Joe’s Weather Blog: The overuse of severe thunderstorm warnings (SUN-8/26)

Good afternoon and for those of you who are reading this from the National Weather Association annual meeting…welcome to the weather blog. This will recap and add some additional information to what has been my passion project over the past several years. For my usual weather blog readers…you sort of may remember this project of mine. I’ve revisited it a couple of times since around 2015 or so…and each time I try to add other perspectives and/or respond to your thoughts and concerns in the comments section of the blog or via FB. Once again I’ll be doing that this year.

A little history first. For those of us within the Intergrated Warning Team (IWT for short)…in an effort to build better communications, for example meeting with and discussing various ways of improving what I/we do in the TV world with others who are not in TV…for example, emergency managers and various NWS and NOAA employees…we get together once or twice per year and have discussions. We listen to each other and IF there is a way to better things we attempt to do that. The Kansas City IWT was the 1st one in the country I think…and we roughly get about 100 folks come out for a day long session.

A number of years ago…I brought up the lack of color consistency with the little TV bugs that stations use in the KC TV market. Myself and a few others wondered out loud IF something can be coordinated. Magically, after numerous emails between TV stations…it happened and the results are still apparent. So changes can happen.

A few years ago I brought up the fact that, in my opinion, and I feel my viewers opinion as well…the usage of severe thunderstorm warnings had gotten to the point that it was essentially “noise” to not only myself but my customers as well. In essence, I felt that very few were paying attention to them anymore. Surprisingly there was more agreement to my statement than I thought there would be…which lead me down a road that I’ve paved for myself…and turned it into my passion project.

Passion projects are good things and bad. On the one hand…I think I’ve brought up something that many of us within the IWT think about on occasion. It’s lead me to do so much number crunching…staring at monitors and seeking other opinions that it’s been rewarding to what I do on a daily basis. On the negative side is that fact that, deep down, what I’m trying to do is change the government ways…good luck with that!

So far I’m a single blade of grass in my grassroots campaign. I’ve had so many within the IWT world say I’m absolutely right in the path I’m taking so I use that as motivation.

My colleagues in the TV world, that I’ve talked to can see my point as well. Today I’m talking to about 100 or so TV broadcasters from around the country and sharing with them my thoughts on this. Others will be in attendance as well…either they agree or disagree but all this is bound to at least generate discussion. Perhaps they will go back to their home markets and visit with their respective NWS office, who issue the warnings, and ask them about it…and generate further discussions…and maybe 10 years from now…things may change.

I’ll be about to retire by then. :)

So here goes…

Some previous blogs/podcasts…I think this was the 1st one in 2016

2016 edition

2017 update

Are severe thunderstorm warnings overused via Weather Hype podcast

Are severe thunderstorm warnings overused…Carolina Weather Group podcast

Jan 2018 update

So that’s a lot already…the presentation that I did this afternoon in front of my colleagues is similar.

Let’s start with the basics…

IN NO WAY IS THIS A CRITICISM OF THE JOB MY COLLEAGUES AT THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DO DURING TIMES OF SEVERE WEATHER.

OK that’s out of the way. They are required, by mandate, to issue a severe thunderstorm warning when a storm has the potential or is indeed producing 58 MPH winds and/or 1″ sized (quarter-size) hail. This is the mandate and this is their responsibility.

My efforts are to change that criteria…and strengthen it…in other words I want to increase the thresholds to something that is more likely to “be something” and not be anything of significance. It’s the hundreds of warnings issued each year…that I feel my customers have essentially become numb too. If they blow them off…then the warnings are really not serving a lot of purpose.

So I did research…and I looked at a period of time from roughly 2009-a couple of weeks ago and counted each and every warning issued from the various NWS offices across the country. I focused my research on what the NWS office in Pleasant Hill and Topeka did each year.

I then drilled down to the years 2012-2016 and hyperfocused on the warnings issued and how many were issued for what I consider marginal situations.

So let’s start this out with a look at just how many severe thunderstorm warnings are issued each year. We’ll start nationwide…and go back to 2015. All the yellow coloring below represents at least parts of/or whole counties under a warning(s) in a year.

Now 2016…

Now 2017

and finally where we are through mid August of 2018

You know what is fascinating about the slides above…that from 2015-2017…five or take a couple of hundred warnings…each year was around 18,500 warnings.

You can easily see how the warnings are issued with the fewest west of the Rockies (mostly) and the most from east of the Rockies.

