Communicating weather safety information

Weather is complicated and hyper-local. The general public often lacks a basic understanding of weather evolution and people are generally bad at risk assessment. These facts combined make it really hard to provide general safety advice. It’s made even harder by the fact that if you give bad advice, you may be responsible for injury or death.

What to do when you’re in a car and a tornado is coming is perhaps the epitome of this issue. The National Weather Service office in Kansas City recently posted a scenario to its Facebook page. I saw some dismay expressed about how many people said they’d keep driving in that scenario. But here’s the kicker, I think that’s (conditionally) the right answer.

In the scenario you’re smack in the middle of a six mile stretch of interstate highway that’s expected to be impacted by a tornado in 15 minutes and you’re at an exit. The overpass is clearly the wrong answer. A very good answer would be to go to one of the gas stations or restaurants in the picture and seek shelter there. A car is about the worst place to be in a tornado, so why did I say “keep driving” is the right answer?

Let’s assume you’re traveling at 60 miles per hour. In three minutes, you’ve reached the edge of the warned area. The tornado won’t reach that area for another 12 minutes. Of course, there’s likely some error in the projection, but even if the forward motion is twice what was stated, you still have a cushion of over three minutes. If, in addition, the danger area is twice as large as stated, you still have 30 seconds. That’s cutting it too close, but we’re being really conservative here.

Now let’s look at all of the underlying assumptions that I made. First, I assume that you can safely travel at normal speed the necessary distance. This means no traffic, accidents, construction zones, or debris from earlier storms. In some places, you’d probably have sufficient visibility to make that determination, but certainly not in all places, and not in the picture shown. Second, I assume that you are just passing through. If you’re 10 minutes from home, it might be tempting to try to get there, but that eats into a lot of your safety buffer. Third, I assume you’re traveling south or that the main part of the supercell (another assumption) does not contain heavy rain or large hail that would slow you down or cause damage/injury on its own.

What would I do in that situation? It would depend on my familiarity with the area, my awareness of the storm type and evolution, and (most importantly), my ability to process it all quickly enough.

What should you do in that situation? See above. The best default answer is to seek shelter in one of the buildings off the exit, but that’s not always the best answer.

NWS TV studios?

The Washington Post’s excellent Capital Weather Gang blog had a post earlier this week about a new addition to the Birmingham, AL National Weather Service office. It seems that WFO Birmingham has added a high-quality setup for video recording. This has some private sector broadcasters worried that the NWS will be horning in on their business.

Let’s be honest: the NWS is hardly a digital juggernaut. Even if they wanted to, I don’t see the NWS doing live streams during severe weather events any time soon. But as times change, so too must the function of the NWS. The old model where the NWS generated products, but the media did most of the dissemination to the public is not suited to the 21st century (despite the fact that many NWS products are still in a 20th century paradigm). The public can easily connect directly with the NWS, and the nobody is served by hamstringing the NWS due to tradition.

The NWS has a mission to protect life and property. In a multimedia world, higher-quality weather briefings, interviews, and educational material advances that mission. If a broadcast meteorologist finds this disconcerting, they should seriously evaluate how much value they’re adding for their audience.

Simplifying winter weather products

Decades after the National Weather Service began issuing watches and warnings, many members of the public don’t know what the difference is. When you throw in different products, the confusion only mounts. Too often, the products are based on meteorological distinctions that don’t necessarily mean much to the public. Take, for example, a nor’easter that struck New England in December. Or the confusion around the landfall of Sandy, which became extratropical shortly before landfall.

Some products you might see in a winter event include blizzard, winter storm, high wind, wind chill, ice storm, lake effect snow, and freezing rain. Plus flood products and special weather statements. How should the public try to understand these differences?

In general, I’m a proponent of getting the important information to the consumer as quickly as possible with minimal effort required. This case is an exception. Trying to cram the important information into the headline leads to public confusion and forces forecasters to spend time trying to decide which of a handful of products are correct instead of focusing on communicating impact.

I’m in favor of a smaller set of products, with specific impacts delineated in the text. A “winter storm” and “blizzard” product with watch, warning, and advisory (maybe) levels would go along way toward making the products more clear to the public. Everyone could spend less time thinking about the differences between the products and more time focusing on the impacts and preparedness.

