A look inside the National Weather Service facility

A doppler radar tower sits adjacent to the National Weather Service facility in Wakefield on May 16, 2017. The facility has withstood numerous national disasters since its opening in 1994.


What's the difference between a weather watch and a weather advisory?

Don't know? You're not alone.

Confusion is common when talking about weather. Meteorologists often use jargon that means little to nothing to the non-trained among us.

The folks at the National Weather Service get that. So they've been touring the country talking about simplifying things, most recently with a focus group at the service's Wakefield office.

"There are too many warnings and advisories now, too many terms during big events," said television meteorologist Jeremy Wheeler, one of the group's participants.

Currently the weather service uses "watch," "advisory" and "warning" in all of its alerts. According to social scientist Danielle Nagele, who's helping lead the focus groups, the three terms are used on a scale that rates severity against certainty. When dealing with flooding, there are five different kinds of advisories. A suggested change would put all five under one "flood advisory."

It's her job to figure out how the public would react to different terminology. The groups have been using flood situations to determine what, if any, changes will be made to the entire system.

Richmond TV weatherman Jim Duncan said there were too many different categories and inconsistencies between CWA (county warning area) boundaries.

A possibility to improve one those suggestions would be to either do away with "advisory" or combine the term with "watch" and call them a "notice."

"The word notice seems to be widely popular with our group discussions," said Eli Jacks, chief of the service's forecast services division, who's also leading the groups. He called the effort "hazard simplification."

Emergency would be the highest level and would be used when a major weather event was actually taking place.

One potential change that hasn't been popular with the groups would incorporate the color-coding of severity levels similar to the Homeland Security Advisory System — a five-tier rating system where orange is the highest risk of a threat and blue is the least likely.

"While the color system is used widely in Europe and understood, nobody ever really knew what any of that meant here," Jacks said. "We're not getting very many people from our groups that think that option is a good one."

A third option would be to leave things as they are.

Changing the wording could potentially cause problems, since the current terms already are embedded in certain laws and National Weather Service policies. Jacks said making changes also could be costly, as it would effect manuals used by electric companies, schools, emergency planners and others who depend on forecasters to make critical decisions.

"It's complicated," he said. "We're listening and taking everything under consideration. We're getting a lot of great feedback and ideas from these sessions."

Any potential changes could be made within a year of decisions being finalized. The process began with a 2015 stakeholder survey in which the agency collected a large number of ideas.

"We basically are looking at it like this, if we never had a warning-watch system, how would you build one and what would you call things?" Jacks said.

Lee Tolliver, 757-222-5844, lee.tolliver@pilotonline.com


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