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National Weather Service aims to improve communication with public

The map shows how the National Weather Service

The map shows how the National Weather Service displays hazards on its website. In acknowledgment of confusion over its decades-old messaging system of watches, warnings and advisories, the weather service launched the Hazard Simplification Project in 2014. Credit: /

Forecasting the likes of blizzards and tropical storms involves high-level analysis of masses of data, with sophisticated computer models continuously cranking out updates.

How the National Weather Service communicates to the public its outlook for hazardous conditions is quite a different matter.

In acknowledgment of confusion over its decades-old messaging system of watches, warnings and advisories, the weather service launched the Hazard Simplification Project in 2014.

The public’s input is now being sought on in the form of a first round of surveys, with one related to how hazards are depicted on the maps on the weather service’s site — which features color-coding of 122 hazards. Next up is a survey that looks at the potential for consolidating some of the watches and advisories.

Feedback is encouraged from anyone who makes decisions based on weather — such as school officials, transportation agencies, emergency managers and first responders, as well as the likes of daily commuters and parents wondering whether to postpone that birthday party.

It’s all about finding “a simpler way” to get the message across, said Gary Conte, warning and coordination meteorologist in the weather service’s Upton office. The goal is to make it easier for people to interpret the information — the hazards and impacts — so they can better prepare.

As it stands now, when a strong coastal storm, such as a nor’easter, is about to affect the area, it can result in watches, warnings and/or advisories for any number of impacts, related to the likes of high winds, heavy rainfall, blizzard conditions, coastal flooding, dense fog, each signaled by a different color, Conte said.

In such scenarios with multiple hazards you can get shades overlaid onto others on the map, making it hard to distinguish, Conte said.

So, one of the first surveys — with others to be posted through next spring — focuses on potentially telescoping that down to just four colors — yellow, orange, red and purple — to signal increasingly serious threats, with users mousing over the location to read what type of hazard is at play — tornado warning, severe thunderstorm watch and so on. The first survey remains active through Oct. 7, said a weather service spokeswoman.

“Feedback is essential,” said Meghan McPherson, an adjunct in Adelphi University’s emergency management graduate programs and the school’s assistant director of its Center for Health Innovation.

The long-term need to simplify takes on further significance, she said, as so much information is now passed along through social media. Mention of a storm watch or warning that’s posted on a friend’s Facebook page, McPherson said, isn’t apt to provide the same context that comes with hearing a full explanation by a broadcast weather professional.

Those in the business, so to speak, such as forecasters and emergency managers, would have an appreciation for the differing implications for a watch versus a warning, but for those in the general public, “the nuances are not in their vernacular,” she said. So for any potential new approach, it’s to all parties’ benefit to weigh in on what’s helpful and what’s not.

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What’s the difference?

Warning: “Issued when a hazardous weather or hydrologic event is occurring, is imminent, or has a very high probability of occurring. A warning is used for conditions posing a threat to life or property.”

Watch: “Used when the risk of a hazardous weather or hydrologic event has increased significantly, but its occurrence, location, and/or timing is still uncertain. It is intended to provide enough lead time so that those who need to set their plans in motion can do so.”

Advisory: “Highlights special weather conditions that are less serious than a warning. They are for events that may cause significant inconvenience, and if caution is not exercised, it could lead to situations that may threaten life and/or property.”

Source: National Weather Service

Up for discussion — a streamlined, four-color approach for signaling various hazards:

A sampling of what would be represented by red:

-Hurricane warning, now crimson

-Winter storm warning, now hot pink

-Coastal flood warning, now forest green


-Winter weather advisory, now medium slate blue

-Wind chill advisory, now pale turquoise

-Heat advisory, now coral

Source: National Weather Service


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