Tornado watches and warnings were issued on Tuesday afternoon, but there was only one small confired tornado in Wrenthem. You might wonder why there weren’t more if the warning lasted for over an hour.
There is a definitely a misunderstanding among many in the public about what severe weather days bring. I heard lots of folks talking yesterday about how there was going to be 80 mph winds and golf ball-sized hail and lots of tornadoes. This isn’t to say it wasn’t impossible that large hail or tornadoes could have occurred yesterday, but those were never going to be widespread.
The National Weather Service, who issues watches, warnings, and advisories, definitely struggles with how to get their messages across to the public in the best way possible. They have taken a lot of public surveys to help understand how the overall populace interprets the message. The NWS has streamlined and modified much of their information and is in an ongoing process to make it easier and clearer for consumers.
A complicating factor is created when this information is interpreted and disseminated by local media and further automated to online forecasts you see on your smartphone.
Words and symbols representing hail, heavy rain, or even tornadoes, don’t tell the full story about timetables, overall coverage or even chances of these things occurring.
Headlines and news anchors often use language, that while not incorrect, gives a false impression of the true risk nature of most events.
When you see a tornado watch it’s an indication that meteorologists have enough evidence to tell the public something significant may happen. In the winter this might mean a heads up for a possible snowstorm, and in summer it might be a notification that thunderstorms or even tornadoes are possible. Watches give an opportunity for those of you who are most risk adverse to chance plans, but it’s also important to keep in mind that watches can be dropped, and the actual weather being monitored might never occur.
Warnings are issued when the chances of a weather event, such as heavy snow, ice, thunderstorms, flooding, and–yes–tornadoes are actually occurring or are more than likely to occur. Warnings also have nuance. You could hear the words flood warning and see just a minor flood event or a catastrophic one. This is why it’s so important to read more than a headline like “Flood Warning Posted For The Area.”
Tornado warnings are a bit unique. The warning can be issued with a confirmed tornado, but it is often issued before a tornado is actually sited or occurs. Using the Doppler radar, meteorologists can see indications a thunderstorm has rotation. Once a thunderstorm does rotate, it has the potential to spin off a piece of its rotation in the form of a tornado. Along with other radar evaluation, a tornado warning will be issued in these cases.
Yesterday, when the warnings were issued, there was clearly rotation in the storms, but luckily tornadoes never manifested themselves. Because there were rotating thunderstorms, with possible tornadic signatures on the radar, a tornado warning was issued. This is why you can have a tornado warning and a tornado is not actually on the ground. If meteorologists waited to put out a warning until a confirmed sighting, hundreds of lives would have been lost over the years.
You can follow my Twitter feed during storms @growingwisdom.
It’s important to take these warning seriously. Tornadoes have a habit of skipping up into the clouds and then coming back down again with no warning.
The image below is for a severe tornado, which hit the Midwest several years ago. Notice how the tornado intensity and track can dramatically change. This is another reason to heed warnings, even if you don’t see a tornado occurring.
A lot of meteorology is about probability or odds. Today, the odds of a tornado are zero, so are the odds of any rain. Yesterday’s odds of tornadoes not occurring was still far greater than one happening, but the chance was high enough to warrant the watch.
As consumers of information, it’s the general public’s responsibility to sift through some of the noise and not become caught up in the headline. For meteorological professionals, it’s about giving the public information and not downplaying or overplaying the situation. This is a very tough needle to thread when everyone who reads, hears, or watches your forecast comes with their own unique and personal filter of information as well.