This piece is not to be critical of any one National Weather Service forecast office, or any meteorologist. We all make mistakes; I sure do. This is a complex science.
I write this to point out a systemic issue that is growing, and is creating significant deterioration of the current NWS Watch/Warning system. Which in turn, will put lives in danger as people lose faith in weather warnings.
“Weather Twitter” has been buzzing about the “Tornado Emergency” issued by the NWS in Little Rock Friday night (April 15), when the office stated that a “large and destructive tornado” was in progress with no qualifier. This “TOR-E” was based largely on spotter reports, which turned out to be bogus.
So, the “emergency” was actually a non-emergency. Yes, there was large hail and strong winds, but there was no tornado.
I can only hope this debacle sheds light on the increasing issue of the number of high false alarms, constant hyperbole, and fear mongering prior to and during severe weather events. The public is being desensitized, and tornado warnings are losing their meaning.
WHAT CAN’T BE FIXED: A flood of new generation YouTubers and TikTokers have learned that fear can be used to ride social media algorithms to bring in followers, subscribers, likes, and shares. Which, in turn, can be monetized in a big way. They generate scary graphics with cartoon fonts to suck people in to watch their videos, and tune in during severe weather events. Most of these people have no formal training in meteorology, and aren’t qualified to provide “exclusive coverage” during life threatening weather.
Let’s make it perfectly clear, this does NOT apply to everyone that does weather on social media. Some are outstanding. Great examples include the “Nashville Severe Wx” and MemphisWeather.net groups in Tennessee. Their information, messaging, and style should be studied by broadcast meteorologists. They do it right.
But the flood of amateur weather enthusiasts that have created huge numbers of followers based on fear mongering aren’t going away; that horse is out of the barn and isn’t coming back in.
Also, the number of poorly trained storm “chasers” (some with NO training), continues to grow, and that will be with us as well. Their false reports (whether intentional, or non-intentional) will continue to make it very challenging for NWS meteorologists (like the Little Rock TOR-E situation).
WHAT CAN BE FIXED: Professional meteorologists must be the voice of reason in this sea of weather insanity that people now consume. We must reduce the number of false alarms, and communicate danger in a firm, responsible, and calm way.
Some NWS offices choose the “carpet bombing” method during severe weather threats, leading to False Alarm Ratio (FAR) values over 80 in some cases. Warning after warning after warning with no verification is simply crying wolf, and it has to stop.
We can’t catch every EF-0 tornado that is down for two minutes. It is simply impossible. We have to realize there are things we just can’t do, and things we just don’t understand. Humility is missing in our science.
In addition to reducing the number of false alarms, I also believe we have to take a look at the tornado warning system. Do we simply need to do away with tornado emergencies since some people seemingly have stopped paying attention to “regular” tornado warnings? This is a question for social scientists, but we need answers.
In my opinion we are a fork in the road. No, we can’t control the social media hypesters and rogue chasers with no training, but those of us in the professional weather enterprise can control OUR products and services. We must keep the warning system from going down the tubes; I encourage all of us to think about reducing false alarms, clear, responsible messaging without the fear factor, and understanding the people we serve.
The one issue I see is the fact that social media meteorologists, ESPECIALLY on youtube, have largely taken over so much that people are in a sense trying to put their faith into their forecasts and nowcasts over what the NWS is doing. That's a serious issue and I have seen it too much on youtube and now people saying to specific weather enthusiast with no degree in weather that "I trust you over the weather service" and I am just stunned.
Like how?! Why? But then the youtube people sometimes then will capitalize over this more and more with merch promotions and donations and they make a LOT and I mean A LOT of money on it. Tune into many of the streams on a big event and you will see THOUSANDS of $$$ being donated....even $200-$500 donation regularly. I mean again there's no way to control the narrative that is being done now but I just hope people come to reason that professional meteorology people, we mostly know what we are doing and spotters giving us false info is not the way to go. I almost think this is also a problem where people are not just educated enough to chase and there so many amateur chasers now in the field with no meteorology training to understand what they are seeing. Everything these days is being reported as a "large, violent tornado" when it's literally just a skinny small tornado sitting in a field and you can tell it's far from "large and violent". That just seems to be a "get views" terms and people become de-sensitized when it is real.
Just a civilian here but.. for the longest time we were told that outdoor weather sirens were “tornado sirens”. Now every town has different rules for when they sound the sirens. There’s a town near me that sounds them for darn near everything. It’s like chaos trying to figure out if it’s pea sized hail or tornado warning.
That plus the social media cowboys you’ve mentioned, and no wonder people don’t pay attention. For those of us that do.. we better have a smart phone and an app because turning on the tv to look at a radar or turning on the radio to hear a report are so hit and miss (assuming we are without a NOAA radio, and I’m sure there are a lot without). Let’s wait and see these 5min of ads or scroll down through the cluttered mayhem of your site of choice to find the hidden weather radar and hope you’re safe already while you wait for it to load.