Tornado warnings are meant to save lives. Why do some people roll their eyes?
As forecasters across the country try to warn the public about perilous weather events, their message sometimes gets blown away by another powerful force: human nature.
Complaints and complacency have been the reactions engendered at times by a mounting number of tornado warnings as a large part of the USA is battered by one twister after another.
Tuesday was the 12th consecutive day that at least eight tornadoes were reported to the National Weather Service, covering the usual Southwest and Midwest hot spots but stretching as far east as New York and New Jersey, which are not used to that kind of onslaught.
A rash of tornadoes cut a path of destruction from eastern Indiana through central Ohio on Monday, leaving thousands without power and doing much of their damage in the towns around Dayton, Ohio.
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As the Cincinnati Enquirer reported, many area residents were more concerned with developments in "The Bachelorette" reality show and lashed out via social media when Dayton TV station Fox 45 cut away to a weather update. Meteorologist Jamie Simpson said on air their reaction was “pathetic."
This is not an isolated incident.
At the same time Tiger Woods made his thrilling charge to victory on the final day of last month’s Masters golf tournament, dangerous storms pounded parts of the Southeast, and the CBS affiliate in Atlanta interrupted the broadcast for a weather update. Meteorologist Ella Dorsey said she received death threats as a result.
“We see this time and time again with male and female forecasters," said Victor Gensini, an assistant professor in the Department of Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences at Northern Illinois University. “When they break into programming, they’re getting chastised for doing that, yet they’re trying to save the lives of people a couple of counties away from them. These warnings are extremely important and help save lives. I’m sure there would have been more fatalities had people not been issuing the warnings."
Gensini emphasized that tornado warnings are different from forecasts and are issued only when the phenomenon has been spotted by a storm chaser or detected by Doppler radar.
The way the system works, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, delivers outlooks for severe weather up to eight days in advance. That information is taken in by the 122 National Weather Service offices throughout the country – including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Guam – and forecasters at the individual locations combine it with satellite images and radar readings before determining when and where to issue weather warnings.
Those alerts are distributed to broadcast meteorologists and the public, which may receive them via their cellphones. That’s not the case for the majority.
“Even in the modern era of cellphones, most people still receive their weather warnings through broadcast media, especially local broadcasters," said Kim Klockow-McClain, research scientist with the University of Oklahoma's Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. “But the disadvantage of broadcast media is that it is widespread over a large area of distribution, so you can have a part of it that’s affected and a large part of it that’s not directly impacted."
That further complicates the tricky decision of whether to send out warnings.
The weather service's main goal is to provide residents enough lead time to react to a major event, and on average, it gets word out about 13 minutes before a tornado hits the ground. However, not all twisters are the same, and some can be much harder to identify than others.
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Inevitably, the NWS has to balance the importance of alerting the public with the possibility it might issue some false alarms, which could lead people to tune out. The validity of that notion, known as “warning fatigue," has been debated by social scientists, but it’s enough of a concern that the NWS has made concerted efforts to avoid false alarms, cutting down on them by 31% from 2011 to 2014.
On the other hand, waiting until there’s absolute confirmation of a tornado would probably result in warning residents who are at risk too late, if at all.
“If I were in the National Weather Service running an office, my goal would be, ‘Hey, I don’t want to miss any of these things, because any tornado is an important tornado,’ " Gensini said. “So what if we have a few false alarms and people get upset? They need to realize this is part of the science. I’d rather have a perfect probability of detecting them in that scenario."
More tornadoes have been detected in the past month – about 500 eyewitness reports, according to the Storm Prediction Center – than in almost any stretch in May in the past 20 years.
The folks in the Northeast, unaccustomed to the drill of running to the storm shelter upon learning of an approaching twister, may be shell-shocked at the sight of funnel clouds.
Klockow-McClain said signs indicate people in areas not prone to tornadoes are less likely to respond to warnings.
“In the social sciences, we call this different disaster subcultures. There are places where people have differently adapted to the kind of hazards they face," she said. “Research is showing that people in areas where these things happen less are a little bit less likely to receive the information and act upon it."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tornado warnings are meant to save lives. Why do some people roll their eyes?