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.