Watch. Advisory. Warning. To weather buffs who have long paid attention to winter weather statements issued by the National Weather Service, these words have a clear and specific meaning. But NWS has found many in the public don’t understand the distinctions between these terms and has developed an alternative approach for communicating winter weather hazards.

In short, the alternative communication approach does away with the labels “watch” and “advisory” - lest they be confused with “warnings” - and replaces them with simple statements that describe the “potential” for a given hazard (for a watch) and cautionary language (for an advisory)

More specifically, here is how watches and advisories are changed in the proposed system.

For watches

For all winter weather hazard messages that lead with the phrase:


NWS will change this text to:


with the hazard type (snow, ice, wind, etc.), level of certainty, timing and expected impact(s) clearly stated in the blank space.

For advisories

For all winter weather hazard messages that lead with the phrase


NWS will change this text to:


with the hazard type, timing and expected impact(s) clearly stated in the in the blank space

For warnings

For all winter weather hazard messages that lead with the phrase


NWS will change this text to:


with the hazard type, timing and expected impact(s) clearly stated in the blank space


The revisions are part of a demonstration project at 26 forecast offices (which does not include the Washington/Baltimore office in Sterling). They are *proposed* and *not* operational.

To see the revised statements in action during real weather, you’ll have to visit the demonstration project website. The standard watches, advisories, and warnings will continue to be issued on all operational NWS platforms (web, mobile, weather radio, etc.).

My reaction

When I initially saw a short briefing on these proposed changes at a National Weather Service media workshop, I didn’t have a favorable reaction.

My biggest concern was the loss of identity for winter storm watches. To me, when I hear a winter storm “watch” is issued, this signals the NWS is very serious about the potential for a big storm. My feeling was that the loss of the word “watch” watered down the threat and that the statement, without including “watch”, might not adequately convey the storm risk. I had similar concerns about removing the term “advisory” from the relevant statements.

Yet I wasn’t overly alarmed, because I was told by NWS officials that this was merely a pilot project designed to collect input from NWS constituents on the most effective ways to convey storm hazard information. In fact, the NWS demonstration project website makes abundantly clear it is actively seeking user feedback.

Eli Jacks, chief of fire and public weather services within NWS and responsible for this project, stressed this request for public participation.

“We strongly encourage the public to go to our project website to learn more about this demonstration and how they can provide comments on this proposed alternative language,” Jacks said in ane mail.

He added: “In addition to commenting on the specific alternative language proposed, we welcome other ideas from the public. In fact, within the first 48 hours of the demonstration’s release, about 1,000 comments had already been collected, and some very creative ideas for change have already emerged beyond the specific proposal offered within the demonstration.”

This open, transparent process that encourages public engagement is laudable.

Project leader takes questions

To get some further clarity on the rationale for the changes, I asked Jacks a set of questions, which he responds to here:

Samenow: What motivated the decision to pilot these revisions to winter weather statements?

Jacks: Results of recent NWS service assessments and other surveys have demonstrated that some people are confused about the meanings of the terms “Watch” “Warning” and “Advisory”. These terms are designed to convey “how soon”, “how bad” and “how sure” with regard to individual weather hazards, but the results of these surveys show that the intent of these terms is not well understood by everyone.

In addition, these terms may not always be best suited to effectively convey the true impact of individual hazardous weather events. For example, comments NWS received following the Washington, D.C. snowstorm of January 26, 2011, which stranded some motorists overnight, indicated that some members of the public were not clear that “this storm was going to be different”.

So, the purpose of this demonstration is to propose a new way to express expected weather hazards in a way that is easily understood by those who may be confused about the current terms, and also could provide NWS forecasters with an increased capability to more clearly express the true level of an individual storm’s impact. Both of these factors are critical to ensure the public takes proper action according to the intent of NWS’ hazard statements.

Samenow: What’s the rationale for scrapping “watch” and “advisory”? Is there social science which supports this change?

Jacks: Both the “Watch” and “Warning” terms begin with “W-A” and sound similar - but convey very different meanings. The “Warning” term is most important, as it is intended to convey immediate danger. In contrast, the term “Watch” is intended to convey that there is the potential for hazardous events in cases where forecasters are not yet certain the event will occur. So, for this demonstration, our team decided to replace the word “Watch” with the phrase “Potential” for cases where hazardous weather is not yet certain.

The “Advisory”, term is intended to convey that a hazardous weather event is imminent - but does not rise to the level of danger. In these cases, our intent is simply to “advise caution” for the hazard. So, we selected exactly these two words to replace “Advisory’ for this demonstration.

Social scientists working directly with the NWS have supported use of these terms for the demonstration. However, they (and we) recognize that these are just initial alternatives designed to start a conversation about how to best convey the sense of “Potential”, ”Caution” and “Danger”. The information collected during this demonstration will provide us with important clues as to whether a move away from the “Watch”, “Warning” and “Advisory” system is warranted and, if so, exactly how we should replace these terms.

Samenow: Do you think the lack of an identity or brand (so to speak) for these proposed replacements for “watch” and “advisory” might make people take them less seriously? Or is that really the point, to reduce the weight they carry to give “warnings” more emphasis?

Jacks: If properly designed, all the terms we use will convey the exact intent of what our forecasters intend to convey - in plain English. So, the intent is not to place more emphasis on “Warning” at the expense of other terms we might select. Rather, it is to ensure ALL terms we utilize are readily understood by everyone to enable them to know exactly what to do to protect themselves and their property – and when.

Concluding thoughts

I appreciate Jacks’ comments and don’t disagree the use of terms everyone can understand should be the ultimate goal in communicating about hazards.

On the other hand, I do maintain having some sort of meaningful label for different kinds of statements about these hazards would give them an identity and help people remember calls to action associated with them. I imagine this issue I’ve raised and many others will come up in the public comment process. It will be interesting to see how NWS responds to them and then alters its suite of winter hazard statements.

Link: NWS Survey on this proposal