Watch? Warning? Weather Service aims to simplify the jargon

It's the second-most frequent question I get in the weather email box: "What's the difference between a watch and a warning?"

It was enough that I finally wrote an entire blog entry breaking down what the various National Weather Service terms mean so I could just send an email link.

In the current system, for those who don't want to click the hyperlink above, a "Watch" is usually issued 24-48 hours ahead of an approaching event and means conditions are possible, but not a slam dunk. As the event nears, it will get converted to a Warning (severe conditions are imminent or happening) or an Advisory (less severe conditions are imminent or occurring).

But now, the National Weather Service is looking into perhaps changing their terminology to get rid of some of the jargon.

This winter, the federal forecasting agency is trying out simple, descriptive language to possibly replace its 14 watches, advisories and warnings for wintry weather - from ice storms to blizzards, wind chill to lake-effect snow.

For example, instead of getting a bulletin that says "The NWS has issued a Winter Weather Advisory for the greater Seattle area until noon", the bulletin would instead read: "The NWS advises caution for hazardous winter weather until noon..."

A "Winter Storm Watch" would instead come across as "The NWS is advising the potential for a significant winter storm..."

A more serious "Winter Storm Warning" would instead be headlined as "The NWS has issued a warning for a dangerous winter storm..."

Here is a side-by-side comparison from Medford, Ore.'s test of how the bulletins look now, and how they would look:

"The purpose of this project is to use language that is self-evident, that everybody would immediately understand," said Eli Jacks, the forecaster leading the experiment.

The experiment began in December and runs through March 31 at 26 Weather Service offices covering Alaska, Oregon (Medford area), the northern Great Plains, Michigan, New England, Appalachia and Oklahoma. A separate website for the project avoids confusing people who just want to look up the forecast.

The clear-and-simple approach could be carried over to heat waves, flooding, dangerous wind and other conditions, but that will depend on what the public has to say.

Reaction so far has been partly cloudy. Many people don't want to give up familiar terms that have been around for generations, Jacks said.

"But then other people say, 'Well you know what, I've always been confused by 'watch' and 'warning' because they both start with 'wa.' Or, 'I've never quite known what an advisory means,'" he said.

Jackson said he's thought about the problem for years and got to work on changes about two years ago. Hear, hear, said one Cheyenne-area man as he waited for his flight to California at the city's tiny airport.

"It is confusing. What is the difference between a warning and a watch? To just have it spelled out in plain English would be handy," Roger Longstreet said.

Other Ways To Highlight Danger

The Weather Service isn't alone in reconsidering how it communicates with the public.

Remember "Snowmageddon," the East Coast blizzard of 2010? Federal forecasters aren't getting that creative yet, but The Weather Channel this winter has formalized naming winter storms like hurricanes, typhoons and tropical storms.

"When they get named, they're instantly raised in the public consciousness. People just pay more attention to storms when they get a name," explained Bryan Norcross, a content director for The Weather Channel who helped develop the naming system.

In December, the storm Draco (named for an ancient Athenian legislator) dumped a foot of snow from Wyoming into the Upper Midwest. Next up were Euclid (ancient Greek mathematician), Freyr (Norse god) and Gandalf ("Lord of the Rings" wizard). Currently, Winter Storm Iago is producing snow in parts of Virginia and North Carolina.

Social media played a big role, starting with an October 2011 snowstorm that The Weather Channel's social media specialists gave the Twitter hashtag snowtober.

"What we realized was that, in the future, with the reality of Twitter and the fact that we're going to send information out about storms all winter long, we're going to have to come up with some kind of hashtag for every storm," Norcross said.

He pointed out that a pre-decided list of names gets around the problem of having to come up with a creative name for every storm.

The National Weather Service in the late 1990s toyed with rating winter storms on a 1-5 intensity scale, as is done for hurricanes, but the idea didn't catch on.

The public can see how the Weather Service's proposed new wording works and comment on it at the National Weather Service's special site

Ideas submitted by the public so far include trying a color-coded scale for severe weather.

Jacks said he's read all 3,000 or so surveys returned to date.

"It's a challenge," he said. "These are all interesting comments and we have to take some time to think about them."

Associated Press writer Mead Gruver contributed to this report


(The number one question into our weather email bin? "What's the difference between rain and showers?" Well, now that I think about it, "When is it going to snow again" should be among the top as well...)