Joe’s Weather Blog: Are severe thunderstorm warnings overused? (MON-3/7)

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I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on this and this blog will be dedicated to the research I’ve done. A lot of you lean into the more weather aware of the readers…which I understand. The overall purpose of this research is to get my findings out…to have something that I can have some of my colleagues at the various NWS local offices to look at and also to have some emergency managers in the area to read as well. I have no overall answer to how to do things better…and I definitely have NO gripe or concern about how the NWS issues severe thunderstorm warnings right now. They have a mandate from NOAA so their jobs are clear. I want to stress that point again.

Let’s do a poll and see what you think about the subject matter of the blog:

Next question:

First though a little definition and history. A severe thunderstorm warning is issued when a thunderstorm has the ability or is producing wind gusts of at least 58 MPH and 1″ hail. They ARE NOT issued because of lightning frequency or the rate of heavy rainfall that is accompanied by the individual storms. About 7 years ago (here in parts of the Plains if I remember correctly…the hail criteria was increased from 3/4″ to 1″ (quarter size) in an effort to bulk up the impact of the individual warnings. If memory serves the initial severe thunderstorm warnings were first issued in the 1960s, essentially mainly for aviation concerns…little has changed in the initial criteria since then.

That, in my opinion is part of the issue. My thought process as the slides I’ll be displaying is that the severe thunderstorm warning, as we know it today, despite the increase in hail size about 5+ years ago nationwide…is overused. My feeling is that the vast majority of “regular” people (our audience) has become numb to the numbers of severe thunderstorm warnings issued throughout the course of a spring and summer especially.

My focus for this project was the number of severe thunderstorm warnings issued by our local office serving the majority of our counties…that would be the office in Pleasant Hill, MO. The other office that serves a handful of our counties is the NWS in Topeka. I visited with them this past weekend and talked about my research in vague terms and I thank them for the input as well.

This is being done with the knowledge of some of my colleagues at the NWS in Pleasant Hill as well as their higher ups in the Central region (responsible for all the NWS offices in the Midwest/upper Midwest roughly) and also some of the local emergency managers in the area (EMs). To reiterate…I’m not sure what we have here…but I’m increasing convinced what we have here can be improved upon.

So would it surprise you that over the past 10 years or so the NWS in Pleasant Hill issued over 2000(!) severe thunderstorm warnings. That takes into account the change in hail criteria as well. I decided for the sake of NOT losing my sanity to look at the past 4 years. 2012 through 2015. My resource was the IEM page via IA State. I analyzed every warning issued in that 4 year span…looking for the reason why it was initially issued…how many counties were involved in the warning…whether or not the warning was “strengthened” or “weakened” in subsequent updates (in other words did the storm, which caused the initial warning get stronger or weaker) and also whether or not the storm actually produced the expected severe weather (the reason why a severe thunderstorm warning was issued in the first place).

Here are the slides that I’ve created so far…oh and my powerpoint skills are terrible and I readily admit that 🙂

Slide1

Slide2

Slide3

 

Slide4

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Slide8

This is the slide that is my biggest issue…a phenomenal amount of warnings for barely (at the time) severe thunderstorms. Still properly issued but can we do better?

Slide9

Basically most of the warnings issued DON’T verify with credible severe weather reports.

Slide11

Slide10

In most cases no!

Slide12

Slide13

Notice…just a fraction of the warnings would be issued. Fewer warnings (more than 75% fewer)! I hope would lead to the general public paying more attention to when a warning is issued. at least that would be my hope

Slide15

OK so a lot to digest. When I first approached this…I thought a way of going about this (strictly from a media standpoint imo) was to have the NWS issue (for lack of a better phrase) an “Enhanced” severe thunderstorm warning for a stronger type storm for example 70 or 75 MPH winds and/or 1.5″ to 1 3/4″ (golfball size) hail. Why I thought of this is that I thought strictly from a broadcast perspective…IF I’m on the air and we’re showing you numerous counties color coded in yellow showing severe thunderstorm warnings, for example with a large squall line coming through, and IF there was a part of that line that was showing stronger indications of potency…that a NEW warning could be issued, based on this stricter criteria, that would alert me on the air and you, our viewer, with a different colored part of a particular county or counties (aside from the basic sever thunderstorm warning color) that this part of the storm or this part of the line of storms is particularly dangerous and not (“run of the mill”).

In conversations with my friends at the NWS…there was a general feeling that the chances of adding a NEW layer of warnings on top of what we already have may be a non-starter. The NWS is trying to reduce the number of various advisories that are going out already  (hopefully some changes down the road to the crazy number of different flood advisories/warnings that are issued).

There was some input to me about perhaps looking to strengthen the initial warning criteria…hence the basis and reason for the research. In my heart I still feel that a NEW layer is the way to go (due to various factions feeling like things shouldn’t change in various regions of the country). With that said I would certainly welcome a stricter initial criteria.

