Ka-BOOM!

That is the sound of the National Weather Service blowing up the severe thunderstorm and tornado warning system that has served us so very well for so many years. Starting April 1, in the geographic areas served by the National Weather Service offices in Kansas City, Wichita, Springfield (MO), Dodge City, Topeka and Goodland (KS), there will be multi-tiered severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings.

The changes which I will describe below spring from the high death toll from U.S. tornadoes in general, and the Joplin tornado in particular, in 2011. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they will make the issues worse and will likely cost lives due to confusion.

The New Severe Thunderstorm Warnings

The NWS is going to put additional emphasis on hail size and wind speed, which is fine. While imperfect, the science exists to do this.

Unfortunately, they are going to allow a sentence to be added to severe thunderstorm warnings that states, “A tornado is possible.” What do you or a school principal do with that? Go halfway down the basement stairs?

Given the political pressure the National Weather Service seems to be under at the moment, I forecast that many severe thunderstorm warnings will contain that unfortunate sentence and the “overwarning” problem, which we know causes complacency, will get measurably worse.

The New Tornado Warnings

This is where it really gets bad. There will be, starting April 1, three types of tornado warnings:

  • The “ordinary” tornado warning
  • A tornado warning declaring a “particularly dangerous situation”
  • A “tornado emergency” for “catastrophic” damage.

The first problem is that the science does not exist to do this! We have no skill at short-term tornado strength forecasting. None.

Second, who is going to be able to keep straight whether a “tornado emergency” is better or worse than a “particularly dangerous situation”?

Third, even if #1 and #2 were not issues, what do you want the public to do differently?! Since we meteorologists want everyone to take shelter during a tornado warning, the two “tornado warnings on steroids” are superfluous.

Here is the National Weather Service’s hypothetical example based around the Joplin storm:

* AT 514 PM CDT…A TORNADO EMERGENCY FOR THE CITY OF JOPLIN.   A CONFIRMED LARGE AND DESTRUCTIVE TORNADO WAS LOCATED NEAR   BAXTER SPRINGS MOVING NORTHEAST AT 40 MPH.

THIS IS A PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION.

Fourth, they are going to elevate any accompanying wind and/or hail threat. To use the NWS’s example, which is built around the Joplin tornado,

HAZARD…DEADLY TORNADO AND BASEBALL SIZE HAIL

The problem with this is that literally dozens of devices are now parsing these messages. During the Joplin tornado, two of my friends were trapped in the path of the storm because a message about hail (the least of their problems) overwrote a text message about the tornado.

What does a person do when hail is coming? Run outside and put the car in the garage….the last thing we want them to do when a violent tornado is approaching.

If the National Weather Service believes an F-5 tornado is approaching they should be urging people to take shelter and forget about the hail, lightning and other hazards.

Fifth, the chance of getting the people of Kansas, western Missouri, and adjacent areas educated by April 1 is extremely low. It has taken forty years to get the “watch” and “warning” concept to where they have widespread acceptance. I doubt this can be done in forty days.

This isn’t just my opinion. Dr. Laura Myers, a social scientist at Mississippi State University, wrote yesterday,

My conclusion: It would seem that more detail and more warning levels would help, but I think it just leads to confusion and [warning] fatigue.

When a tornado is bearing down, people need to act and act quickly. Having to think through warning types is counterproductive.

This experiment has the potential, through confusion, to undo a half-century of great progress in tornado warnings.  I urge the National Weather Service to reconsider and call the experiment off.

 

Because of the importance of this issue, I’m going to leave this on the top of the blog through Friday evening.

29 thoughts on “Ka-BOOM!

  1. Mike,

    I agree with you 100%. This will be a BIG step backwards if they do this. They really need to consider NOT doing this. More confusion regarding warnings during severe weather is the last thing anyone needs. Complacency will become far worse than it already is, not to mentions FARS.

  2. Thank you for telling us that, Mike. We have relied on you and other meteorologis in Wichita for years while we plan our actions for Search and Rescue. No one has explained any of this to us and here it is Feb 16. What are they waiting for?

  3. The tornado warning listed here for Joplin is much better than the one issued on that day.

  4. Mike, how can we help encourage the NWS to call off the experimental warnings? With respect to warnings for spring/summer weather, I agree that LESS detail is better. (That is, people shouldn’t give a damn how big or bad the tornado is–it’s a freaking tornado, go to your basement)! Anyway, I am thinking the local WFOs in the affected areas have little input or effect on the decision-making, so where can we go to provide feedback? It’s my experience that with a lot of these types of changes, the NWS has always been good about eliciting feedback–did they do that before approving the experiment? Is there an open feedback option somewhere still? Or should start at the NWS “Home Page” and dig around until we find the best place to go?

