“Watch,” “Warning,” WTF?

Confession: I have no idea what this means.

This is a blog about communications, and communications is never more important than when catastrophic weather is fast approaching.

For decades I have been warned by earnest news meteorologists about weather “watches” and “warnings.” Nearly every time, I confess that I have to stop and say “wait, which one is the serious one?” By the end of the tornado season I sometimes have it straightened out again in my head, but then I forget it all by the following spring.

Yes, I know, this says more about my modest cognitive capacity than the clarity of weather communications. But it does speak to both. Unfortunately, I can’t get smarter. But the National Weather Service (NWS) could get clearer.

For the record, “watch” means that you should stay alert for changing weather conditions, while “warning” means you need to get to a shelter now. I know this because I just Googled it.

But when I’m operating Google-free and brain-free, I can often argue it the other way in my head. I think to myself: “Watch” sounds urgent, like ‘watch out, there’s a tornado coming right now!”

I can also sometimes convince myself that “warning” is the less severe of the two alerts. After all, in common usage the word “warning” often is used to advise us of long-range potential dangers, such as “Warning: Sun exposure can cause skin cancer” (decades later). Or “Warning: Writing a blog can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.” A threat, yes. Immediate, no.

If you Google “watch warning,” you get a lot of pages addressing this subject. This tells me that I’m not the only moron who struggles with this. It seems the world does not lack for morons.

So how about changing the two alerts so they are absolutely clear about the desired action step:

“The NWS has issued a Watch The Weather Alert that is in effect until noon today.” OR “The NWS has issued a Go To Shelter Now Alert until noon today.”

If they said that, even I would immediately understand what to do.

I’m sure someone could do better than those labels, but here is the larger point: When 200 mph winds are the subject at hand, I’d argue that longer and clearer beats the hell out of brief and baffling.

- Loveland

5 Responses

  1. Loveland: And what about the difference between “partly cloudy” and “partly sunny”?

    • That’s a deep one, Ellen. Personally, I’m a partly cloudy kind of guy.

      Another weather communications issue: The use of counties as the location reference in weather alerts.

      First, counties are often quite large, and sometimes bad weather impacts small areas only. Therefore, citing counties isn’t very precise. Second, and more importantly, when traveling for business or pleasure, I often don’t know what county I’m in. I usually know what town I am in or around, so why not cite the town/city instead of county?

    • Some people say the sky is half full, some say half empty; what kind of person is your meteorologist?

  2. Early Saturday morning, my NOAA weather radio went off with its screaming “the world is about to end” siren. It turned out that it was for a stupid severe thunderstorm WATCH, which — as you point out — means something MIGHT develop. Or it might not.

    Hey National Weather Service. Wake me — literally — when you’ve got something for me to actually track. Otherwise, shut the meteorological piehole.

    • Perhaps you should take the initiative to get a radio that allows you to turn off alerting for the Severe Thunderstorm Watches? That way, you don’t have to be bothered by those measly notifications…

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