Other NWS people have told me, well that is all well and good in the Plains where we see hundreds of storms a year and we’re pretty conditioned to storms and what they do but in other parts of the US, especially back east and into the Great Lakes and perhaps out west…they don’t experience the quantity of storms that we do plus as my colleagues from Topeka pointed out to me, back east there is definitely more tree coverage than here in the Plains…they may be more sensitive to tree damage/knocked over trees that we are here. All valid points.

So perhaps we look at different requirements for severe storms in various regions in the country. I think that might get confusing…then again when the middle part of the country went from 3/4″ to 1″ hail on an experimental basis they system didn’t crumble and the public was no less served in my opinion.

I’m sure these thoughts may generate some discussion within the NWS (good and bad perhaps) which really was the point of the whole process. I don’t have answers to all things and I need more input from the NWS and also especially from the Emergency Managers. We are the customers to the NWS and perhaps as customers we may have a different feeling about these things than the NWS has.

One thing for sure there is no easy solution and perhaps (probably-I’m not afraid to say) nothing will change in the end. One thing though about myself…I LOVE conversations about these things…if I’m crazy…fair enough…I think many might say I’m onto something but they’re just not exactly sure what it is…and perhaps that’s the way I feel as well.

The end result is that I want you to be warned, and have confidence, that what we say may happen will happen when it comes to severe thunderstorms especially. I want those warnings to bear “fruit” which I think has a better chance of happening with a firmer initial criteria. I want you, our viewer to pay more attention to severe thunderstorms but I realize that with hundreds issued for many ( think) it just turns into blah…blah…blah.

Thanks for taking the time to read through this…I hope, if nothing else, you think about the current way the NWS does things…and IF you’re happy with it…great! If not…perhaps there can be some conversations about doing something different.

Joe

 

 

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19 comments

  • Chris Craig

    Of greater concern to me is this very confusing NWS convective outlook rating system they started using a couple of years ago. Everything is a SLIGHT or MODERATE risk when severe weather is predicted, even for the worst outbreaks. How does that help anyone? Oh, please let me get excited for a SLIGHT to MODERATE risk day. What on earth were they thinking on this system?

  • Jennifer Bronson

    Hi Joe! Great write-up. IMO (oh and i know this won’t go over at all) something to consider is getting rid of the “watch”. For some reason or another, many can’t (or won’t try) to process the difference and I know of no one who takes watches seriously. The watches water down the effectiveness of the warnings and some feel like it’s almost crying wolf. How many actual watches turn into bonafide warnings? For the general public, they honestly don’t pay attention until it’s about to bite them in the arm. For me, I monitor dew points and the CAP, but I’m sort of nerdy that way. Have a great day!

  • Bill

    I moved to KC about 4 years ago. Interestingly, when I first moved here, I used to actually listen to T-Storm warnings and expected some pretty powerful storms. I think I’ve been through two or three of those warnings, where much actually happened and don’t pay much attention any longer. I will listen to local news stations (particularly Fox 4) who actually “really” tell me what’s going on. Some back story, I grew up in PA, and I felt like when those were issued in PA, they held more merit and I seemed to be more responsive. It seemed that more often than not, there was something that brewed out of those storms. In fact, while back east once, a warning was issued and I didn’t take much note of it. I forgot so quickly how it seemed that severe there was so different than severe here. Anyway – interesting read, love the blog, and just food for thought!

  • JJ Diebolt

    Very good write-up Joe. I too think there really ought to be some delineation to the warning system. First, what is wrong with changing warning criterion across regions? Folks in the Western Region who experience thunderstorms far less frequently (CA/OR/WA) could have lower threshold. Desert storms such as in AZ (where I lived) frequently verified with wind damage – which was the greatest risk out there. The central region (Midwest) could stand to have more stringent criteria. I’d agree with 70 mph or even hurricane force wind warning criteria and 1.5″ hail. If the hurricane force wind criteria were used, this could be incorporated into the warning. “A severe thunderstorm with hurricane force winds…” Now that would be an attention grabber. This criteria would also work in the southern regions but back east, the more “relaxed” western criteria might be most appropriate. The wording criteria is problematic. “Enhanced” severe thunderstorm warning would by nature diminish “severe thunderstorm warning” even more and negate its relevance, so best to do away with the “lesser” warning. The NWS does have a “Significant Weather Advisory” for thunderstorms approaching severe, but the problem is this is coded under the SPS (Special Weather Statement) and really needs to be separated from that..it fails to be effective and does not generate screen crawls. In NWS web pages the overused “Hazardous Weather Outlook (which I really think needs to be axed or only used when there IS hazardous weather expected)” color and SPS color are far to similar for those of us with good vision to see sharply; not to mention those with poor vision. My suggestion would be to use the well understood “Watch/Advisory/Warning” system. A “Thunderstorm Advisory” would be issued for strong storms from slightly below the current threshold, say 3/4″ hail and 50 mph winds to 1.5″ hail and 70 mph or hurricane force winds. The “Severe Thunderstorm Warning” would be used for those stringent criteria.

