WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Staying alert during severe weather

Posted March 6, 2009 12:07 p.m. EST

The problem we face during severe weather season always reminds me of an old Far Side cartoon. It features a man in a boat, fishing on a lake. Above his head, the clouds spell out "Hey! What are you lookin' at? You want trouble, buddy, you found it!" The caption reads: "Understanding only German, Fritz was unaware that the clouds were becoming threatening." It's a reminder to me that the consequences can be tragic when we can't - or don't - read the signs that a beautiful spring morning is turning into a violent spring afternoon.

Not everyone can be or wants to be an expert in "reading the signs", and that's alright. To an extent, that's our job and the job of the National Weather Service. They're the government agency charged with "protecting life and property", and one way they do that is by issuing watches and warnings for various types of severe weather.

I must have had it pounded into my head at an early age that a watch meant we were "watching for" severe weather, but we hadn't found it yet. A warning, on the other hand, was always more severe, more urgent. That meant severe weather was happening or imminent, and that we needed to take action immediately. As a meteorologist, these terms and what they mean are second nature. However, there is a lot of confusion about them. If you take them out of their native weather context, all of a sudden, they become far more ambiguous. (The fact that they even look alike - both starting with the letters "W" and "A" - probably doesn't help!)

I had a hard time wrapping my head around how that could be until a colleague at a workshop in Kansas City related a story from a viewer there. This fellow always thought the "watch" was worse than the "warning" - the exact opposite of how the terms are actually used! When my colleague asked him why, he said that a "watch" meant that we were actually "watching" the severe weather (in other words, it was happening!). On the other hand, a "warning" was like getting off with a "warning" after being pulled over - it's not as bad as getting the ticket. Given that context, I can understand this fellow's confusion!

One way to keep them straight is to think of them as verbs. When a watch is issued, you need to watch out for bad weather. Conditions are favorable for it to happen, but it hasn't happened yet. When a warning is issued, you need to warn others to take cover - and do so, yourself!