If you’re interested in the official specification for the current suite of winter products, see http://www.nws.noaa.gov/directives/sym/pd01005013curr.pdf

NWS products are not ready for public consumption

Decades ago, dissemination of National Weather Service products was largely done via third parties, particularly broadcast media. Then along came the Internet and suddenly NWS products became readily available to the public at-large. This should have been a benefit, but the products have not adjusted to this new paradigm.

Forget that text products are still in all-caps (I’ve found that I have a harder time reading discussions that are in mixed case). Severe weather warnings give information out of order. Warnings and even regular forecasts suffer from discontinuity at forecast area boundaries. Worst of all, forecasts do not convey uncertainty, instead providing a single number instead of a possible range.

The snow storm that hit (to one degree or another) the east coast this weekend is an excellent example of how forecast uncertainty was not well-communicated. In some areas, the forecast was quite accurate. In others, snowfall predictions were far too high. The forecasters knew there was a high degree of uncertainty about the forecast, so why did the public and civic leaders?

It’s hard to fault individual forecasters. They work hard within the system to produce valuable forecasts for the American people. It’s the management and technology that prevent the message from getting out. In recent years, the industry (including the private sector) has begun to understand the need for social science to accompany meteorological science. Hopefully this new focus will help to make products for the modern public.

The amateur weather website hype machine

Word on the street is that a certain amateur meteorology site is starting to tease about a large snowfall event a week or so out. It must be winter again!

I don’t begrudge amateur meteorology sites in general. In the Internet age, there’s a lot that you can teach yourself and plenty of access to raw model data from which to build a forecast. As in most fields, the passionate amateur can be more skillful than the trained professional. Of course, this is generally limited to a specific skill, which is why the better amateur weather sites tend do focus on a particular thing.

Focusing on hyping winter weather events a week or more out is not an area that should be focused on. This is particularly true when the hype is completely unjustified meteorologocially and ends up requiring professional meteorologists in the National Weather Service and local media to spend time telling the public not to believe the “information” that should never have been shared in the first place.

Forecasting the weather is hard. Effectively communicating the uncertainty inherent to that forecast to the public is even harder (and not done nearly enough). Posting an outlier scenario to Facebook is easy. Any site that provides forecasts for public consumption and (somehow) finds a way to get partnerships with legitimate media outlets needs to eschew the easy. Otherwise, it’s simply self-service and not public service.

Is storm chasing unethical?

Eric Holthaus wrote an article for Slate arguing that storm chasing has become unethical. This article has drawn a lot of response from the meteorological community, and not all of the dialogue has been productive. Holthaus makes some good points, but he’s wrong in a few places, too. His biggest sin is painting with too wide a brush.

At the root of the issue is Mark Farnik posting a picture of a mortally wounded five-year-old girl. The girl was injured in a tornado that struck Pilger, Nebraska and succumbed to the injuries a short time later. To be perfectly clear, I have no problem with Farnik posting the picture, nor do I have a problem with him “profiting” off it. Photojournalism is not always pleasant, but it’s an important job. To suggest that such pictures can’t be shared or even taken is to do us a disservice. 19 years on, the picture of a firefighter holding Baylee Almon remains the single most iconic image from the Oklahoma City bombing.

None of this would have come up had Farnik not posted the following to Facebook: “I need some highly photogenic and destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially.” That’s a pretty awful statement. While I enjoy tornado video as much as anyone, I prefer them to occur over open fields. Nobody I know ever wishes for destruction, and I’d be loath to associate with anyone who did. This one sentence served as an entry point to condemn an entire hobby.

