The Hype Before the Storms

By: Mike Johnson

Anyone that has spent time in a portion of the United States that experiences occasional severe thunderstorms is familiar with the bevy of weather information that is available.  This severe weather coverage can come from local and national television, as well as print and digital media.  Its prevalence on social media can be overwhelming at times.  We’ve all been bombarded by this, be it in the form of a slight risk area from the Storm Prediction Center, a black box number such as the TORCON, or some other catchy parameter used by a local television outlet.

I want to preface this article by stating that I’m not intending to admonish any segment of the meteorological community.  At the end of the day, we’re all on the same team, working toward the goal of protecting friends, neighbors, and the general public from the dangers of Mother Nature.  I use the term “hype” several times in this discussion.  For the most part, I’m not referring to the negative connotation associated with the dramatic; rather using it to describe the build-up of information over a period of time.  I simply wanted to discuss this information crusade and touch on a few points I think are important.  My sole intention is to find the optimal way to provide useful information to the end user.

When it comes to the hype that accompanies severe weather, we (meteorologists) are not trying to scare you.  The problem is that most significant severe weather events lead to injuries or fatalities, many of which are preventable.  We know that some people tire of the constant coverage, but as long as we continue to hear the excuses “it struck without warning” or “I didn’t think it would affect me”, we’ll continue to scream forecast and safety information from the mountaintops!

The Value of Lead Time

This particular topic was inspired by the recent convective outlooks created by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, OK.  Last week, the SPC issued a Day 7 outlook highlighting the severe weather potential for Tuesday, April 26th (2016) and followed that up with a very rare Day 8 severe weather threat.  My intention is not to discuss the verification of these forecasts, but rather how the information is put to use.

 

SPCD8

Day 8 Outlook issued by NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center

 

Is this information, taken at face value, of use to the general public?  I certainly believe it is.  It’s intuitive to think that the more times a certain news story is broadcast, the larger the number of people reached.  Having more time to prepare for an upcoming severe weather event SHOULD result in a more positive outcome.  That said, I’m looking at this information through the eyes of a meteorologist who has spent the past 20 years studying severe weather.  The weather forecast has to be clearly communicated and understood by the end user.  Furthermore, anticipating public reaction can be problematic.  It’s hard enough to predict severe weather several days in advance; trying to predict human behavior is that much more difficult.  Thankfully, the weather enterprise has been leaning more on the input of social scientists in recent years.

Will a potential severe weather event being discussed ad nauseam for a week elicit a better response than one covered for only 4 days?  Or will there be some degree of “severe weather fatigue” due to the prolonged exposure to the hype.  That’s difficult to quantify, but social scientists have been studying these questions over the past decade. 

One phenomenon we have seen in recent years is school districts canceling classes based on the forecast.  Whether this is a good or bad idea, I can’t really say.  I think both sides have a valid argument.  What is encouraging, however, is that we are receiving direct feedback that decision makers are using these lead times to take preventative measures.

Social Media Misinformation

Another issue that rears its ugly head every time a potentially significant severe weather event approaches is the rampant fear mongering found on social media.  This topic has been covered many times, but I wanted to bring this up since an increase in lead time will allow more opportunities for the rumor mill to take off.  As forecast details begin to emerge, professionals and amateurs alike take to social media to share severe weather forecasts and safety information.  Some forecasts can be conservative while others may take to posting the most extreme outlier of all model solutions.  These “social mediarologists”, as they are called, often do more harm than good.  They can fill Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds with extreme, yet unlikely, severe weather forecasts creating excessive noise and confusion.  Check out this blog from James Spann talking about this phenomenon.  The recommendation of those in the meteorological community is to find a source you trust and maintain an awareness of the forecast as the event approaches.  Be cautious with the information you share.  If it sounds unbelievable, it may very well be.  Check with your trusted sources.

 

KMART

Viral weather forecast image from an untrustworthy weather source

 

So how do you know who to trust?  There are numerous information sources that provide credible reliable weather information.  Obviously, I advocate the National Weather Service (NWS).  Each NWS forecast office in the country is manned by a team of meteorologists whose primary goal is to protect life and property.  All NWS offices have a website and social media outlets to share important weather information.   Another trusted source is local television media.  I know there are some markets that promote a more extreme side to weather coverage, but collectively, broadcast meteorologists are a vital source of credible weather information.  There are also private sector companies that provide reliable weather information through websites, social media, and smartphone apps. What you want to be wary of are websites and social media pages that offer sensational headlines, overly precise forecasts, or are predicting an event more 2 or 3 weeks into the future.  Some of these “social mediarologists” may possess little to no meteorological experience and are just creating stories for attention.  Others may have good intentions but have a poor grasp on reality when it comes to our ability to forecast beyond the next 7 days.  The problem with this misinformation is that it can prompt unnecessary changes in plans for those that take the bait.

Communication is Key

The best way to combat complacency and false information is effective follow-up communication.  If we simply put the message out that severe weather is possible and leave it at that, there is a high likelihood that misinformation will begin to spread.  By providing consistent follow-up information and filling the communication void, we can shape the message to fit the needs of our partners/customers.

Many benefits can be tied to an increase in lead time.  It gives decision makers additional time to weigh forecast information and set up an action plan.  Resources can be moved to where they will be needed and staffing can be adjusted.  Having additional time to prepare also allows the average citizen the ability to plan ahead.  You generally don’t want to cancel travel plans a week out based on a thunderstorm outlook, but you can start thinking about a contingency plan as the potential event approaches.  We just have to do a good job communicating the risk and personalizing the message.  The bottom line is that a longer lead time increases the overall exposure to an impending hazard.  That is definitely a good thing!

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