    Once we all know the most efficient place to direct our concerns, I will definitely share mine. I don’t agree with this at all. I’m a weather “geek” and most people I encounter STILL don’t know the difference between a watch and warning or sometimes between a Severe Thunderstorm and Tornado Warning. Simpler is better.

  5. Hmmm, I know it’s semantics, but it still bothers me…

    How does the NWS know a priori that a tornado is deadly? If they really did know that, then I think we really could cut into the warning fatigue problem…

  6. It’s a great idea – but the development process was sorely lacking any social science input. How did this not even get a MENTION at the Weather Ready Nation conferences? The big December event was just weeks prior, and I can’t find anyone at the AMS meeting (which was after this started working through the system) that heard of it either. And the involved WFO’s don’t seem to be pushing it out either.

    That being said – putting QLCS tornadoes back into the SVR bin is a GREAT!!! idea. At the core, it’s putting into text what NWS mets already know in their head but can only mention on NWSChat, and private sector mets are telling their clients.

  7. I disagree that your statement, “We have no skill at short-term tornado strength forecasting,” is a valid argument against an enhanced warning. A “warning” is based on a real-time radar image that is not a forecast but an actual event. I would sooner trust a Mike Umscheid at DDC, writing his own warning to Greensburg, KS about what was heading their way, than to make him tailor an urgent life-saving message to some bureaucratic straight-jacket.

    Secondly, I believe the target population in the plains has become much more knowledgeable over the years, than for which jaded bureaucrats give them credit. Modern communication (television, cell phones, and Weather Radio) have greatly enhanced the delivery and range of information, which wasn’t available “forty years” ago. I think they are ready for the next phase of warnings. Better to give more information than withholding it, risking lives(?), and trying to boilerplate some uniform message, that applies to everyone, all the time, in every situation. An enhanced warning need not include exactly how to react. Trying to anticipate public reaction and specific preparedness steps should not thwart this effort. Deal with this later. I would sooner trust the COMMON SENSE of the market audience in the plains, than depend on a bureaucratic list of do’s and don’ts. This may not satisfy Government lawyers, wanting to protect it against every possible claim, but that shouldn’t stop doing what is right.

  8. They might as well go with the DHS-style Rainbow of warning states. At least people recognize that “Red” is worse than “Orange”. We have enough trouble with people not being able to distinguish between “watch” and “warning”.

  9. Mike, a slight clarification. The Dodge City office will NOT be participating in the initiative. I also believe that Goodland will not be experimenting either.

  10. This is the typical work of burorocrats.

    I really hope they will listen to your advice because it really makes sense.

  11. Once again the government is in overdrive! The reasons for so many deaths, is not the warning system. The system worked, the people did not abide the warnings. They have become complacient about them, and the last chase I went on several years ago, made me quit. I realized that people were running out of their homes and stopping the chasers and asking them where the tornado was and what they should do! Two people were killed by that tornado and it was only a F2 tornado. People it doesn’t matter what size the tornado is, if you are in the path and are not going to a basement or to your safe room, then you may be in extreme danger regardless of what the tornado is rated!

    Last years tornadoes were also more deadly due the the path they took. People in the Mississippi-Alabama area
    are quite poor and there just aren’t many that have storm shelters or even safe areas in their homes.

    If the government wants to start interfering in confusing the matter will only get worse. People are ultimately responsible for themselves. If they choose not to listen to weather reports or to heed the warnings, there is nothing that is going to change their actions! It comes down to TAKING PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for yourself and your
    family! There is not a person out there that has not heard or been taught what to do during a tornado warning, they simply think, “It Won’t Happen To Me!” or “It Can’t Happen Again!” or “I can out run the tornado!” or “I want to get video so I can make money off of it!”

    It’s also the media who have sensationalized the weather events, that helped cause this problem. There are
    now so many idiots out there clogging the roads trying to become famous for getting a video of the storm so that they can sell it! If the media would stop sensationalizing everything and stop buying video from the idiots, the alot of those people will get off the roads. Encouraging more and more people to attend Storm Spotter meetings so they can supposedly learn what to look for in spotting a tornado only encourages people who are not properly trained to got out and chase and those untrained persons have raised the number of reports going in for storms that are not even tornadic! They report low hanging clouds called scat clouds as wall clouds forming.
    If the government really wants to get involved in this, they should have requirements of education for anyone out storm chasing and spotting. Not just a once a year video, I mean a meteorological education and degree!

    I knew it was time for me to stop chasing when there were so many people clogging the dirts roads of Sedgwick County that there were not adequate escape options, should the tornado change paths. I had chased since
    I was a teenager and I knew what I was doing, The people clogging the roads now, don’t know what they are
    doing, they stop their cars along the dirt road and park, get out, put up their Tri-pods and take pictures and videos.
    I am not going to put my life in danger to these idiots. I had chased for nearly 35 yrs when I stopped.

