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Research: Communication and interpretation of severe weather warnings

In May 2008, an EF3 tornado occurred in northern Colorado, with the worst damage near the town of Windsor. This tornado was unusual for the area in many ways: it formed relatively early in the day, moved toward the north-northwest, and had a very long track for a tornado so close to the Front Range of the Rockies.

These unusual aspects of the tornado also raised questions about how weather information, and specifically warnings, were communicated and interpreted during the event. The National Weather Service's warning lead times during this tornado were on par with, or even better than, average lead times for tornado warnings. However, we wanted to know what happens to the warning information after the warnings are issued. While a postdoctoral researcher at NCAR, Dr. Schumacher and a team of scientists from NCAR and the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (CIRA) conducted an exploratory study in which we interviewed decision makers---such as emergency managers and school administrators---about how they received the warnings and how they interpreted them. We found that the sources of warning information varied, as did the interpretations of the warnings. For example, in some cases, knowledge of how tornadoes typically move affected the interpretation of the warnings. Information about actual tornado reports ("a tornado is on the ground in Gilcrest"; "damage has been reported in Greeley") was also important to peoples' perceptions of the tornado threat.

More details can be found in this summary on the CIRA website. This study was inspired in part by the Weather and Society*Integrated Studies (WAS*IS) program, which seeks to integrate social-science research methods into meteorological research and operations. Although this particular study was limited in scope, it reveals the useful information that can be gained from considering societal aspects of weather in addition to the meteorology.

The results of this study are in the paper linked below, which was recently accepted to Weather and Forecasting.

Refereed publications on this subject

Other information

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