Let’s look at Holthaus’ points individually:

  1. Storm chasers are not saving lives. Some chasers make a point to report weather phenomena to the local NWS office immediately. Some chasers do not. Some will stop to render assistance when they come across damage and injuries. Some will not. In both cases, my own preference is for the former. Patrick Marsh, the Internet’s resident weather data expert, found no evidence that an increase in chasers has had any effect on the tornado fatalities. In any case, not saving lives is hardly a condemnation of an activity. Golf is not an inherently life-saving avocation, but I don’t see anyone arguing that it’s unethical.
  2. Chasing with the intent to profit… adds to the perverse incentive for more and more risky behavior. Some people act stupidly when money or five minutes of Internet fame are on the line. This is hardly unique to storm chasing. Those chasers who put themselves or others in danger are acting stupidly. The smart ones place a premium on safety. What’s more, the glee that chasers often express in viral videos is disrespectful to people who live there and may be adversely affected by the storm. Also true. The best videos are shot from a tripod and feature quiet chasers.
  3. A recent nationwide upgrade to the National Weather Service’s Doppler radar network has probably rendered storm chasers obsolete anyway. Bull. Dual-polarization radar does greatly aid the radar detection of debris, but ground truth is still critical. Radar cannot determine if a wall cloud is rotating. It cannot determine if a funnel cloud is forming. It cannot observe debris that does not exist (e.g. if a tornado is over a field). If you wait for a debris signature on radar, you’ve already lost. In a post to the wx-chase mailing list, NWS meteorologist Tanja Fransen made it very clear that spotters are not obsolete. To be clear, spotters and chasers are not the same thing, even if some people (yours truly, for example) engage in both activities.

The issue here is that in the age of social media, it’s easier for the bad eggs to stand out. It’s easy to find chasers behaving stupidly, sometimes they even get their own cable shows. The well-behaved chasers, by their very nature, tend to not be noticed. Eric Holthaus is welcome to not chase anymore, that’s his choice. I haven’t chased in several years, but that’s more due to family obligations than anything else. I have, and will continue to, chase with the safety of myself and others as the top priority.

A new item on the weather humor page

The weather humor page hasn’t seen much love in a long time. It’s not that the weather stopped being funny (although this past winter stopped being funny in mid-January), I just haven’t added to it. Fortunately, my friend Scott noticed that the forecast office in Hastings, NE seems to have resumed its bad habit of canceling things it ought not cancel. Sure, it’s silly to pick on a poorly-worded product issued in the middle of a severe weather event, but silly is what I do.

Book review: “Tornado Warning”

Three years ago this month, the city of Joplin, Missouri was devastated by an EF-5 tornado. Not only were numerous buildings destroyed, but 159 people lost their lives. This was the first 100-fatality tornado since 116 people died in a 1953 tornado in Flint, Michigan. As word of the impact spread, I can recall being thankful that my chasing range was limited to northern Illinois that day. Author Tamara Hart Heiner drove through the Joplin area in the days after the tornado and was struck by the extent of the devastation. After speaking with survivors, she decided to write her first non-fiction book. Tornado Warning, released earlier this month, tells the story of the tornado through the eyes of seven women who survived it.

The women of Tornado Warning led varied-but-normal lives before the storm. Normalcy would not survive the day. I found the early part of the book a little dull, which is to be expected. The women and their families were going through their usual Sunday routine. When the tornado hits, the book becomes positively riveting. One woman rides it out in a bathtub, covering her children with her body and a mattress. Another was in her van. That she and her son survived is nothing short of miraculous.

Heiner does not dwell on the tornado itself. Indeed, the narrative moves the tornado along quickly; like its real-life counterpart, it is here and gone within moments. Much of the book focuses on the hours immediately following the tornado when Joplin residents frantically search for loved ones, rescue their neighbors, and try to come to grips with the stark new reality.

Although scenes shift quickly from one protagonist to another, the reader gets a definite sense of each woman’s personality. The narration seems to take on some of the character of the woman being followed. The rapid shifts made it difficult to keep track of the characters initially, but it proved to be the appropriate style during and after the tornado.

In all, this is an excellent read. It showcases the human side of tornadoes that never seems to make it into IMAX films. The tornado preparedness and safety advice is invaluable and I encourage all readers to not skip it. Some of the meteorological discussion at the beginning of the book is painful (particularly “the jet stream is typically 300 millibars strong”), but this is not a story about meteorology. Heiner does an excellent job of capturing the humanity of the Joplin tornado, so I can forgive meteorological errors.

The net proceeds from Tornado Warning are being donated to Joplin recovery charities.