Filler: All weather forecasts are mostly cloudy

Why is it so hard for the National

Why is it so hard for the National Weather Service to give us specific, concrete messaging that we can understand and use? Because no one can accurately predict the weather! (Credit: NOAA)

Lane Filler

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Lane Filler Lane Filler

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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For years I've wondered what's behind folks' compulsion to watch The Weather Channel every waking moment, breaking only long enough to flip over to network and local forecasts. Did everyone but me sink their nest eggs into galoshes futures? Do weather forecasts contain subliminal messages that I, with my limited attention span and love of between-nap snoozes, can't detect? Or is this meteorology mania related to tough times, and a fear that the only thing between us and famine is our struggling tomato plants and budding green pepper crop?

But thanks to an initiative from the National Weather Service, I now know what got folks addicted to weather reports. It's their determination to figure out the difference between "storm warning," "storm watch" and "weather advisory," before they die. That's why the forecast addiction is worst among the elderly. They know their time is dwindling, and with it the chance to discern which term means, "Don't forget your windbreaker"; which one means, "Those clouds could be trouble"; and which one means, "Flee! Leave the hamsters and the iguana tank. Forget Aunt Edna. Just RUN!"

Until March 31, the National Weather Service will be showing off a potential new system of weather warnings and accepting comments on it, as well as on the current system, at nws.weather.gov/haz_simp.

It's easy to illustrate why this is necessary. Here are the meanings of the current terms, according to the NWS:

Watch: potential for a weather hazard, with some factors, such as location or timing, uncertain. I say we should be under a watch permanently. There is always a potential for hazardous weather, at an unspecified location and time.

Advisory: potential for conditions that could be dangerous if caution is not taken. Again, when isn't this the case? Telling me that there is the potential for conditions that could be dangerous if caution is not taken isn't news I can use. It's an embarrassingly vague fortune cookie.

Warning: Dangerous hazard is imminent or happening. This one I understand clearly. By the time the danger is imminent or happening, it's usually too late to do much about it, but it's comforting in an "Oh, so the roof ripping off wasn't a hallucination then" way.

So we have three terms, and two of them can be interpreted as, "Dude, just be careful, because you never can tell." The third apparently means, "If you know any really short prayers, now would be a good time to rattle one off, 'cause it's about to get real in Weatherville."

The problem is that watch and warning sound a lot alike, advisory isn't the most specific term, and most of us probably haven't read the real definitions and certainly haven't memorized them.

The proposed changes would be a little better, but not much. With a watch, for instance, the message would go from "The National Weather Service in Islip has issued a winter storm watch from 8 p.m. to midnight," to "The National Weather Service in Islip is forecasting the potential for a significant winter storm from 8 p.m. until midnight." That still leaves me wondering how likely "potential" is, how much snow "significant" is and whether I need to buy enough bread and milk for a really hearty bread chowder, everyone's winter storm favorite.

Why is it so hard for the National Weather Service to give us specific, concrete messaging that we can understand and use? Because no one can accurately predict the weather!

Until people can, advising us to watch out for potentially significant warnings of possible but uncertain hazards is about as good as it's going to get. Although the addition of the term "RUN!" -- when warranted -- would help a lot.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.