Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Severe Event Likely Tonight. How Do I Convey The Message?

A significant severe weather event is likely across the Ohio Valley tonight. The Storm Prediction Center has western Ohio under a moderate risk, a slight risk for the center of northern Ohio overnight. We are only under a moderate risk a few times a year.  So far, no tornado warnings have been issued for any county in northern Ohio, a rarity this late into June. This is a situation that we need to take seriously.

Radar shows the first of two storm clusters passing just south of northern Ohio. Notice the movement: Northwest to Southeast on the eastern edge of the central US ridge.

At a speaking engagement recently, I surveyed the group of around a hundred people what word they think of when I say the words severe when referring to the weather. The majority of them said tornado. Yet statistically, roughly 10% of severe storms produce a tornado. This is why you will rarely hear me use the word severe unless the situation absolutely warrants it. The word severe is very powerful and conjures up powerful imagery and perceptions. Weather situations like the one tonight (June 23, 2016) reminds me of the psychology behind our weather forecasts.

I'd like to say that I make a forecast with a cold, rational eye but I don't. I take into account how people with react to EACH WORD knowing that most people will react with their preconceived weather notions they've developed over time. Viewers hear the word severe and they think tornado. They panic and fear the worse even if the cold hard facts say otherwise. Its hard to reverse that mindset. I learned that real quick after my first major lake effect event twenty years ago.

If I could make a poster with bullet points for meteorologists, it would list these five at the top

*  Public perception is very powerful

*  We need to be better communicators of information. Quality of the information is better than clicks or social media engagement

*  Choice of words is of the utmost importance in conveying severity of any weather situation

*  For the public, risk is personal and evokes powerful imagery.  Mass media is for the masses.  Yet the masses in this era of smartphone weather apps want personal forecasts. Huge conundrum.

*  Too much emphasis on uncertainty breeds confusion and inaction. (I am hugely guilty of this as a technical weather geek) We need to find a delicate balance between voicing uncertainty and sticking to a forecast without blowing the event out of proportion.

No comments: