Do you know the difference between a flash flood watch and a flood advisory? How about a winter weather advisory vs. a blizzard watch? Or, more importantly, a tornado watch vs. a tornado warning?

Deciphering the myriad alerts issued by the National Weather Service isn’t easy. With roughly 100 different warnings or advisories the agency disseminates during hazardous weather, it comes as no surprise that mix-ups among the public are routine.

Now, the National Weather Service is giving its warning paradigm a facelift to reduce confusion and streamline the process of communicating weather hazards. Some products may be eliminated entirely, and others combined or restructured. It’s an action many social scientists say is a step in the right direction, but some wonder if the arguably chaotic system is even salvageable.

The National Weather Service announced the proposed changes Thursday, and is seeking public feedback via a survey through Aug. 21. A summary of public responses will be provided to National Weather Service senior leadership in September, and depending on whether any revisions are warranted, the proposed changes could be implemented next year.

The proposed changes and debates surrounding them may seem like semantics, but severe weather imposes massive costs on the U.S. economy each year, as well as exacts a heavy toll on human lives. Flooding, for example, killed more than 100 people a year during the 2015 through 2018 period, and lightning kills an average of 49 people each year.

Eliminating advisories altogether

Among the most significant proposed changes is axing weather advisories altogether. Social science research undertaken by the NWS over the past several years revealed that advisories are poorly understood and inaccurately interpreted. For example, advisories are frequently conflated with watches.

The advisory, watch and warning hierarchy is something the National Weather Service says was never meant to appear as a three-tiered system.

A watch is issued when conditions meeting the criteria of a warning are possible within a particular time frame. If the threshold for a warning is not expected to be reached, an advisory will often be implemented instead.

Eli Jacks, chief of the forecast services division at NWS headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., says the proposed revisions to the system aim to disentangle watches from advisories.

According to Jacks, NWS held a workshop in 2015 that brought together social scientists, broadcast meteorologists, emergency managers and agency forecasters.

“There was a chorus that the term ‘advisory’ is misunderstood, and watches vs. warnings are misunderstood,” Jacks said. “If a watch and an advisory are conflated with one another, then neither one has much value.”

What is the role of an advisory?

The NWS notes that an advisory is not a “downgrade” from a watch. But its products have historically suggested otherwise.

Consider the high wind watch. That’s issued well in advance of an anticipated period of damaging winds and highlights the potential for sustained winds of 40 mph for at least an hour, or gusts of 58 mph or higher for any duration. If the event nears and those criteria are deemed likely to be met, a high wind warning is issued.

A wind advisory, on the other hand, covers winds that aren’t strong enough for a warning but that can still cause impacts. The advisory is issued for sustained winds of 31 to 39 mph, or gusts of 46 to 57 mph. So, some people might view a wind advisory as a clear step down from a high wind watch, since a watch lays the groundwork for a later warning. The same is true for many other hazards.

Winter weather fans, for example, tend to be disappointed when a winter storm watch is converted into a winter weather advisory, indicating lower snow and ice totals are expected.

“There are many pieces to this project,” said Jacks, who hopes the survey will shed some light on the potential effectiveness of the proposed changes.

“The main survey item that’s going to go back [to the National Weather Service], the big kahuna, is doing away with advisories.”

You can take that survey here.

That will leave watches and warnings — a two-step system that Jacks says will make it clearer for emergency management and other users when it comes to what action items to take.

“A watch means prepare. A warning means act,” Jacks said.

Replacing advisories with bulletins

Jacks says advisories aren’t disappearing entirely. While warnings are used to convey threats to life and property, advisories are generally for lower-impact events that are primarily inconvenient — but can still be dangerous if plans aren’t altered or if risks are taken.

That’s why, under the proposed changes, bulletins would be issued instead of what would have been an advisory. But they wouldn’t be called anything special, since the text of each bulletin would provide full hazard descriptions. And, by dropping advisories altogether, the Weather Service would eliminate the need for certain thresholds to be reached to issue an alert — allowing them more flexibility during high-impact events.