    Legal chasing groups should be allowed to have emergency lights and sirens on all of their vehicles. That would distinguish them from all of the wannabes out there.

  12. I’m not a meteorologist or chaser, just an ordinary person, but my suggestion for this “experiment” would be just to go with two kinds of warning: regular and PDS. The Storm Prediction Center uses regular and PDS wording for tornado WATCHES, and has for almost 30 years, so this would match that practice. A PDS warning would be issued whenever there are multiple, confirmed reports of a damaging tornado that is likely to strike a community of any size, a large facility (e.g. airport) or a large gathering (fair, festival, concert, sports event) within 20-30 minutes. I think that situation qualifies as “particularly dangerous” regardless of the size or intensity of the tornado in question.

    I would rather that Tornado Emergencies remain informal and optional products that local NWS offices use at their own discretion. The problem with TE’s to me is, where do you draw the line between them and a PDS warning? Is it based on size of the tornado, or the size of the community it’s going to hit, on the presence or absence of a debris ball, or what?

    Although these products aren’t intended for the general public, the public WILL see and hear them online or via NOAA Weather Radio. I think PDS wording is just the little extra “red flag” needed to call attention to the situation so that people may be more aware. (In the hypothetical example using Joplin, PDS wording would have gone out at least 20 minutes before the tornado actually hit.) Tossing Tornado Emergencies into the mix at this point is not needed.

    • The last research of tornado warning reception I’ve seen is regarding a college campus (students & staff.) 3% of students reported hearing warnings on NOAA Weather Radio, 5% of staff. TWC and Weather.com were far more prevalent.

  13. Having lived in the Great Plains almost all of my life, I can tell you that plain facts trump excess complicated verbiage. A Tornado warning with the statement Spotter Sighted / Confirmed is more effective than a PDS or the other items listed above. The people in Joplin and other affected areas suffered warning fatigue, as do many communities in storm prone areas. Unfortunately, this reaction from government is not solving the problem, but will probably exacerbate it.

    The bureaucrats cannot understand that the problem is too much inappropriate warning. I did not say false, since the conditions exist for the warning to be issued. However, the area warned is too big in relationship to what is affected. The bureaucrats just think that they are not yelling loud enough. Inside their cocoon the world works very differently, and unfortunately it has few intersections with the reality. When you warn people needlessly you affect their perception of a warning. This is human nature, inherent from the beginning of time. As a child knows many parents that count don’t mean it till they get close to the end, and that some do not mean it at all. We have to be smarter, and better at warning the public. These warnings must be as accurate as possible, using the best that science has to offer. I just hope that we do not go backwards because of last season. For the only result would be more people dying needlessly.

    • I suspect that the experiment in question is driven by a conviction that lack of an enhanced warning or tornado emergency message was a reason, or perhaps THE reason, so many died in Joplin, therefore, an ironclad policy on issuing tornado emergencies will prevent that from ever happening again. If that is so, it would be a classic case of “not seeing the forest for the trees.”

      If warning fatigue and lack of visibility of the actual tornado were primary contributing factors to the Joplin death toll, then all the super duper enhanced warning language in the world probably wouldn’t have made much difference — especially, given that a higher than usual percentage of victims were away from home (in vehicles or in non-residential buildings such as stores, churches, etc.)

      • “I suspect that the experiment in question is driven by a conviction that lack of an enhanced warning or tornado emergency message was a reason, or perhaps THE reason, so many died in Joplin,”

        No, it’s exactly the opposite. I would suggest looking at the Joplin Service Assessment. The reason most people didn’t react to the warning until it was too late was because they have had two dozen tornado warnings in the past 3 years, and none resulted in a tornado. Many were for “squall line” tornadoes which really aren’t true tornadoes, and now those types of events will get a SVR instead of a TOR.

        Warning fatigue is a big issue – I’d also suggest you read Mike’s book. It has many more reasons why reducing the number of TOR warnings issued is a good idea.

        • I HAVE read Mike’s book, and I have read the Joplin Service Assessment. But I suspect it’s NOT the on-the-ground meteorologists, etc. who actually performed that assessment that drove this experiment. I’m thinking other bureaucrats with a much narrower view of why people didn’t react to the warning, and with more of a concern for liability issues, are behind it.

          Getting rid of blanket TOR warnings for “squall line” tornadoes is a good thing, I agree. However, I’m not sure adding two extra layers of enhanced tornado warnings with cut and dried rules about when and how they must be used is a good thing.

      • My point is that they are focused on the wrong problem. While my experience may be anecdotal, I do talk to many people in the Great Plains area, and perform spotter duties as needed. The general consensus of the public at large is that most warnings are for some place else. The town where I live has had approximately 10 tornado warning over the last 6 years, out of those 10 only 2 were of any threat to my house. By threat I mean the my town was in the path of the storm. Now all of the warnings were valid for the areas issued. However only 20% even included my area. There are places within my county where over the past 6 years that no warnings were valid, but they were warned just the same. The invalid warning messages being sent are desensitizing the warning message.

