General public interpretations of public and private sector designs of the “cone of uncertainty”

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Monday, 18 January 2010
Gina M. Eosco, University of Oklahoma/ AMS Policy Program, Norman, OK

One of the most important pieces of information communicated regarding a hurricane is its track and associated uncertainty. Commonly called the “cone of uncertainty,” variations of this graphic are shown on the television, in newspapers, or on the Internet making it a highly visible, public graphic. In 2004, this graphic received negative attention, as emergency managers and the public from the Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, Florida area misinterpreted the graphic during Hurricane Charley. Rather than focusing on the uncertainty of the track, they focused on the skinny black line denoting the predicted path of the eye of the storm. Subsequently, their communities were caught off guard and unprepared. Since then, many private and public entities have changed the design of their cones, including the National Hurricane Center who has toggled their skinny black line off. Still, this graphic in its variety of forms is used in mainstream media, and although changes to the skinny black line have occurred, there is still little research on how and why people misinterpret this graphic. To begin to explore this issue, I conducted 50 in-depth interviews in hurricane prone areas including cities in North Carolina, New York, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. I collected individuals' interpretations of both public and private designs of the cone of uncertainty. Shapes, symbols, sizes, colors and legends were all key aspects of their interpretations. Though many people have a solid understanding of the cone, many others do not. Depending on the visual design, some interpretations include “the hurricane is getting larger,” “the hurricane is dissipating or falling apart,” or “I have no clue what this is telling me.” The goal of this presentation is to share the many meanings of these different cones and potentially learn new ways of communicating to the public.