In a recent webinar aimed at educating meteorologists, emergency management and other core partners on the changes, Jacks noted that the use of a statement is a more realistic way to communicate certain weather hazards. After all, each event is unique. An inch or two of snow in some areas may not have warranted a winter weather advisory, for instance, but could have a significant impact during rush hour.

The format of these statements would be altered, too.

“We want the reformatting of the messages into a ‘what, where, when’ impact format,” Jacks said. “It’s really about a person who isn’t a professional, who needs to understand information without going to a dictionary.”

What will a replacement look like?

With 24 advisories potentially being replaced by specially tailored statements, questions arise over what the new implementation will look like. Jacks explained that’s still being determined, but that the new product will be getting a “VTEC,” or valid time event code.

This is important because it will allow private weather vendors such as the maker of your favorite cellphone weather app to disseminate the bulletins like they would for a severe weather warning. Specifically, app makers and television meteorologists could translate the messages into colors, icons or headlines that appear on your phone or television screen. It also assigns the alerts an expiration date and time.

“Think of VTEC as a QR code on a milk carton that you scan so it identifies it,” explained Jacks. “The VTEC is the QR code in our messaging that allows our partners to know what the hazard is, severity, when it starts and ends … the key information they need to automate things.”

Other possible changes

In addition to the proposed advisory overhaul, NWS is working to trim down the list of warnings. That may come by merging some alerts — such as those for flooding.

“We have so many flavors of flood advisory,” said Jacks, mentioning urban and small stream flood advisories, flood advisories, coastal flood advisories, lakeshore flood advisories, etc. Those will all disappear once advisories are discontinued.

He also said that alerts in advance of flooding will be “consolidated into one generally used flood watch.”

Flash flood watches may be utilized more sparingly, reserved for higher-end rapid rises of water levels.

The Weather Service is also testing software upgrades that will allow it to focus its alerts, including watches, for smaller areas — drawing polygons on the map like what’s done for severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. It’s all beneath the umbrella of a larger hazard simplification effort, known colloquially within the Weather Service as “Hazsimp.”

What the social science says

Despite the steps being taken, some social scientists feel more needs to be done to have a meaningful impact. Among them is Susan Jasko, a senior scientist at the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama.

“I think that the effort to simplify the suite of products that the National Weather Service issues and uses is a good idea,” she said in an interview. “Historically what they have done is layer products, adding things without sunsetting things.”

But this round of “sunsetting” could prove challenging, Jasko explained.

“Just eliminating the whole category [of advisories presents] a lot of other problems as well,” she said. “I guess I’m also wondering, if we just swap the word ‘statement’ for ‘advisory,’ have we solved the problem … about making sure the significance to personal safety is conveyed?”

She worries that people will interpret the statement similarly to how advisories have been received, which could defeat the purpose of the change.

“I’m not sure other people will see it that way … in some ways, it may not solve the basic problem, ‘how do we get the attention of people at the right time, in the right way, in regard to a specific hazard?’ So I think that’s still an open question,” Jasko said.

Jasko also noted that the remaining two headlines of risk — watches and warnings — are still highly confusing to the public.

“Many meteorologists may disagree, but there’s nothing inherently more urgent about [one word than] the other,” she explained, stating that the Weather Service’s desire to assign meaning to the words doesn’t transcend the preconceived linguistic definitions associated with them.

“If I throw a ball at your head, I’ll say 'watch out!’ ” Jasko said. “That’s a pretty urgent thing.”

But in weather, a “watch” amounts to a heads up of a brewing potential.

Jasko said the best approach to remedying the misinterpretation of alerts may not consist solely of making swaps or renaming products, but rather come down to education.

“I think that without committing an effort at education of the public and at young people, I’m not sure it’s going to solve as many confusion problems as the National Weather Service is after,” Jasko said.