Too Many Warnings; Too Much Hype
Is The Watch/Warning System In Trouble?
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.