    • Joe Lauria

      Interestingly there have been discussions within the NWS and outside of it to get rid of the word “advisory and many of their named products…too much confusion in what it means. Thanks for your input…I think things can be better…interesting poll data too…JL

  • Rockdoc

    Hi Joe, great discussion and interesting research. I for one appreciate the 1″ hail warnings given that I have contractors on job sites that could be exposed to possible severe weather. I also like the idea of an enhanced storm overlay since this would indicate “Take cover now”. For those that work outside this would be good since it narrows down the area. I’m all about safety, both at home and on the job.

    Thanks for what you do! Big smiley face 🙂

    • Joe Lauria

      Thx Doc…question though are you more concerned about the lightning risk as opposed to the hail risk? Also did your feelings change at all when the NWS increased from 3/4″ to 1″ hail size…just curious so I know where your coming from.

  • Heather

    I have a question on your data. When you state there is a warning, is that per cell and per county? So, as a cell is moving from one county to another is that one warning/watch? Or multiple? Also, if a county has two cells moving through, is that one warning or two?

    As far as the warning system, I feel that perhaps if the current warning were based on more wind gusts and sustainability would have more of an impact. The 60 mph criteria seems a bit overzealous, as there are times that we are warned and I see little action on the ground.

    I do believe that the watches are more overlooked than the warnings, though. I wish watches were used more sparingly (and with different criteria) as I think those would catch individual attention and possibly have the impact you’re looking for.

    • Joe Lauria

      Hi Heather…for the purpose of the study while I did look at the counties involved for the warning…I looked at each warning as is…whether or not it contained 1 county or 9 counties…and whether or not it verified anywhere in that 1 or 9 county area. JL

  • kennyjo

    i have been seriously afraid of severe storms for as far back as i can remember, i watch the radar and ring my hands hoping to avoid the storm becoming severe. if i knew that the storm was just going to be 60mph and no worse than that it would save me alot of anguish so for me an enhanced added on to a storm would let me know that the storm is stronger and I wouldn’t have to be as afraid of the regular severe storm. I enjoyed your research its about time someone brought that up! Maybe eventually it will change!

  • Megan

    Interesting thoughts. Another thing to consider though – I think there are probably a number of groups of people (particularly those who work outdoors, or who are on the road a lot) who are well-served by the current severe thunderstorm warning architecture, albeit liberal with its warning issuance. Undoubtedly companies don’t want to lose money by stopping work for forecasted severe weather that never actually happens. But on the other hand, having a warning system that reduces liability for employees, even if it means sometimes overwarning, may be more valuable in the grand scheme of things.

    That said though, I also think it would be valuable for the rest of us (the ones who sit inside all day and ignore thunderstorm warnings) if the formula for severe thunderstorm warnings was revised. I like the idea of having criteria that differs by region. Would it also be too much to have a sort of “baseline” severe thunderstorm warning that folks who might be in harm’s way (utilities workers, construction workers, delivery drivers, etc.) would pay attention to, and an “enhanced” version for when weather conditions are more risky for everyone? Weather warning apps make it pretty easy for individuals to determine what kinds of alerts they want to receive, so in that way, technology could help us filter what warnings we want or need to be paying attention to, and what ones we don’t….

  • w9lw

    I listened to you on the Carolina podcast tonight. I had read your blog a couple weeks ago but did not take the time to respond. Here are some thoughts that occurred to me this evening: I think it would be a valuable exercise to study injury and fatality data for straight-line winds. How many injuries and fatalities have occurred in various parts of the country from 60 mph winds? 75 mph? 90 mph? Such research might provide support for changing the criteria for a severe thunderstorm warning. How much wind does it take to drop a bunch of trees at a Boy Scout campground? Will 60 mph do that? If your proposed “enhanced” warning is a truly dangerous situation but the standard warning is not, do we really need the “standard” warning? Do your viewers know how much wind it takes to damage their homes? I suspect that mph numbers mean nothing to most. What we need to communicate is that a severe thunderstorm warning means that X damage is likely. Of course this requires setting warning criteria so that said damage really is likely.

  • Joyce Koppenheffer

    I like the idea of an enhanced storm warning because I do pay attention to them! The warnings may come on at an inconvenient time when I’m watching my favorite tv show, but I, for one, like to know what is happening! Weather is unpredictable, to say the least, and if I know what is going on, then I can prepare, or call friends and family and let them know what is going on in my area! Keep up the good work!