I then wanted to break down the data…and focus on individual NWS offices with, again a hyperfocus on the two offices that cover the FOX 4 viewing area the most. This data goes back to April of 1009. The reason why I started there is that, at least for the offices in MO/KS…we changed our minimum hail criteria for a SVR (severe thunderstorm warning) to 1″ from 3/4″. This was done…why? To try and reduce the issuance of warnings for storms that did little to no damage based on the 3/4″ hail criteria.

I then looked at other offices in the nation starting in 2010. I believe that’s when they too changed their criteria to 1″ hail as a trigger for a SVR

.

Take a look at the total warnings (severe thunderstorm) issued by all the NWS offices in the country. This data is for 2015>2018 broken down per year.

My goodness…so many warnings. Look at Norman, OK. Now that office covers central and western OK…a lot of land in a part of the country where storms are common…but more than 5500 warnings is NOT doing anybody any favors…what is that some 600/year? While not as bad…Jackson, MS with a smaller geographic reach than Norman’s responsibility has issued almost 4500…some 500/year. When viewers, and granted it’s not the same viewers time after time, are bombarded with sooooo many warnings…why won’t they blow them off after awhile…why won’t they say to themselves…well odds are this storm is going to do this…

Which is not much. Tiny hail…scary looking clouds…a few tree limbs broken…and that’s IF it even does that. Oh and that’s IF it occurs in a place where somebody is actually affected by that “damage”. As my colleagues at the NWS tell me…one of the tough things about the warning process can be verifying IF the storm is actually “severe”…especially at night…especially in rural areas. THEY WANT TO BE RIGHT…I WANT THEM TO BE RIGHT…

So this lead my to my 1st blog in March of 2016…asking my usual blog readers…who are more weather savvy than perhaps my typical TV weather viewer (they’re reading my blog…they care about the weather)…their thoughts on where we were. I asked them a couple of questions…

I was delighted that they pay attention to the warning process when it comes to SVRs…GOOD

I was interested in their response to the work I was undertaking…and they voted that YES they would pay more attention IF the warning had more “meat” to it.

So let’s drill down…from the period of 2012-2016…here are all the SVR warnings issued from Pleasant Hill. Look at 2012…low number right…remember what happened in 2012…the drought.

So over 1000 warnings in that 5 year period.

I wanted to specifically look at the warnings issued for the minimum criteria…58/60 MPH winds…and or 1″ hail. That is the root of what I’m trying to change.

Let’s start with wind only…and for the sake of rounding values they way they issue the warnings 58/60 MPH are interchangeable really. This next slide is for SVRs issued based on min criteria winds ONLY and the percentage breakdown with the overall number in that year.

Let’s say, on average about 25%…so about 1 in 4 warnings were issued based on min criteria winds ONLY.

Now SVRs issued based on min criteria hail (1″/quarter size) ONLY

Let’s say about 1 in 10…not too many really.

Now the jackpot…warnings based on min criteria wind AND/OR min criteria hail. Often when a warning comes out…there will be two reasons why…60 MPH winds and 1″ hail potential. I’ve merged all these together and come up with the following slide which includes the ones above and the 60 MPH/1″ tag on the warning

Now we’re up to about 7 out of every 10 warnings…and hence the “noise” factor in my opinion. I then did a quick perusal of the SVRs issued in the last 1 1/2+…and the data for min criteria issuance really hasn’t changed that much from the Pleasant Hill office.

Farther west…towards the NWS Topeka office…it was about the same…although overall numbers were a bit different. For the sake of brevity (I’m at about 1600 words so far in this missive)…

Total warnings from 2012-2016

Warnings based on a combination of the min criteria…

Close to 60% based on some sort of combo criteria…

The recent trends (actually better)

The thing is…when I looked to see IF the storms were even verifying…in other words were there reports from the public…law enforcement…emergency managers…anyone…that the storms were actually doing what they were indicating on radar…it was at best so-so.

2014 in particular was a bad verification year…so many warnings…so many min criteria warnings…so few verifiable warnings…there has to be a better way.

AGAIN…NOT a criticism of the job at hand. Verifying warnings IS NOT EASY for the reasons mentioned earlier and this doesn’t necessarily mean that 60 MPH winds and/or 1″ hail didn’t happen somewhere. 

I then looked at storms that SVRs were issued and thought to myself…well what about when a SVR is issued and then the storm strengthens…perhaps to 70 MPH and/or 1.5″ hail…in my little weather world…this could be the new warning criteria. So how many storms like that occurred…where a SVR would’ve been issued anyway.

A handful at best…

So let’s take a little journey into Joe’s Weather World…where snowstorms are perfectly predicted from days away…where rain amounts are always forecast correctly…and when it rains and/or snows at the exact time I say it’s going to occur.

