimentary of the TE. I was one of the few that was critical. I’d like to reproduce those comments from nearly 5 years ago because I believe they are highly pertinent to the discussions about the new tornado warnings on steroids that begin April 1 in from western Illinois to central Kansas. DDC = Dodge City NWS. ICT = Wichita. PDS = then-rare “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch. 

Here is the crux of the matter as far as I am concerned: We all agree that Friday’s TE was fine. It was issued on a classic hook with gate-to-gate shear off the chart. DDC got praise for issuing it.

The next evening a far weaker signature approached Great Bend. ICT NWS (for which I have great respect) appeared to feel compelled to issue a “tornado emergency.” It “busted.” 

The first ever PDS tornado watch of which I am aware was April 26, 1991, which produced Andover, Red Rock and Cowley Co., all of which were F4 or F5. At first, PDS’s were rare. 

Now, PDS tornado watches are issued much more frequently than they were at first. On Saturday, SPC issued five (more than used to be issued in an entire year), none of which verified from the point of view of long-track F4, F5′s (which was the original intent of the PDS watch). The tornado watch for Greensburg Friday was an “ordinary” tornado watch — but an extraordinary tornado occurred. Because it was an “ordinary” tornado watch did we want the public to be less aware? Do we really have that much meteorological reliability (which I define as consistent skill)? 

Melbourne NWS in August, 2005, received praise for issuing a tornado warning for the 100 mph winds associated with the decaying eye of Hurricane Charley. It spread across the NWS and morphed into something unfortunate: Telling people in the path of Katrina to go to the lowest floor as a 30 ft. storm surge came in. 

These things seem to have a “creep” to them. The first few are great. Then, they start being used more and more often until they become less meaningful. Then, they can continue to morph into something undesirable if a great deal of thought is not given to whether it is a good idea in the first place and, if so, what are the circumstances under which it is appropriate use the new special product. Otherwise, in a few years, TE’s might become routine until some NWS office issues a Super Duper Tornado Emergency message. 

When you combine the TE concerns above with the additional complexity (are people going to hear about these new products and reprogram their WR-SAME, NWWR heading decoders, etc., in time for a future rare event?) especially in areas where tornadoes are infrequent, to catch the “tornado emergency message”? If they do, will they get disenchanted when their NWR’s are waking them up for Statements?

If you restrict TE’s to dense population areas, are we saying that a life in a big city is worth more than in a small town?

That is why I believe the polygon tornado warnings, which become official October 1, should be given a chance to work before we make another major change to the tornado warning system.

I do believe many influential and smart people read this board which is why I have posted my comments and spent so much time on this. 

Thanks for reading, everyone,


The NWS did in fact tell people to go to the lowest floor of their homes as the 30′ storm surge of Hurricane Katrina moved in (I cover that entire issue in the Katrina chapters of Warnings).

And, the number of “tornado emergency” messages after Greensburg skyrocketed as predicted and the vast majority of them have been incorrect. 

Now, as I feared 5 years ago, we will soon have two types of  ”super duper” tornado warning. And, the affected NWS offices have the ability to add “A tornado is possible” to severe thunderstorm warnings. As this “creeps” (which it inevitably will), the “lines” (to the extent that people will be able to tell the difference between a “tornado emergency warning” and a “particularly dangerous situation tornado warning”) will blur and mass confusion will result. 

Anyone want to bet against this?

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7 thoughts on “A Prescient Forecast

  1. As an engineer who has designed for various applications, I have always ascribed to this rule: Simple Good, Complex Bad. If you want someone to do something in a stressful situation, direct easy to understand commands and information are best. One of the best has always been Stained Spotters have reported _______, Police and or Fire departments have reported ______. This simple information, when available provides support for the warning that is easily understood without explanation. Unfortunately, we are progressing towards yelling louder and not more effectively. Too bad the weather is less predictable than the administration, people and processes used to predict it.

    • Richard – that simple info is still there. If that’s all you want, that’s all you need to get. It is even easier to do so because of the new tags, so if you don’t want to be bothered unless a tornado has been confirmed you can do that now. You couldn’t with the old (well, current) system.

      • I disagree with my friend Rob.

        The elevating of the hail threat in the three new tornado warnings makes it MORE likely the less important threat (hail) will overwrite the more important threat (tornado) in the new messaging.

        This isn’t a hypothetical concern: Two friends of mine were lured into the path of the Joplin tornado and had to write out because hail overwrote tornado on their cell phone!

        By complicating the parsing of warning messages it makes it more likely that can happen in the future.

      • Rob,

        If I have to explain what it means or filter the information, it isn’t simple and will be difficult to interpret. I am a nerd, I was a nerd long before the word became popular in the common vernacular. Weather has always been a passion for me, it just wasn’t in the cards for me to be a meteorologist. However, working on an ambulance for almost 17 years taught me that simple information in high stress situations are absorbed and processed best. Also, What I understand as a nerd is not what most other people understand. I cannot use my experiences as a reference for what will work for “normal” people ( I know that the only way I see normal is with a telescope.). This is not about their level of intelligence, cognitive capability, or general awareness, but that I am hyper sensitive to information about severe weather, and have a greater understanding than most people.

        The real issue is about what the very knowledgeable understand versus what the average person understands are significantly different. What makes sense to us would confuse most people. That is what I am afraid of, confusion. A plain description of the warning with appropriate priorities towards the warnings having the greatest dangers to human life will go far in the warnings realm. Warning about hail in a tornadic thunderstorm is like warning about rain falling. What should people do if a tornado warning is issued? Take cover! What difference does it make if large hail is falling? None you should still take cover. Give the facts in simple words and plain English appropriate for the region.

        • You’re right. If you don’t want to explain, then at the basic level you have a SVR and you have a TOR… Just like before. If that’s all you care about, then you’re set.

          If you want additional information provided in the tier structure, you have that too. But you can ignore it, and no harm will come.

  2. Mike, I agree the warning system has degraded in the face of a growing need for precision in communication. At the annual AMS meeting this year I sat in on a session that discussed the need to examine and improve the watch/warning process. I admit I have not followed the evolution of the public announcement products but was surprised I didn’t know where “advisories” fit in the hierarchy and apparently I am not alone here. The mix of media interpretation (and sometimes editorializing) with official poorly phrased products is quite confusing to the initiated let alone the general public. I know NWS has a charge to establish a “Weather Ready Nation” and the watch/warning/(advisory?) system is a good place to start. Thanks for keeping the dialog going.


  3. Mike:

    Thank you again for your outstanding leadership on these and other issues! You nailed it again. We are presently unable to get people to pursue, listen to, interpret, understand, and respond to weather watches and warnings. The new multi-level severe thunderstorm and tornado warning plan will only lead to more confusion, apathy, frustration, and more and more people not responding appropriately to severe weather warnings.

    One good thing of late has been the substantial increase in the number of ways individuals can receive weather warnings via the many electronic notification services that are widely available. If we were to keep these “notifications” simple and straightforward, we would be gaining ground. I will stop here. You have it covered. I will talk to my local NWS folks who I see often and see what they think. I bet that they agree with you. If we could only keep the D.C. bureaucrats out of the picture.

    Tom in Ft. Worth.