According to the National Weather Service, over the past 30 years, tornadoes have been the third-most deadly weather phenomena in the United States, averaging 70 fatalities per year.
However, in the past 10 years, despite exponential increases to both scientific and media-based technology, tornadoes have escalated to the second most deadly weather hazard with 110 average annual fatalities, a 157% increase from the 30-year average.
Clearly, it doesn’t seem to be a lack of scientific understanding of tornado forecasting leading to an increase in tornado fatalities, so it must be something else, either:
- Tornadic Activity increased drastically in the past 10 years (and it hasn’t substantially, see below)
- Tornadoes have targeted more populated areas and/or less well-built structures (possible, but unlikely to remain consistent from year to year)
- A decrease in notice of Tornado Warnings (yes, according to this article)
- The American population is not heeding Tornado Warnings (yes, according to this article).
It turns out that there is quite a bit of psychology involved in Severe Weather Warnings – including Tornado Warnings.
In the eyes of the National Weather Service, the goal is to preserve life and property by conduit of Weather Watches, Warnings, and Advisories. This alerts are intended too persuade the end user – the general public – to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves and their property against inclement weather.
A 157% increase in annual-average tornado-related fatalities – in the age of smartphones and social media – means that a Tornado Warning is simply just not enough persuasion to take cover for a chunk of the general public. Even Jason Samenow, the author of this Washington Post article, eludes to the fact that although the National Weather Service has scaled back it’s rate of issuing Tornado Warnings (and therefore provides less or no notice), they have done so based on a psychological risk vs. reward basis. This means that the meteorology behind tornado warnings may take a back seat to the psychology of the warning intent itself. After all, if no one takes action on a Tornado Warning, the Tornado Warning obviously did not meet it’s intent, even if it was meteorologically justified.
This introduction of the hemorrhaging importance of psychology in Severe Weather Warnings introduces an interesting paradox – risk versus the reward – and sometimes what I conclude with, “sometimes, you can never win”.
Simply put – if the National Weather Service “cries wolf” on a potential tornado that never occurs, then they loose credibility. If they do not warn of a tornado that does occur (and may look nearly identical on weather radar to the one that did not occur), then lives could be lost along with a major decrease in credibility. Being too cautious leads to high false-alarms, and not being cautious enough could be deadly. High amounts of false alarms decrease public trust, while so does frequently not warning for actual tornadoes. While saving lives is obviously more important than a hit to credibility – a hit to credibility may lead to less lives saved in the future.
Likewise, too much prior notice of a tornado can be dangerous because it does not communicate urgency to the general public and results in an increase of “crying wolf”, too little prior notice can be deadly (for obvious reasons), but decreases the “crying wolf factor”, which would likely maintain (or possibly increase) credibility when no tornado occurs.
Will there ever be a perfect warning system for tornadoes? Probably not. Like Molly Cochran from Accuweather stated, there is already some distrust in the system, and this has made the general public rather desensitized to Tornado Warnings (partially thanks to her own organization, frankly).
Tornado Warnings are often issued across several miles, while Tornado Watches are issued encompassing several counties or even entire states. Actual tornadoes, on the other hand, are typically much less than a mile wide – and can often occur in rural areas with no one to actually observe it, leading to the “crying wolf syndrome”, justified or not. Combined with the overall increased hype and commercialization of tornadoes and tornado warnings from media such as The Weather Channel – Molly asserts that many Americans actually want to put “eyes on” the tornado before they concede to the warning. This is especially dangerous at night when pitch-black darkness conceals tornadoes (and many tornadoes occur at night).
Overall, I believe the key is to not overuse the term “tornado”, and limit the scope of Tornado Watches and Warnings to become more specific.
For example, a California resident, where tornadoes are rare, will heed the same warning for a tornado much differently than an Eastern Colorado resident will – because the Eastern Colorado way of life is tornadoes. Tornadoes are mentioned frequently in Eastern Colorado, and therefore, the general public in Eastern Colorado has become slightly more immune to hearing the word and taking little to no protective actions, while a Californian will likely do one of two things – either not believe it (because tornadoes “never happen in California”), or take big-time precautions “just in case” – but they likely will not simply ignore it without at least giving it a thought.
But, if a confirmed tornado was on the ground and a Tornado Warning was issued, a California resident (less immune) would likely immediately take cover, while an Eastern Colorado resident (more immune) would likely be more inclined to self-verify before making a sheltering decision.
- Meteorologist Dan Schreiber