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The Watch & Warning Rainbow - Part 1: The Problem

Roses are red. Violets are blue. Severe thunderstorm watches are red, blue, orange, yellow, green, purple, pink, white, turquoise…

During high impact weather events, organizations from all sectors of the weather enterprise disseminate massive amounts of information to the public. A large component of that information comes from the National Weather Service (NWS), including weather alerts in the form of watches, warnings, and advisories (commonly know as WWA). Below is an example of a WWA product which includes the area under the alert (outlined by a color) along with a description of the weather phenomenon.

As broadcast meteorologists and private companies distribute these alerts, the warned area and text-based language stays the same while the colors may vary. To effectively examine this variation, I compared the WWA colors used by a handful of news outlets. For more on how I chose these outlets, check out the passage* at the very end. Without further adieu, let’s examine the tornado warning.

A tornado warning is one of the most serious alerts issued by the National Weather Service and justly it receives one of the most serious looking colors: bright red. Almost everyone follows suit and uses bright red as well. The two exceptions are Weather Underground and the NWS Twitter. You read that right; the NWS uses two different colors. But they have a good reason.

The national weather alert system is currently receiving some level of a shake up titled the “Hazard Simplification Project” a.k.a. HazSimp. The end result of HazSimp is unknown but could vary from a complete overhaul to just a few changes. One option, presented by Eli Jacks of the NWS, is reducing the overall number of colors used for watches and warnings. The end result would be a simpler color scheme - potentially similar to the Met Office of the United Kingdom. To determine the best path forward, the NWS has partnered with the Eastern Research Group to help facilitate various workshops and surveys used to garner feedback on potential changes. One possible change tested on Twitter is the color of tornado warnings. While still red, the new color is more blush and discernibly different than the bright red used consistently across the weather enterprise. This new color is part of a slue of experimental products called “short-fuse warnings” and “short-fuse watches”.

Short-fuse warnings will all be red and tested for tornado, severe thunderstorm, and flash flood warnings. Short-fuse watches will be yellow and include tornado and severe thunderstorm watches. These products are distributed on an experimental NWS impact website and on Twitter at @NWSTornado, @NWSSevereTstorm, @NWSFlashflood. Whether or not these experimental products make it to the official Weather Service website will be determined behind closed doors but you can submit your feedback, here. Let’s get back to colors and assess the tornado watch.

For tornado watches, the NWS website and Twitter account use essentially the same shade of yellow. The Storm Prediction Center, however, uses a darker red echoed by News Station 3, The Weather Channel, Accuweather, and Weather Underground. Stations 1 and 2 pick seemingly random colors with bright blue and green. Onto severe thunderstorms warnings.

This warning is fairly simple: you’re either orange or yellow. Unless you’re the NWS Twitter account. Accuweather and News Station 2 echo the orange used by the NWS website while New Stations 1 and 2 along with The Weather Channel and Weather Underground use yellow. Overall, there’s some consistency here but the new NWS color throws that for a loop. Last but not least, let’s take a look at my favorite: severe thunderstorm watches.

Three different colors are used by NWS entities to portray severe thunderstorm watches. This inconsistency trickles down to broadcast meteorologists as News Stations 1, 2, and 3 all use very different colors. Surprisingly, the “big 3” in the private sector all use a relatively similar yellow. The color of severe thunderstorm watches varied so much on TV that I decided to see how many different colors I could find. The result is a quilt-like diagram that gives a good perspective on the major inconsistency in watch color throughout the weather enterprise.

So I’ve been harping on consistency and inconsistency. To recap:

  • Tornado warnings are consistently (and essentially always) bright red but the experimental NWS Twitter color throws a small wrench into that.

  • Tornado watches are fairly consistent being red and yellow with a few news stations choosing seemingly random colors.

  • Severe thunderstorm warnings are consistently either orange or yellow but once again the experimental NWS color throws a wrench into that.

  • Severe thunderstorm watches are widely inconsistent among the NWS and the broadcast industry. Some similarity is found in painting them yellow, done by the big three private companies and the experimental NWS Twitter feed.

So how important is consistency? We’ll dive deeper into HazSimp to find out. Stay tuned!

*For each diagram, I chose nine sources. To represent the National Weather Service I chose their official website, their Twitter handle, and the Storm Prediction Center. To represent broadcast meteorology I chose three essentially random news stations and examined the colors they use on-air. These news stations stayed the same for each watch and warning. To represent the private sector, I chose three of the biggest private weather outlets: The Weather Channel, Accuweather, and Weather Underground and examined the color they use on their official website. Note: The Weather Channel and Weather Underground use watch boxes for severe thunderstorm and tornado watches.

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