The Washington Post

North Carolina tornadoes were no surprise

Illustration of the 25 confirmed tornadoes in North Carolina Saturday, including their tracks and intensity. (National Weather Service)

In the first of two excellent blog posts, recalling a news story that “pronounced tornadoes unpredictable”, Smith debunks any notion that the the North Carolina tornadoes were not predicted, demonstrating that the National Weather Service highlighted the high risk for a dangerous tornado outbreak more than twelve hours in advance. He also shows the NWS issued a rare “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch more than a hour before the first storm touched down. The National Weather Service said the average warning lead time for the tornadoes was 20-30 minutes.

Lamenting the lives that were lost in the tragedy, Smith concludes: “We are getting to the point in America that the issue is not so much whether there will be an advance warning but making sure that everyone who needs to receive the warning gets it.”

Smith is right. In most (but not all) circumstances, weather forecasting has advanced to the point where sufficient warning is provided for high impact events. I made pretty much the same point after the January 26, Commutageddon snowstorm that stranded thousands on the roads for hours here in Washington, D.C. That is, the forecast was good, but the challenge was reaching people with the message.

But when news media constantly frame the weather as unpredictable or claim a well-forecast storm was a surprise, it’s a disservice to the weather forecasting community and to advances which have been made in meteorology. It re-inforces misconceptions that weather forecasts are generally inaccurate, lowering public trust in them which can be problematic when forecasters have critical information to communicate.

As a further example of counterproductive or “unfortunate” news media reporting, in a follow-up blog post, Smith displays an Associated Press headline from today that reads “Killer storm caught N.C. by surprise”. Granted, it may have been the intent of the headline writer to imply the ferocity of the storm caught people off guard (and/or that it was unusual for the area), rather than forecasters missed it. But too often news media gloss over, neglect, or fail to accurately represent what the forecast actually was. As Smith says:

Meteorologists, in frustration, sometimes comment to each other that the sentence, “the ___________ (fill in the type of storm) struck without warning,” seems to be preprogrammed into journalists’ word processors.

The fact is that modern weather science is providing life-saving and economy-boosting service to the nation every week. It would be nice if the media occasionally acknowledged that fact.

I couldn’t agree more...

Jason is the Washington Post’s weather editor and Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist. He earned a master's degree in atmospheric science, and spent 10 years as a climate change science analyst for the U.S. government. He holds the Digital Seal of Approval from the National Weather Association.


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