June 15, 2008

warn or watch: which is worse?

although we don't really get tornadoes in phoenix, i was watching a rerun of desperate housewives last night and was reminded of the "tornado watch"/"tornado warning" terminology. for some reason, i can never remember which is worse. one summer when i was still living in chicago i asked my mom which was worse and then wrote it down on a post-it and put it on the fridge so i would quickly know in case of emergency and wouldn't have to call her at work.

here's the thing- i can make a case for each term being equally serious.

tornado warning: "i am warning you that there is a tornado outside"
tornado watch: "watch outside- you'll see the tornado!"

i think they should go to like a number or color system or something, like "code red", but oh well. anyway, the national weather service defines the terms as follows:

tornado warning: "Issued to warn the public, emergency management and other cooperating agencies when a tornado is forecast to occur or is occurring. The warning will include where the storm was occurring and its direction of movement."
tornado watch: "Issued when conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms and possible tornadoes in and close to a defined area."

but even their definitions leave room for argument- a warning could mean that a tornado is "forecast to occur", which apparently is different than a watch in which there may be "possible tornadoes in and close to a defined area". whatever.

anyway, moral of the story is that warning is bad. think of warning as "code red", which means really bad, and you can remember it because warning and red both have r's in them.

Posted by JenMagenta at June 15, 2008 1:18 PM

The "forecast to occur" bit is because radar can only show that the air is rotating (i.e. a funnel cloud), not whether it's on the ground or not. Once the funnel cloud occurs though it could touch down at any time.

Another way to remember is to think about what the weather service is trying to do with the watch and warning. The "watch" is to tell people to watch out because something might happen, and the "warning" is warning people to take shelter because it's already happening. Or the "warning" is to warn people that if they don't look outside now, they'll miss seeing the tornado. Take your pick.

Posted by: neil at June 15, 2008 10:18 PM

Another thing to remember is that a watch is usually issued for a period of 4-6 hours or more, and for a very large area, whereas when a warning is issued it typically expires within an hour, and usually covers only one or two counties where the tornado is occuring or expected to move.

Posted by: Adam at June 15, 2008 11:46 PM
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