OK it’s fantasy…but what am I trying to change?

How about a storm that has the ability to do this…

Something more meaty…how about 70 MPH winds and/or 1.5″ hail. In conversations with others…including insurance folks…this seems like a good starting point. I’ve had conversations with agricultural folks as well about this whole thing. They can actually buy special crop insurance IF they know a storm is coming a few hours out. SVRs though are not necessarily meant to do that…actually way back in the day they were mainly meant for aviation concerns…

What would happen to the number of warnings in the course of the year…

Well HELLO THERE!

Notice how, instead of hundreds per year…we’re down to 25-50 or so.

I have to believe (it’s my motivating point for all this) that the fewer the warning…the fewer times we say severe thunderstorm warning in effect for _____…the fewer times we light up the screen with warning information…the better the end result can be. It’s a fatigue factor really.

Back to a poll question…this time asked at our KC-IWT meeting before and after a presentation like this.

Look at #1…the KC-IWT felt that almost 70% of their customers DID NOT PAY ATTENTION to SVRs in their current state (that’s NOT good).

#2…almost 92% (after my talk) felt change was needed…92%. Let that sink in. I’m good but I’m not that good ;)

So what do we do?

I don’t like A…I like B…and I feel C might be the middle road. Many of my colleagues at NOAA and the NWS that I’ve talked to actually feel we should change the min criteria…which I’d love to do.

My concern is that there are things that I’m NOT thinking of…effects that I don’t know IF we were to change. I wonder IF C would make the most sense and be the easiest/quickest to work towards. It can’t be that hard to create a new header for a new product. It would be OK for me to have the ability of showing a part of a county on live TV that has a different color code to indicate that THIS part of THIS county has a higher likelihood of seeing something more significant!

I know this is going to shock you…but I’m getting to the end…

There are questions and concerns…

For those who don’t know…HAZsimp is an effort to cut back on the types of warnings/advisories issued. I think though sometimes addition can be a good thing if needed.

There are no doubt parts of the country that would want NO part in this. There was division when the transition was made from 3/4″>1″ hail criteria…it was messy. In the end though…the earth kept spinning around…and it was OK.

So maybe look deeper at these ideas for areas of the country that are in warning fatigue.

The Storm Prediction Center thing is a question that I don’t have an easy answer for. They base their severe thunderstorm watches on 60 MPH/1″ criteria storm chances…do they alter the way they issue watches based on the part of the country that they are being issued for? That’s a toughie and I need more talks with them for solutions on that one. With that said though THERE ARE DIFFERENT CRITERIA FOR WARNINGS/ADVISORIES already. A winter storm warning in Atlanta, GA differs in criteria from a winter storm warning in KC.

I keep coming back to this though…when it comes to damaging storms…

Back to my blog readers…

After presenting some of this information I asked them a couple of questions…

The answer to #2 was fascinating to me…84%.

Dr Labosier reached out to me a few months ago after hearing my thoughts on all this…he is in the process of trying to fund a bigger research project with more specific questions that would be released to the general public…we’ll see IF that goes anywhere.

So that’s it…2500 words of my passion project.

I hope you enjoyed my presentation today…and I hope you tell me what you think of the situation. IF you think I’m crazy…that’s OK! I want to hear what I’m NOT thinking about…or where I’m wrong…or hopefully where I’m right!

Joe

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8 comments

  • Richard

    Thank you Joe ! Outstanding ! Exceptional !
    100% agree with you..
    Quite the eye-opener. Wow
    Made my head spin to see those numbers. I hope inroads will be made for a more reasonable criteria due to your diligence.

  • Reid

    Joe- As a Safety Manager for a construction company in Kansas City, keeping up to date with the current weather conditions is a mandatory part of my job, especially dealing with cranes, and steel braces. With that being said, I find myself as a small percentage of the population that takes into account every severe thunderstorm warning. I agree with you on the elevation of the criteria for a severe thunderstorm warning. The current parameters that are in place that trigger a warning results in the warning falling on deaf ears and goes unnoticed.

    You raised a great point by highlighting regional criteria for what would be considered a warning. I feel that there would be a learning curve associated with that, especially for those individuals who travel for work: truck drivers, construction workers, or traveling business folks. A warning in the area they are in at the time, may have different meaning from where they call home. With that being said, if there are less warnings nationwide due to the classification requirements, one would hope that no matter where someone is in the country, they would have a heightened state of awareness to the changing weather conditions, and prepare to take proper measures to ensure the safety of themselves. Having less warnings could increase receptiveness, but with less frequency of warnings, there would have to be continually conveyed informational messages about what triggers that type of warning, what precautions to take, etc.

