When severe weather threatens, meteorologists use maps to show where storms are located and where they’re headed. They want their audiences to know if they’re in the path of the storm.
But research has shown a substantial percentage of people can’t place themselves on a map, a potential problem if a tornado or violent storm is bearing down on their location.
James Spann, chief meteorologist for the ABC affiliate in Birmingham addressed this problem head-on in a “fireside chat” on social media Sunday, a day after severe storms ripped across his home state of Alabama. He tactfully urged his viewers to acquire this basic skill.
He began by laying out the problem — referencing limitations of his own so as not to condescend.
“Listen, we don’t expect people to be geographers or radar meteorologists … there are a lot of things I’m not good at,” he said. “But during severe weather, what do we use? Maps. We have learned a large percentage of people in our state and in many states cannot find themselves on a map."
Then he explained just how pervasive the problem is.
“If I were to give you a blank map with no labels, no highways, just county lines and state lines, could you draw a dot within 50 miles of your house?” he asked. “We’ve seen some studies which show about 85 percent of the population cannot.”
He next conceded that the lack of map skills is understandable, given today’s technology, before concluding with a call to action.
“I understand with phones, it’s cool, you tell the phone, ‘I want to go to wherever,’ and it just gives you turn-by-turn directions … but you need some basic map skills to help us communicate some critical severe-weather information,” he said. “It would really help if you could identify the county that you live in and the counties adjacent to you.”
While some people may well need to improve their map skills, a 2017 AL.com article said part of the problem might be in the maps themselves. Some weather maps are not labeled well and have few or no points of reference. The article said research is underway that will investigate how people use and interpret weather maps and will include recommendations on how to make them more user-friendly.