797 Message from Irma: A Need to Understand the Words and Images Used in Hurricane Watches, Warnings, and Other Hurricane-related Products

Tuesday, 9 January 2018
Exhibit Hall 3 (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
H. Michael Mogil, How The Weatherworks, Naples, FL

During Hurricane Irma, I had an opportunity to provide more than two weeks’ worth of live, morning “drive time,” weather support for a local Naples-area radio station (WGUF-FM). During this time, in preparing for my radio segments, in answering questions that arose, and in talking with neighbors, several things became evident. First, the public does not understand storm surge forecasts and cannot interpret the “height above ground level” information, especially as it relates to their location. Second, the public does not appreciate the vagaries that affect subtle changes in hurricane forecasts and the probabilities associated with such forecasts. Third, the public is lost when it comes to the myriad of hurricane-related products they see online – and this is complicated further by the inundation that results from the information fire-hose that is social media. Some, “social-mediaologists” spread information that is often sensationalized or flat-out incorrect. Other, well-meaning, social-mediaologists may be informed and practice good data sharing, but, nonetheless, contribute to the public’s confusion through an increase in “noise” that must be filtered before actions can be taken.

Some products issued by the National Hurricane Center are quite complex; others, issued by local National Weather Service Offices (and possibly reissued either with or without editing) may each take 10-15 minutes to read. Due to issuance time variations and other factors, the myriad of written products may not always be consistent. National and local warning maps (with a seemingly never-ending range of colors in a cascading framework) further compound the information overload and confusion.

Even with TV meteorologists serving as science experts and interpreters of this and other critical hurricane-related information, and with a plethora of solid science on the Internet to combat misinformation, people still have trouble deciphering messages and graphics, and then knowing where to turn for reliable weather and proper actionable information.

Based on many post-Irma discussions, I have some ideas for ensuring clearer messaging and improving public understanding, many within a Weather-Ready Nation framework.

First, the NWS messages need to be reduced in number and key information needs to be in terms the public can understand. Next, there needs to be a serious educational effort (pre-college level) to ensure that students and their families fully understand the science behind things meteorology, hydrology, and oceanography (at a minimum). Toward this end, I’m proposing that Florida, a state with a myriad of weather, geologic, hydrologic, and oceanographic impacts, become the lead state in developing a twelfth grade, culminating, earth science course to be taught alongside a similarly-structured environmental science offering. Meteorologists, meteorological and educational organizations, and others involved in the earth/space sciences need to lead a concerted effort to support the development of such a course. Toward this end, I intend to begin a petition (with Florida as a singular target, and a separate nationwide effort).

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