Reporting severe weather via social media

It feels weird writing a post about sever weather in mid-December, but here we are. Over the weekend, storm chaser Dick McGowan tried to report a tornado to the NWS office in Amarillo, Texas. His report was dismissed with “There is no storm where you are located. This is NOT a valid report.” The only problem was that there was a tornado.

Weather Twitter was awash in discussion of the exchange on Saturday night. A lot of it was critical, but some was cautionary. The latter is where I want to focus. If you follow me on Twitter, it will not surprise you to hear that I’m a big fan of social media. And I think it’s been beneficial to severe weather operations. Not only does it make public reporting easier, but it allows forecasters to directly reach the public with visually-rich information in a way not previously possible.

But social media has limitations, too. Facebook’s algorithms make it nearly useless for disseminating time-sensitive information (e.g. warnings), and the selective filtering means that a large portion of the audience won’t get the message anyway. Twitter is much better for real-time posting, but is severely constrained by the 140 character limit.  In both cases, NWS meteorologists are experts on weather, not social media (though there are efforts to improve social media training for forecasters), and there’s not necessarily going to be someone keeping a close eye on incoming social media.

I don’t know all of the details of Saturday night’s event. From one picture I saw, it looked like the storm in question looked pretty weak on radar. There were also several possible places Dick could have been looking and it didn’t look he made which direction he was looking clear. At the root, this is a failure to communicate.

As I said above, I’m a big fan of social media. If I need to get in touch with someone, social media is my first choice. I frequently make low-priority weather reports to the NWS via Twitter. For high-priority reports (basically anything that meets severe criteria or that presents an immediate threat to life), I still prefer to make a phone call. Phone calls are less parallelizable, but they’re lower-latency and higher-bandwidth than Tweets. The ability for a forecaster to ask for a clarification and get an answer quickly is critical.

If you do make a severe weather report via Twitter, I strongly encourage enabling location on the Tweet. An accurate location can make a big difference. As with all miscommunications, we must strive to be clear in how we talk to others, particularly in textual form.

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