Ideal hazardous weather messaging: A constant work in progress

Ideal hazardous weather messaging: A constant work in progress

When I first started in the NWS many years ago, the ideas of communication and optimal messaging of weather information were not a significant focus of our operational forecasts and warnings. We stuck primarily to the science, although we did get a few bits of training on clear weather-related writing practices. Much of our information output relating to significant or severe weather consisted of all-caps, technically-written bulletins. (Back then, even our Area Forecast Discussions were internal-only products, not seen by the public.) This left the bulk of communication efforts to the TV and radio broadcasters, who excelled at this task.

But now? All operational meteorologists must be highly effective communicators, pure and simple. But what exactly does that mean? With the internet, social media, and countless other media outlets (both TV and streaming), the amount of weather information available is monumental, and growing at a remarkable rate. Much of this information, such as the simulated reflectivity from convection-allowing models that I wrote about last month, can be interpreted—and misinterpreted—in any number of ways by anyone. This includes the general public, highly savvy and trained officials, and entire companies and communities with greatly differing understandings of dangerous weather events and the factors influencing them, as well as differing ways of processing and applying weather information. Given this varied knowledge, people look to meteorologists in all sectors including broadcasting, government agencies, commercial forecast services, and other entities to help them better understand the weather situation at hand and assist with their decision-making. This necessitates that we all are able to convey, in a clear way, critical information about important weather events to a wide variety of users.

Unfortunately, there is no uniform way to communicate significant weather information that will work for everyone given the unique ways that each person and user group synthesizes that information. What might be a good graphic for your grandma may be useless for the local emergency manager, and vice versa. There will always be people that “get it”, those who do not, and those in between, and we need to serve this entire span of individuals and their needs with appropriate messaging techniques. Thanks to social science research, newer graphical tools, GIS capabilities, and a little creativity meteorologists are becoming better able to tailor critical storm information to facilitate decision-making and help motivate and guide appropriate protective actions.

The most visible signs of these efforts are in social media where forecasters across the weather industry use tools such as graphical radar and warning plots, specific threat levels, timelines of arrival/onset, alternate scenarios, and confidence factors to aid decision-making for sophisticated users and the general public. Many targeted and helpful communication tools, strategies, and methodologies are already being used regularly throughout the weather enterprise, including on TV and the web (e.g., the precipitation- and visibility-based “road weather index”, “bus-stop forecasts”, town-specific threat timelines). Many more are in development or being explored via testbeds or experimental projects (e.g., the NWS’s Hazard Simplification Project, Probabilistic Snow Forecast Experiment, and FACETs project).

The need for clear messaging refers not only to clearly conveying the weather that is expected, but also to the actions we want people to take. This is especially important for vulnerable populations. Who are these populations? They’re more numerous than one might think. If you live near a creek that sometimes floods, if you drive to work in rain, if you frequently go camping or participate in outdoor sports, if you live in the mountains or at the coast, if you’re elderly, if you’re a non-native speaker, you’re part of a vulnerable population that is particularly susceptible to weather hazards. Clear messaging about anticipated conditions, specific threats, and the actions needed to protect life and property that is tailored to the needs of as many people and groups as possible is vital. But first, all of us across the weather enterprise must determine what actions we want or need people to take in the face of a particular threat, knowing that the decisions people make are usually not entirely weather-driven and typically also involve countless other factors within the risk assessment process. Vulnerable populations—understanding their needs and exploring our service to them—will be a focus of discussion and presentations at this year’s NWA Annual Meeting in September. We hope you’ll be there.

-Gail Hartfield
April 2017


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