Comment on "Tornado Warning Fatigue"

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Thanks for the link, Glenn.

Glenn Reynolds over at the ubiquitous Instapundit writes:

We were awakened in the middle of the night last night by a tornado warning for a storm that never even came close to our house, but that hit north Knox County pretty hard. I’m happy to have the weather radio to warn us, but we’re beginning to suffer tornado-warning fatigue.

What Glenn is referring to is that if the weather radio is not programmed correctly, it will go off throughout the night for storms you don’t care about in areas where you do not live causing you to be awakened in the middle of the night unnecessarily.

Before you purchase a weather radio, make sure the store will program it for you and have them do it before you leave the store! FIPS and S.A.M.E. codes — some of the exotic languages of meteorology — are things you shouldn’t have to worry about, let the store do that. If the store says they cannot program the radio, purchase it somewhere else. I’ve found Radio Shack does the job well.

If you already have a weather radio, take it back where you purchased it and have them program it for your specific location.

Otherwise, you’ll be like so many others that get tired of losing sleep and will unplug it or throw it away and that is dangerous when the “real thing” occurs. 

Here is a story about the storms.

Addition to the above posting: Glenn says he has his radio set for all but the highest level but there have been too many tornado warnings this year.

I’m currently in Oklahoma City attending the American Meteorological Society’s first-ever conference entirely devoted to storm warning techniques. This has been the worst tornado season since 1952 in terms of deaths with well above normal numbers of violent tornadoes. That is, more than anything, what accounts for so many warnings this year. There has been a huge number of storms.

All of us are hoping things get back to normal soon.

More on the Snowicane

In the Comments section after the “Congratulations, AccuWeather” you will find a comment from one of our readers that raises a valid question comparing Snowicane (a term I supported coining) with a term, “Tornado Emergency,” that I do not support.  I would like to elaborate on this and I could not do it justice as a brief comment, so I am making it a separate posting.

As the tornado headed for the southern part of the Oklahoma City Metro Area on May 3, 1999, the NWS office in Norman issued a message, “Tornado Emergency for South Oklahoma City.” In the opinion of the NWS (even though this contention was not supported by independent published sociological studies after the fact), that message saved lives. It was quickly but informally adopted by NWS offices across the country and the number of “tornado emergencies” increased.

I viewed this as a dangerous trend because for one simple reason:  Meteorologists have no skill — none — at very short term tornado forecasting (i.e., will the tornado lift or continue across a city). Because we have no skill (we use extrapolation) in predicting short-term changes in tornado behavior (movement and intensity), I feared we would diminish the importance of the term “tornado warning” by conditioning people to wait to take cover until they heard the “tornado emergency.” I believe this concern has been validated by the undisputed fact that the majority of “tornado emergency” messages turned out not to be “emergencies” at all.  That is, the tornado lifted or changed direction before reading its “target.”

For all you will ever want to know about both sides of the “tornado emergency” debate, click here.

Now, why do I support Snowicane?  Here’s why,

1.  We have considerable skill at forecasting this type of event as AccuWeather’s accurate forecast three days in advance demonstrated.

2.  The term “blizzard” did not convey the threat of losing power which (I was in on some of the company internal discussions) was a major concern of the forecasters. For someone needing power for, say, medical equipment the ability to get to a hospital during a super-blizzard would be nil. So, we needed to get their attention. Snowicane was a way of doing that as the media quickly picked it up.

3.  The storm moved from east to west like a hurricane and had (when viewed on radar) both an “eye” and a “spiral banded” appearance like a hurricane.  The barometric pressure trace (see the ‘Congratulations’ post) looks like a hurricane and the drop in pressure was similar to a hurricane.

Of course, the Northeast storm had a different internal structure than a hurricane but that is a detail that I think is significant only to meteorologists. The term “blizzard” just does not convey 75+mph gusts with widespead loss of electricity, so I think the use of the term is valid in this case and would be in an identical storm in the future.

Now, there is a valid concern and that is that coining new storm terminology should be done infrequently and with great care.  There is the potential for confusion if this is done too often.  But, in this case, I thought it was done very well.

Congratulations, AccuWeather!

The “eye” of the Snowicane over western Long Island

My colleagues in State College did an amazing job on the “Snowicane” that struck the Northeast last week. They realized, in advance, how intense and destructive the storm would be.  Normally, a “blizzard” does not knock out power in significant numbers.  This storm, with 90+ mph gusts, caused power to be lost to 1,000,000 electric “customers” (homes and businesses) which is approximately 3,500,000 people. The storm also dumped more than 30″ of snow in many areas that the wind whipped into 5+ ft. drifts.

AccuWeather’s forecasters realized all this as the storm developed. Given that huge numbers of people who would be without power in the cold surrounded by deeply drifted snow, they coined the term Snowicane to differentiate it from an ordinary blizzard. Since it would have a tight circulation similar to a hurricane (note the “eye” in the radar image above) and barometric pressure similar to a Category 2 Hurricane the term was apt.

The graph of barometric pressures was just like a hurricane’s

So, it was with dismay that I read this story in today’s Wichita Eagle (pg. 6A) filled with criticism from the National Weather Service. Especially amusing was the criticism that AccuWeather put out the forecast when the storm “hadn’t yet fully formed.”  Guys, that is what a warning is supposed to do — let people know what is going to happen.

I continued to read my Sunday paper and turned to page 12A and read this story about the power outages in the Northeast which states,

CONCORD, N.H. —Frustration turned to resignation Saturday for hundreds of thousands of people in the Northeast struggling to survive another day waiting for utility crews to restore electricity after powerful storms socked the region with heavy snow, rain and hurricane-force winds.

The highest wind reported from the storm was 91 mph off the coast of Portsmouth, N.H. —well above hurricane force of 74 mph. Gusts also hit 60 mph or more from the mountains of West Virginia to New York’s Long Island and Massachusetts.  [Note, there were even stronger winds as my friend Jesse Ferrell documents in his blog]

Hmm.  ”Hurricane force winds + heavy snow + westward moving storm + eye and banded structure” = “Snowicane” anyone?  By getting the word out, AccuWeather gave people the vital tool of information which they could use to buy a generator, stock up on food and medicine, top off the gasoline tank, etc., to mitigate the effects of the storm. 

Anyone who has read this blog or who will read Warnings knows that I am a fan of the National Weather Service. They do vital work for the pubic and we in private-sector meteorology depend on their data infrastructure. But, the griping about AccuWeather’s clever way to get people’s attention in advance of an extremely dangerous storm should have earned kudos rather than criticism from our colleagues in the NWS.

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National Weather Service News

As of today, the NWS will issue severe thunderstorm warnings when thunderstorm winds are expected to reach 50 knots (58 mph or more) and/or hail of one inch in diameter or larger is expected to fall.  Previously, the hail threshold was 3/4th of an inch.  I agree with this change — there have been too many severe thunderstorm warnings in the past.

They are also increasing the “lead time” for tropical storm and hurricane watches and warnings, meaning they will be issued earlier when there is a threat to the U.S. coast.  Read all about it here.