        There are many competent Sociological, and Psychological studies on warnings, and experts in the field who could help in this matter. Almost all would state that a focused, accurate, and direct warning will work better than a complex, wordy, inaccurate, and irrelevant one. This does not take a PhD in Sociology to understand, as it is a common daily occurrence.

        The people in Joplin were in their cars, away from home and out and about because the warnings had become meaningless. If you read the response from the victims, almost all to a person stated that they would not take cover till they saw the storm. Why was that? They had been trained to do so by sitting in their shelters for a storm that was 20 mi to the NE moving away from them. They wasted time sheltering from a storm that was no threat to them. So at that fateful day they did not heed the warnings, used the past training as given by the system, and many died because of it. Also, this was an extremely violent storm, one difficult to survive even with the best of shelters.

        What is really needed is an objective cross disciplinary evaluation of the system. Appropriate recommendations given the severity of this storm, and methods developed that work with human psychology, not against it.

    • This sounds like a horrible experiment–I’m sorry to hear they are doing it here in St. Louis. What I’m worried about is how the new warning system will affect/impact the use of sirens in threatened areas. The siren system is messed up enough around here, and there are so many problems with siren use in general that this will only add to the confusion.

      • Interesting you should bring up sirens and St. Louis. I’m going to reedit and repost “Error on the Side of Safety” which is an essay on that very topic shortly.

      • Steve – that’s a good point but in reality it will dramatically reduce the need for siren activation, ESPECIALLY in your area which is prone to blanket Tornado Warnings. Those 65mph spinups can now be covered in SVRs.

        • I’m not sure I see why siren activation will be reduced with this new system, maybe this part of the problem. If they are issuing SVRs with the line “a tornado is possible” (and isn’t that already in a TS Warning?) are the “siren authorities” going to react differently than before since this is a new system. Are the new SVRs supposed to signaling something different? What is a school going to do? Or my workplace? I’m giving a storm talk to dorm students at the college where I teach and now I wonder what to tell them about the meaning of sirens, when/why they are activated (which is already confusing enough around here). That “we”, who are supposedly more knowledgeable about these things, are confused, doesn’t portend very well for when this is introduced to the public, especially last-minute.

  14. The Impact Based Warning experiment involves the following NWS offices: Wichita, Topeka, Springfield, Kansas City and St. Louis. The goal of the experiment is to provide more specifity about potential impacts and to reduce false alarm, with the goal to reduce unnecessary siren activation and to lessen warning fatigue. The verbiage in the tags that will be used still is being vetted by the participating office’s management & meteorologist staffs and NWS Central Region Headquarters.

    • Thanks Suzanne. The last line scares me… It amazes me that with the Weather Ready Nation initiative bringing social scientists into the picture, that this is being done without them. But I look forward to improvements.

      • Suzanne will soon be the meteorologist-in-charge of the Wichita National Weather Service Forecast Office and I’m looking forward to meeting and working with her.

        Unfortunately, Suzanne has put her finger on part of the problem with this experiment. We are 43 days out and no public announcement has been made! We are going to create major changes in the warning system — during the height of storm season — with little time to educate the public.

        It has taken us 40 years to get people to the point where they basically understand “watch” and “warning.” They’ll never know what to do with “A tornado is possible.” in a SVR and keep straight whether a “tornado emergency” warning is worse or better than a “particularly dangerous situation” tornado warning.

  15. The biggest problem right now is public apathy. It’s become a generational issue.

    This is a really poor decision. I do agree with the tornado emergency, because it implies a disaster is occurring in a populated area. This might allow first responders, law enforcement, etc., a few extra minutes to respond or get ready, or for those who pay attention to take additional precautions. The biggest problem are radar generated tornado warnings vs. a funnel reaching the ground warnings.

    I’ve spoken to many storm spotters, FEMA workers, rescuers (I’m also an EMT), and Emergency Managers who are seeing an increase in apathy towards severe weather. I think recent TV shows depicting “chasers” doing idiotic things around storms has not helped the issue. When I conducted lectures years ago, people wanted to know how to “survive a tornado.” Now days, younger kids and adults want to know how to drive into or “see” a tornado “like on TV.”

    When I was in Joplin following the tornado, a man sorting through debris mentioned he stayed out as long as he could because he had seen people on “TV doing it,” and thought it would be “easier.”

    Warren

  16. How eronic. After reading Mike’s absolutely fascinating book, to think the then National Weather Bureau was so worried about giving false warnings. The National Weather Service now seems to have gone completely overboard. We have finally saved thousands of lives when timely accurate tornado warnings are issued. I also fear complacency will become the norm with too many people. Serious tornado warnings demand serious action. A tornado warning should be just that, nothing more, nothing less.