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The idea that most people can’t find themselves on a map during severe weather is flawed

Alabama meteorologist James Spann discusses maps and geographic literacy. (@spann/Twitter)
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Two weeks ago, the Capital Weather Gang published the article “Many people can’t find themselves on a map,” laments Alabama meteorologist. It expressed the concern that, during severe weather warnings, many people may not know whether a violent storm is targeting their location because of a lack of geographic literacy.

I write to at least partially allay this concern and to advocate for more research in this area, especially research that describes how people make sense of weather maps in real events.

The CWG article featured the comments of James Spann, a broadcast meteorologist and household name in Alabama with whom I share a very collegial relationship. I hold him and his work in the highest regard, and his opinions are always well-considered and valuable for our community to heed. In this case, I’d like to bring additional perspective to the issue.

We’ve heard for years that geographic literacy in the United States seems lower than in other places. The importance of geographic literacy cannot be understated, because spatial relations among groups of people are an important consideration in ways our global economy functions, the places we choose to build roads, and much more. Geographic literacy binds together almost everything.

In the weather world, it is also essential, considering the importance of the location of predicted weather hazards. So when a study was released that indicated a majority of people might not know how to locate their homes on a map, meteorologists naturally became concerned.

After the historic April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak, I traveled to Alabama and Mississippi to understand how members of the public received, understood and responded to weather forecasts and warnings. I was particularly interested in their spatial reasoning — at what point did they begin to feel concerned about storms heading their way?

What I found was pleasantly surprising. (Download a PowerPoint presentation on the research.) In interviewing more than 70 individuals, I noted that almost everyone was quite spatially aware. Many people even provided detailed enough accounts that I was able to map the direction most people look when severe weather is heading their way — the average distance at which people became concerned was around 10 miles, and they were looking to the southwest, just as they should have done for this event.

Not only did the interviewees know where they were, but they also knew locations upstream that signaled something important and helped them personalize the threat to themselves. They knew fundamental aspects of the way storms typically moved through their region. To do what they were doing, those people had to possess a lot of geographic information.

What varied among interviewees were the kinds of places people were looking and the technologies they used to make those determinations. Some people relied on landmarks, some on other towns/cities and some on portions of counties. Most people looked to local television, with its mapped weather information, as a primary means of interrogating spatial relationships. This information was conveyed with the help of people such as Spann.

If you’ve ever seen Spann operate, you know that he’s a geographic wizard. He’s taken it upon himself to know every hill, cafe and road in his viewing area as a way of showing care for the people he serves. This instinct did indeed serve the people of Alabama well on April 27. Many other broadcast meteorologists were doing similar things.

So what might be the cause of the poor performance in this study that showed so few people could find their own location on a map? And why am I not too concerned about it?

The study simply lacks something the social and behavioral sciences call ecological validity. This is the idea that the thing you’re studying in some way resembles what people would be exposed to in the real world. The particular study referenced in the article showed people an almost blank county map.

While meteorologists and emergency managers, who work with these maps every day, may find it alarming that many citizens cannot easily locate or name their county when provided no other information, the important thing to remember is that people do find ways to navigate through alternative cues, such as cities, roads and other landmarks.

Information people are presented with during severe weather situations is seldom only county-based; as noted, people were often watching TV while also consulting apps or websites to get detailed local information. They didn’t need counties. When people told me that they didn’t think a tornado would hit them that day, they were talking about a problem with forecast uncertainty, not a lack of location awareness.

So often, we see knowledge-type studies come across our news feeds and feel dismayed by the array of seemingly basic facts that people do not know. The most frequent critique of these studies is the simple idea I write about here: Are they valid in real life?

I encourage colleagues in the weather community to consider this idea with any such study they see, and I likewise challenge those who conduct research with the public to provide nuanced descriptions of the implications of their findings when the work is a little more conceptual.

Even with my own case study, I must note that the populations in Alabama and Mississippi might be especially savvy with severe weather because they experience it often, and results may differ in other places. More work should be done to assess related understandings across the country.

I hope the meteorologists who work so hard to serve their people can take a little satisfaction in the fruits of their labor — knowing that the mapped weather information they provide, along with informed narration, can help navigate audiences safely through a violent storm.

Kim Klockow-McClain is a research scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Her research involves behavioral science focused on weather and climate risk.