Originally Posted At DanielSchreiber.org
If you’ve ever visited the National Weather Service’s Homepage (weather.gov), you’ve probably noticed a map of the United States with a bunch of colors on it. representing various weather alerts – warnings, advisories, outlooks, and so on. Occasionally, an amber alert message will show up on there, as will several non-weather related emergency messages. Here’s the map:
Ever curious what all those colors mean? And, what happens if there are several alerts in the same location?
The National Weather Service is working on creating a new system which significantly simplifies the way they do business with weather – and other emergency – alerts.
Right now, there are 122 possible messages (plus a “test” message) that the NWS could disseminate, but only one color could show on the map at a time in one location.
This creates several problems.
First: There are so many alerts, and so many colors, that it’s difficult to distinguish what alerts are in effect simply by looking at the map. For instance, there are about 25 different alerts with some shade of blue. MOST of them have something to do with cold weather, but they also include Avalanches, Rip Currents, and Severe Weather, to name a few.
Second: There are so many alike alerts that the average citizen doesn’t understand their minute differences. For example, Hard Freeze Warnings, Extreme Cold Warnings, Freeze Warnings, Frost Advisory, Freezing Fog, Freezing Spray, Heavy Freezing Spray, and Freezing Rain Advisories, and Winter Weather Warnings. The only thing that most people will understand from all of this is: Cold. The National Weather Service has considered combining several of these alerts into one, eliminating the confusion.
Third: So many alerts can lead to citizen complacency. With 122 possible alerts, there is almost always bound to be some sort of alert in effect nearby. Hazardous Weather Outlooks and Short-Term Forecasts are common, and these alerts can steal the glory from more severe weather alerts, like Severe Weather Statements, Severe Thunderstorm Watches, and Flash Flood Warnings. While there is a pecking-order of which color is displayed (for example, a Tornado Warning will display on the map over a Flood Warning), many folks don’t necessarily identify the difference between “Special Weather”, “Severe Weather”. “Hazardous Weather”, “Winter Weather”, and so-on – it’s all just “bad weather”.
Fourth: Should the Federal Government be reaching into non-severe weather alerts? This is a loaded, political question. But, it raises an interesting question. While I believe that an American citizen is entitled to the knowledge of looming life-threatening weather, how far should the federal government involve itself into local, not-imminently-life-threatening weather alerts? At what point should state governments take the lead? Food for thought.
The NWS has proposed several fixes (to all but my fourth problem, naturally). They’ve explored the possibility of only displaying four colors on the map: red, yellow, orange, and purple, indicating simply warnings (red), watches (yellow), and advisories (orange), and emergencies (purple).
Another idea proposed displaying alerts as impacts: Limited, Moderate, High, and Extreme impact. The user could then click on the map to read more.
Dan Schreiber is an operational meteorologist, with experience