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Upgrading tornado warnings could help with the public response

Tornado warnings are issued when the threat for dangerous storms are there
Tornado warnings are issued when the threat for dangerous storms are there

Andrea Stockton, staff writer

April 9, 2012 — Forecasters in Canada and the U.S. are trying to find more meaningful ways to communicate warning information when severe weather strikes.

U.S. National Weather Service hopes new language will scare people into taking cover
U.S. National Weather Service hopes new language will scare people into taking cover

United States

In response to last year's record-breaking tornadoes, the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) is now testing a new warning system that includes a bit of a scare tactic.

The experiment, which hopes to better describe the severity and potential impact of imminent storms, is taking place in Kansas and Missouri using a three-tiered tornado warning system.

Officials say that doppler radar can help in predicting tornadoes, but it doesn't mean they will always materialize. As a result, some residents may not take warnings seriously. The upgraded warnings will include words like "catastrophic," "mass devastation" and "unsurvivable" to scare people into taking cover.

The NWS says they are trying to make sure that the new language used is strong enough to motivate people to take immediate action and prevent warning fatigue.

"The 'warning fatigue' is usually for folks that haven't been burned yet, but keep hearing the boy who cried wolf," says Bryn Jones, a meteorologist at The Weather Network. "But it's because of the boy who cried wolf (for forecasters at least) and the people who ended up paying him no mind, that we have this fable and the morals it entails."

Investments in science continue to improve the forecasts
Investments in science continue to improve the forecasts


While the impact of severe weather is often far greater in the U.S. compared to Canada, the concern for public safety is still at the forefront.

"Environment Canada's Weather Service is continuously evaluating programs and services to ensure they are relevant and meeting their objectives," says Mark Johnson with Environment Canada. "The weather warning system (including the tornado warnings) has been a particular focus of attention because this service is core to our mandate to provide high quality weather forecasts and warnings to meet the needs of Canadians."

Like the U.S. experiment, Environment Canada plans to include more meaningful impact statements and suggested actions this summer.

"We will introduce new content in the text of our tornado warnings," says Johnson. "Additional changes will continue to be introduced over the next few years as well. We will make better use of new everyday tools (graphic, social media, smart phone, wireless etc.) to ensure a better dissemination and communication of the risk to the public."

Johnson adds that building weather awareness in the population is also essential so that Canadians are prepared and understand what they should do when severe weather threatens.

"The recent investment of $78.7 million over the next five years to strengthen weather monitoring infrastructure, ensures Canadians continued access to world-class weather, water and climate monitoring data," says Johnson.

The areas of weather and climate monitoring infrastructure that will be upgraded include:

  • Canadian Weather Radar Network ($45.2M)
  • Canadian Weather and Climate Observing Networks ($18.8M)
  • Canadian Aerological Network ($4.2M)
  • Canadian Lightning Detection Network ($10.5M)

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