    In the early 2000’s worldwide there was an issue with hazard communication with materials being shipped and used. Different chemicals had different label styles, cautionary words, and pictograms to depict the hazard. Ultimately the Globally Harmonized System for Hazard Communication was established. One pictogram for each hazard to be worldly accepted. Also, instead of caution, danger, warning, attention, alert, etc. it was narrowed down to two words: “Danger” – more severe and “Warning” – less severe. This came to mind when discussing the regional classifications, but also on an international level. In the world of safety: construction, general industry, or weather if we can start using the same language, the chances of us increasing understanding and awareness to the hazards we face can hopefully save lives.

    This is extremely exciting and I will continue to follow the progression of this project, thanks for putting together such a well thought out and thought provoking post!

  • Nick

    I think that the NWS should up the low end critieria, but also change ‘STW’ to DTW( Damaging storm warning) and other offices that want to opt out can,( so for example, in California you could have the old criteria but with the new term for consistency) and then the SPC could keep making watch boxes with the old criteria, BUT the individual NWS offices could just opt out of including thier counties in the part of the box that includes them, unless they think that the storms will have the new conditions met. ( I do think that there should be an ETW( extreme storm warning) that could be “considered” equal to a Tornado warning, for those few situations where there is that storm that should have the attention of a Tornado, but they can’t issue a Tornado warning since its not a tornado, but still has say 100mph straight line winds or so)

  • Cliff

    Joe, I accidentally landed on your blog because I saw a link to it from the fox4kc website. I kept reading and reading to the end and have to say that you have brought up something that I have noticed for years. It seems that as the forecasting and warning ability of the NWS has increased due to the increased technology available the number of chicken littles and little boys crying wolf has increased. Thankfully we have in the Kansas City area dedicated meteorologists at all of the TV stations who are helping to filter out the NWS information given during storms and trying to be as precise as possible. No matter what is decided about the criteria someone is going to get hit by a storm that wasn’t expected or missed by a storm that was predicted. I do pay attention to the weather forecasts as well as use whatever app is available on my phone to check the radar for storm movements but question if I’m in the minority or majority of people. Which brings me to my point. Your result graphs are based upon polls of people who are weather aware and weather savvy but may or may not represent the masses who don’t even pay attention to a forecast. If it is possible to come up with a way to take a poll of the folks on the street with a large enough sample it could help with the decision of the necessity to change the criteria. Thanks for what you do every day. You and your colleagues are appreciated.

    • Joe Lauria

      Cliff…to your point…yes you are correct…and that is something that needs to be investigated more comprehensibly…so SOOOOO many of my colleagues from all aspects of the warning process, from TV>NWS>NOAA seem to feel this is a major issue. There is a professor in Virginia that got in touch with me and is seeking funding for a research project to sample the general public’s feeling about these issues.

  • Peter Tucker

    Hi Joe – I’ve followed your project as it has come along over the past few years and you make an excellent point with this. The NWS has tried to make changes such as upping the criteria (1″) and adding the “Significant Weather Advisory”. If you want my input, they don’t need to add any more warnings – they are trying to simplify the process anyway – more warnings will just confuse people. A change in the criteria for the warnings is the correct answer. With that said, I would also note a change to the “Significant Weather Advisory” as well. I work for Oak Grove Emergency Management and run an informal weather blog for some family and friends to discuss weather and many of them are puzzled by the “Significant Weather Advisory” – I do have to agree, I think its vague at best. So, in going with your proposal, here’s my slight addition to it:

    Change the name of the “Significant Weather Advisory” – I would suggest “Weather” become “Thunderstorm” and possibly, change “Significant” to “Severe”. That’s less important I feel than changing “Weather” to “Thunderstorm” since “significant weather” could be anything really. The key here, is to keep “Advisory” (Watch < Advisory < Warning). Here's how it would break down:

    Significant (or Severe) Thunderstorm Advisory (key word – advisory): Any storm capable of producing hail/winds up to the 70 mph/1.5" hail criteria
    Severe Thunderstorm Warning: Any storm capable of producing over 70 mph winds/1.5 inch hail (as per your proposal).

    This would be the extent of Severe Thunderstorms Type Advisories since flood are handled by Flash Flood Warnings (which in themselves need some improvement as well but I hear that's underway also) and Tornado Warnings are already preparing for improvements with WoF and FACETS. In the end, I do feel they need to be adjusted as I have loved and studied weather for over 25 years and even I am dismissive of SVRs sometimes – and I know I shouldn't be!