One of the main challenges a meteorologist faces (and this is true for many professions. I eagerly await a post from Matt Simmons drawing a parallel in systems administration) is effectively getting a message to the public. This becomes especially important in times of severe weather when the timeliness and clarity of the message can literally be the difference between life and death. While the National Weather Service and the media do a good job, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Let’s consider the three questions a person needs answered:
- Am I threatened?
- If so, what do I do about it?
- When am I in the clear?
Now compare this to an actual warning.
WUUS53 KIND 011733
BULLETIN – IMMEDIATE BROADCAST REQUESTED
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE INDIANAPOLIS IN
133 PM EDT SUN JUL 1 2012
This is just header information. The public rarely encounters it directly.
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN INDIANAPOLIS HAS ISSUED A
* SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING FOR…
CARROLL COUNTY IN NORTH CENTRAL INDIANA…
NORTHWESTERN CLINTON COUNTY IN CENTRAL INDIANA…
NORTHEASTERN TIPPECANOE COUNTY IN WEST CENTRAL INDIANA…
Okay, so let’s assume I know what county I’m in. Am I in the right part of the county?
* UNTIL 230 PM EDT
The first question to be definitively answered is the third one.
* AT 131 PM EDT…NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR INDICATED A
SEVERE THUNDERSTORM CAPABLE OF PRODUCING QUARTER SIZE HAIL…AND
DAMAGING WINDS IN EXCESS OF 60 MPH. THIS STORM WAS LOCATED 6 MILES
SOUTHEAST OF BROOKSTON…OR 8 MILES NORTHEAST OF LAFAYETTE…AND
MOVING EAST AT 40 MPH.
There’s some town names here and a description of the threat. Maybe I can figure out if I’m threatened by this or not.
* LOCATIONS IMPACTED INCLUDE…
THIS INCLUDES INTERSTATE 65 BETWEEN MILE MARKERS 173 AND 181.
Oh, okay! My city isn’t listed, so I’m probably in the clear. Folks in Delphi know that they are threatened. The first question is answered.
SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS PRODUCE DAMAGING WIND IN EXCESS OF 60 MILES PER
HOUR…DESTRUCTIVE HAIL…DEADLY LIGHTNING…AND VERY HEAVY RAIN. FOR
YOUR PROTECTION MOVE TO AN INTERIOR ROOM ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OF YOUR
HOME OR BUSINESS. HEAVY RAINS FLOOD ROADS QUICKLY SO DO NOT DRIVE
INTO AREAS WHERE WATER COVERS THE ROAD.
TORRENTIAL RAINFALL IS ALSO OCCURRING WITH THIS STORM…AND MAY LEAD
TO FLASH FLOODING. DO NOT DRIVE YOUR VEHICLE THROUGH FLOODED
And here, basically at the end of the warning, is the answer to question 2.
LAT…LON 4073 8652 4070 8652 4069 8637 4063 8636
4034 8641 4045 8693 4057 8689 4057 8678
4066 8678 4067 8676 4073 8676 4074 8675
TIME…MOT…LOC 1733Z 280DEG 19KT 4052 8679
WIND…HAIL 60MPH 1.00IN
The latitude/longitude pairs define the shape of the warning (more on that in a bit). This can be used to provide really good answers to question 1.
Your typical severe weather warning answers all three of the questions we base our discussion on, but in the wrong order. Arguably, question 1 gets answered first, although it relies greatly on the geographical awareness of the public. I suspect many adults are aware of what county they live in (due to school districts, libraries, property taxes, etc), but if they work in a different county, do they know that county’s name? Can they name the surrounding counties (this is useful for preparedness. If the county to your west is under a warning, chances are good you might be soon)? The fact that subsections of counties (e.g. “northeastern Tippecanoe County”) are variable and undefined only add to the confusion.
The fact that the “call to action statement” (what NWS meteorologists call the answer to question 3) comes at the tail end of the warning means that a full minute may pass until it’s made clear what actions someone should take. In many cases, the lead time is sufficient that this additional time is acceptable, but in short-lead-time situations (for example, the Joplin, MO tornado of 2011) every second counts.
It’s not bad to give people more information than they need, especially when it reinforces your point. One example comes from a derecho that hit Louisville, KY on July 13, 2004. This storm caused widespread damage through southern Indiana and central Kentucky. In order to make it clear that this was an exceptionally dangerous storm, one of the forecasters at the NWS office in Louisville made mention of “hurricane force winds” in the warnings. Although this wasn’t strictly necessary, it helped to make the danger more clear in the mind of the public. Extra information can be valuable, but it should never get in the way of the main point.
So how would I re-format warnings?
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HAS ISSUED A <threat> WARNING FOR
<counties>, including <cities>
<call to action, don’t die, etc.>
<THIS WARNING EXPIRES AT <expiration time>
<More explanation, supporting info>
The media has an advantage here, as they can format their presentation of the warning however they’d like. The NWS is stuck with a defined format. It’s worth noting that decades ago, the public did not receive NWS products directly; they were filtered through the broadcast media first. In modern times, All-Hazards Radio, weather websites, and mobile apps are putting more NWS products directly in front of the public. So far, the NWS has not updated warning text to fit this new model.
One thing you may have noticed is that my version doesn’t mention the office issuing the warning. I had this discussion with a recent meteorology graduate last week. What use is knowing what office issued the warning? Most people probably don’t know what NWS office serves them. Furthermore, a warning may be issued by a backup office if the primary office is unavailable (e.g. if the office staff is taking shelter because they’re about to get hit by a tornado). Adding the issuing office does nothing to answer or reinforce the three questions. It’s not extra information, it’s extraneous.
