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Social Science & Severe Weather: Evaluating the Impact-based Warning Tool

Sea Grant Great Lakes Social Science Network assess the Impact-based Warning System

When it comes to severe weather, do you know the difference between a warning and a watch? Which one is worse? Which requires action?  If you don’t know, don’t worry, you aren’t the only one.

NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) uses terms like “watch” and “warning” to notify the public of potential severe weather and levels of danger.  While these terms have specific definitions for scientists and weather forecasters, it is not always clear to affected communities what these phrases mean and what impacts they should expect. To help address this uncertainty and to build a Weather-Ready Nation, the NWS is overhauling their hazard warning systems to make their communication more clear and insure that the public has a better understanding of what to expect from approaching storms.

By using standardized language that describes potential results, rather than scientific words, people in affected areas receive relatable messages that paint a clear picture. The new impact-based warning system offers emergency managers a tool to communicate warnings to the general public by selecting specific phrases to insure people across the country understand severe storm warning systems.

The NWS selected the Sea Grant Great Lakes Social Science Network to assess the Impact-based Warning System because of Sea Grant’s strong reputation for engaging local, sometimes hard to reach, communities. The team conducted extensive research into the most effective impact-based warnings through interviews, focus groups, and surveys to evaluate a new tool for alerting emergency managers and broadcast media about severe weather in order to see what made sense to their local audiences . Their report  “Evaluation of the National Weather Service Impact-based Warning Tool” was published in April of 2013. 

“The impact-based warnings are a great example of how small changes can improve the reception of communication strategies. Through social science research, the National Weather Service was able to glean how different stakeholder groups were using the warnings, so they could identify how to improve them. The NWS found more warnings would not necessarily improve emergency response, but emphasizing how people and property would be affected would.” says Katie Williams, the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant funded graduate student on the project.

Their report allowed the NWS to improve the effectiveness of hazard communication to the public. The impact-based warning system is being tested in several regions throughout the country.

Read about the social scientists who completed the study:
Jane Harrison, Ph.D, Environmental Social Scientist at University of Wisconsin Sea Grant
Catie McCoy, Environmental Social Scientist at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant
Kathy Bunting-Howarth, J.D. Ph.D., Associate Director of New York Sea Grant
Katie Williams, graduate student funded by University of Wisconsin Sea Grant

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