The change, which was formally proposed in June, comes after half a decade of research and public outreach, and reflects the agency’s desire to simplify the sometimes overwhelming myriad weather alerts that exist today.
It’s arguably the biggest forward-facing change implemented by the Weather Service since 2007, when forecasters were given the ability to issue certain weather alerts, like those for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods, for areas enclosed within a designated polygon. Before that, alerts could only be issued on a county level.
“We conducted a series of engagements with our broadcast partners, with our media partners, with the public, and that’s what led to this proposed decision,” said Eli Jacks, chief of the Forecast Services Division within the Analyze, Forecast and Support branch of the Weather Service, in an interview Thursday. “We briefed it internally, honed the proposal further, and our leadership approved it.”
Changes won’t be made instantaneously, though; don’t expect to see the term “advisory” drop off your favorite weather app’s map until at least 2024.
Jacks explained that the sentiment of advisories isn’t being abandoned; moderate-impact events commensurate with what has historically been the advisory level, such as minor coastal flooding, gusty winds or lower-end snow accumulations, will still warrant bulletins from the National Weather Service. These will come in the form of plain-language alerts, however, and won’t carry the headline “advisory” or “statement.”
Jacks explained that the goal in eliminating advisories is to boil down the Weather Service’s alert paradigm to a two-tiered system in the form of watches and warnings.
“This is an aspect I’m looking forward to,” Jacks said. “We were conveying certainty and severity with three different terms. Now that we’ve taken away that third term, we just have watch and warning.”
A watch is issued when a potentially significant weather event is possible, and could impact the safety of life or property. It’s replaced with a warning once it becomes clear that the event is imminent or occurring.
A tornado watch, for instance, means conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. A warning is only issued once a tornado is sighted or strong rotation is detected on radar.
Advisories and special weather statements have traditionally been implemented for events that don’t rise to the threat level of a warning. That doesn’t mean they can’t be disruptive, though. Three or four inches of rapidly accumulating snowfall in New York City during rush hour would technically only warrant a winter weather advisory, but would grind traffic to a halt.
Jacks and his team found that the public often views advisories as a downgrade from a watch, which is not their intended purpose.
They received more than 8,000 comments from the public that supported abolishing advisories for more communicative, descriptive bulletins. These forthcoming bulletins will still be assigned a VTEC, or a code that allows them to be disseminated via phone apps and other third-party providers.
He noted that 86 percent of emergency managers were “overwhelmingly” in support of dropping advisories and boiling down weather alerts to a watch/warning protocol. A watch will convey the need for caution and preparation, while a warning necessitates action.
“When we proposed it … based on the wide breadth of social science at that point, this was found to be resonating across all sectors the most,” Jacks said. “This decision is the result of five years of social science, [and] live engagements with our partners, emergency managers, the public and our own forecasters.”
Jacks is hopeful that the elimination of advisories will also spell an end to confusion between watches and warnings.
“There’s tremendous opportunity to finally design educational materials to finally get that straightened out in people’s heads,” he said.
Before the change is implemented, heavy lifting behind the scenes has to be done, as well as education efforts and the establishment of communication best practices.
“There’s a lot of policy changes we need to make with our forecasters to make it work,” Jacks said. “We need to make internal changes to our software that’s rolling out, too.”
Externally, the Weather Service needs to work with broadcast meteorologists, too — the people with whom members of the general public have the most contact.
“We have to design these plain-language headlines,” Jacks said. “Broadcasters are concerned with ‘What are we going to call it?’ and ‘How are we going to call attention to it?’ Think of broadcasters standing in front of a map.”
Broadcasters appeared enthusiastic about the change. Eric Fisher, chief meteorologist at WBZ-TV in Boston, tweeted: “Simpler. A warning means something is happening. No need to get overly cute with the layers.” He noted that he communicates advisory-level threats on air through maps and graphics anyway.
Aubrey Urbanowicz, chief meteorologist at WHSV-TV in Harrisonburg, Va., concurs.
“Overall, I don’t often show advisories because it’s typically already a part of my forecast,” she wrote in a Twitter direct message. “If wind gusts up to 50 or even 60 mph are in my forecast, that’s already a big deal. Advisory or not, it’s going to be a focal point of my forecast. I’m pleased to see the advisories … being eliminated because of ‘weather alert’ overload.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Jessica Conley, a meteorologist at News Center Maine.
“I think anything that helps with clearer communication to the public is a good thing,” Conley wrote. “As a broadcast meteorologist, my job is to get a general message across to keep people safe. The specific titles don’t matter as much as the impacts do.”
Others liked the idea, but wanted to make sure it wouldn’t translate into marginal events being bumped up to a warning tier.
“I do get concerned with lumping advisory level criteria with those more intense or dangerous weather watches/warnings in that it could lead the public to not take warnings as seriously for future events,” wrote Megan Salois, a television meteorologist in Des Moines. “The public may get more complacent” if that occurs, she noted.
The National Weather Service is also working on a project that would allow destructive hailstorms and wind events to trigger wireless emergency alerts. Recently, it made changes to how frequently flood alerts would sound on cellphones.