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Weather Technology Falters Amid Communication Breakdown


Weather forecasting technology is so advanced that meteorologists can predict severe weather days in advance, and will can get more accurate longer-term forecasts straight to our smartphones. But that doesn't mean that we act any differently. As Jacob McCleland of member station KGOU reports, meteorologist are grappling with how to communicate severe weather threats effectively.

JACOB MCCLELAND, BYLINE: At the Myriad Botanical Gardens in downtown Oklahoma City, people push strollers, walk dogs and feed ducks. It's a gorgeous day, but it's springtime in Oklahoma, so the weather can change at any time.

DEVONTE THIBODEAUX: When it starts raining is when I start looking at the messages.

MCCLELAND: That's Devonte Thibodeaux. He's enjoying the garden's waterway with Michaela Schweiger.

MICHAELA SCHWEIGER: Or if, like, iPhone does those alerts where it goes off - that's usually when we know something's actually happening.

MCCLELAND: Oklahomans know severe weather, especially tornadoes. They use a lot of sources, mainly smartphone alerts, TV and social media. Brieana McPherson starts to believe the forecast is severe when she sees it on Instagram.

BRIEANA MCPHERSON: So when people post, like, pictures with, like, captions or, like, text over it - like, everybody go park your cars in a garage or something like that - yeah.

MCCLELAND: And it's here at the National Weather Service office where forecasters are trying to give people a heads up about the weather.

RICK SMITH: This is the operations area of the forecast office in Norman.

MCCLELAND: Meteorologist Rick Smith says the Tornado outbreak in Moore, Okla., in 2013 that killed 47 people taught important communication lessons. Facebook isn't the perfect tool for sharing urgent information, and they learned that on Twitter, tweets need timestamps.

SMITH: If we just say a tornado is moving into the city; take cover - if somebody retweets that two days later, two hours later, it can cause confusion. So we try to associate a time with it to make people aware how perishable it is and to - we hope people will use caution if they're sharing it.

MCCLELAND: Social media brings other headaches. Smith says it can dispense information quickly, but what makes it useful also creates problems. The messages change as people translate it themselves. Uncertainty terms like possible, maybe and potential are lost.

SMITH: In some ways, communicating severe weather information is more complicated than I think it's ever been.

MCCLELAND: Smith says one of the most stressful decisions for forecasters is whether to issue a warning days in advance. If the normally measured National Weather Service is concerned, the public and the media take notice. Harold Brooks is a scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman.

HAROLD BROOKS: One of the things that we really, really don't know about how people respond to extreme information is what the impact of false alarms are.

MCCLELAND: In April, the Storm Prediction Center forecast a strong system six days ahead of time. It called for rain, hail and the potential for tornadoes in Oklahoma. The rain and hail came but not the large tornadoes. Brooks says too many false alarms raise the risk of a crying wolf effect. How far in the future do you warn people, and when do those alerts stop mattering?

BROOKS: We have to find a way to figure out and come up with some way to identify best practices so that we can hopefully impact people's behavior in a positive way.

MCCLELAND: Back at the garden in Oklahoma City, Michal Lusk doesn't let bad weather consume her.

MICHAL LUSK: Typically if they close the office early for weather, I don't bother to leave. I'm just not particularly fearful. So I am perhaps less weather-aware than is necessarily prudent.

MCCLELAND: Lusk may not be particularly weather-aware, but even she admits she peeks at her smartphone's weather app daily. For NPR News, I'm Jacob McCleland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob spearheads KRCU’s local news effort. His reporting has been heard on NPR’ Morning Edition and All Things Considered, PRI’s The World, and Harvest Public Media. In addition to reporting, Jacob directs KRCU’s team of student reporters and producers.
Jacob McCleland
Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.