Residents in most of Missouri might notice something different about the severe weather warnings they hear this year. Whether they notice or not, the National Weather Service will be watching for results.
The Weather Service offices that serve all of Missouri except the bootheel and Scotland and Clark Counties will be among the five testing new warning language beginning April 2. The changes have been developed following years of work by the Service and social scientists studying what people did in events including the Joplin tornado. The test is called the “Impact Based Warning Experimental Product.”
St. Louis Warning Coordination Meteorologist Jim Kramper says the goal is simple. “We’re just trying to get as much critical information in a very easy format so people can make quick decisions very easily.”
One addition is a set of three new lines. “One line is going to simply say ‘Hazard,” and then we’ll put what is the storm producing, whether it be strong wind gusts, hail or potentially a tornado. The next line will be ‘Source.” Is this a radar indicated only event or do we have actual reports of it from spotters or somebody else? Then the next line will be the impact. What do we expect this storm to do? So for example if it’s hail, we’ll put we expect the hail to dent cars, damage roofs … or if it’s mainly a wind storm, we may say we expect trees and power lines to be down along with minor roof damage or structural damage; something like that.”
Another change will be an update to the Call to Action statements; the part of the warning where the Weather Service tells the public what to do. These have been updated by the social scientists. “They’ll simply say something like, ‘You need to move to shelter now.’ Very quick, short and sweet, this is what you need to do. Maybe not a lot of explanation, but that’s OK. This is not the time for explanation. It’s the time for very quick … this is what you need to do, otherwise you could be in big trouble.”
Kramper says the Weather Service will be looking for feedback. “From our partners in the media, to see what they think about it, how did they use it, what did they use, what parts of the new stuff in the warning did they feel is helpful, what parts would they like to see changed, what maybe could be added to make their job easier. Then also we’re going to try to get some feedback from the emergency managers. How did they use it, did it help them? There will places where the public can actually respond to the things that we’re doing as well.”
Kramper says more changes could be coming, but the Service had to start somewhere. “We think the warning process and the result is going to be overhauled eventually in a bigger fashion, but we just can’t do it at once. We’re going to take steps and this is probably the first step.”
Why here, why now?
The five offices that will be testing the new warnings are St. Louis, Pleasant Hill (Kansas City), Springfield, Topeka and Wichita. Each has in the last year received an upgrade to its radar that will help the weather service in issuing the updated warnings.
Kramper says of the new dual-polarization radar, “In most cases it should help us differentiate between hail versus rain a little bit better. We should be able to get better train estimates from the radar so that should help in flash flood situations.”
If a tornado is occurring and throwing debris into the air, that should also show up. “If we see that debris and that lines up with everything else that we’re looking at … here’s a circulation, there’s a good signature, now we’ve got a debris signature as well, so far the research has shown, that’s like 90 to 95 percent sure there’s probably a tornado there.”
The upgrade to radar systems was not the reason the Service chose the five offices it did. Kramper says, “They wanted to try to get offices that had been effected by strong tornadoes recently and try to get a variety as well. Kansas sometimes looks at their storms a little bit differently than a lot of people in St. Louis did, so we’ll have a lot of variety in terms of the people that are going to be exposed to this new type of warning.