Note: I was going to add some comments about the shape of warnings, but this post is long enough and that rant won’t be short. Look for it in the next few days.
Something that the state of Minnesota does is have county specific warnings that are sent by text messages. For example, I got a text warning from Kittson County (where we use to live a few years ago) that was sent in the event of a severe thunderstorm in that county and it displayed:
Severe Thunderstorm Warning until 6/21/12 at 5:30 PM”
It’s far less information than what you suggested but at least if you’re there and you’re by your cell phone (like I am) at least you’re informed right then and you can act on it from there. It also give other warnings like Tornado, Flood, etc. What are your thoughts on this?
Matt, that’s a great question! I’m very much in favor of getting the warnings to where people are already looking, and text messages are a great way to do that (there’s a lot to be said about the entire warning dissemination process. Perhaps that will be part three in this series?).
Granted, text messages necessarily impose a 160 character limit (assuming we don’t want multi-part messages), so some sacrifices would have to be made. The call-to-action is the obvious first cut. We rely on the (questionable) assumption that people will know what a safe shelter is and that they will seek it without further prompting. Unfortunately, we have to lose some of the detailed location information. This reintroduces the problem of relying on the recipient to be geographically aware, and it leads to overwarning because the threatened area may only be a small portion of the county. It’s not a perfect method. Still, I’d rather see imperfect messages reach the public than none at all.
I hope this is enough to tide you over until I crank out round two later this week.
I was reading about the Wireless Weather Alert system the other day. Ben, have you read about it this system? Right now, I get text alerts for my home county, my work county, and the other county I drive through to get to work. But what if I’m travelling in another county/state? What if we are listening to a non-terrestrial radio station (CD, iPod, sirius, etc)? I’m excited to see how the new system works. My understanding is it will send the alert to your cell phone based on your CURRENT location. Since it isn’t a text message, I don’t think it will be limited to the 160 character limit.
Plus, this isn’t an opt-in thing. The new cell phones have it enabled by default. Since it is a default option, that means, in theory, more of the public would see the alert.
It will be interesting to see how the warnings/alerts are worded on the cell phone system. Will they be formatted into an easier to understand format or stick with the NWS format?
The addition in 2005 of the LAT…LON coordinates was reasonable and done in a way that was mostly compatible with the pre-existing format.
But the warning text format should not change any more than absolutely necessary. Existing software depends on it.
I like to see the warning polygon overlaid on current radar.
But it cannot help everyone,
Reading a map is an acquired skill and not everyone can read a map.
But everybody please do create web pages/apps that present the information in better ways.
A drawback with current sms warnings is that they have to be queued for delivery, which can delay a warning by many minutes.
Justin is referring to this. I’m optimistic about the WEA program because it puts warnings where people already look, but it does suffer from geographic issues. My understanding is that the messages are based on the tower’s location, which is not necessarily indicative of whether or not the user’s current location is threatened. It is also limited to 90 characters, so it will convey less information than a text message can. The main strength of the WEA program is that it does not require users to be proactive and it supports travelling much better than an SMS-based service.
Wallace, thanks for your comment! I understand that a lot of software depends on the defined format of NWS products, but I’m not convinced that’s a compelling reason to avoid change. I don’t believe the current format serves the public very well. With a defined cut over date and sufficient lead time, the transition process from the old format to a new one should be quite manageable (arguably, automated parsing should focus on the VTEC line and the LAT…LON coordinates anyway. I’m not naive enough to believe this is the case, but wouldn’t it be nice?).
My advice for anyone setting out to write a new product parser would be to never let humans read machine-intended data (e.g. LAT…LON coordinates) and never let machines read human-intended data (e.g. sentences). Perhaps the best way for this to work is to have separate products in the same way there are multiple forecast products: the zone forecast (ZFP) that people can read and the coded cities forecast (CCF) that is more suited to automated parsing.
Fortunately for those who would have to re-write their software, I’m just some guy with a blog. I have no expectation that anything will come of my suggestions.
Having separate products is an interesting idea.
I think the NWS needs to support hardware until it wears out — for example, I still have a weather radio activated by a 1000 Hz tone.
The VTEC line (in use since about 2006) does provide useful information on whether a warning is new, or is being updated or cancelled, but I think a lot of new software even fails to take advantage of that.
Just a blog? This is funnelfiasco, man! 🙂
While I appreciate the “use it until it breaks” philosophy, the unfortunate reality is that it often ends up being an impediment to progress in practice. The cut over date could be years in advance, so long as it is clearly defined. Otherwise, there’s no incentive for new hardware and software products to support a new format so long as the old one remains indefinitely supported.
I see it as being akin to the IPv6 transition. Even though IPv6 has been defined for over a decade, there are still prominent software packages that do not support it well (Condor, Globus, I’m looking at the two of you). Contrast this with the digital TV transition in 2009, which managed to avoid too much agony. (I’ll note that the comparisons are not entirely apt, since both examples allow for both the old and new states to operate concurrently. A re-format of existing warnings could not, unless a new product was created.)
Just wait until my next post (or perhaps a follow-on to it. We’ll see how the content works out) when I tell you why I think your trusty old weather radio is no longer beneficial. That doesn’t mean I’m not still holding on to mine. 🙂
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