News ID: 140115
Published: 0235 GMT April 24, 2016

How early is too early for predicting tornadoes?

How early is too early for predicting tornadoes?

Meteorologists are finding something much tougher to forecast than a stormy atmosphere: The human mind.


Forecasters at the federal Storm Prediction Center see a high chance of severe storms, with possible killer tornadoes, next Tuesday in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, AP reported.

Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate said the early heads-up helps disaster officials prepare, but what about you: Do you really need to worry ― or even know about it ― this far in advance?

For all of their advances in the physical sciences, forecasters have yet to determine when advance warnings are most effective and how urgent their messages should be. They worry about the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome, in which people may tune them out, and about people over-reacting, especially with tornadoes. People have left much safer buildings and headed into their cars to flee, but cars are the last place you want to be in a tornado.

And its not just tornadoes. Forecasters are still trying to understand why several people in Houston ignored the mantra ‘turn around, don’t drown’ and died after driving onto flooded streets last week.

After mastering physics, meteorologists must now master psychology.

With people, "things change all the time. That makes studying humans infinitely harder than studying physical processes," said Kim Klockow, a visiting scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s headquarters. "We are leaps and bounds ahead in physics."

Klockow has studied both meteorology and human behavior and was hired to help the federal government find the right mix of social and physical sciences in its warnings.

There’s a test Tuesday. In guidance distributed Thursday to emergency managers and local forecasters, the Storm Prediction Center used the term ‘severe weather outbreak possible’ ― the earliest it has ever used that language ahead of potential severe weather, SPC spokeswoman Keli Pirtle said.

Six days out, forecasters were 30 percent sure that severe storms will develop Tuesday in an area stretching roughly from Dallas to Wichita, Kansas, including much of Oklahoma. Storms shift eastward Wednesday into parts of Arkansas and the mid-Mississippi River Valley. Subsequent forecasts have offered the same general prediction.

"This far out, we cannot give specifics," said Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Norman. "We don’t even know for sure this is going to happen. We are just in a heads-up phase."

Forecasts intended for the general public don’t use the term ‘outbreak’. Smith’s guidance to the public is to remember that its spring in the southern Plains, but it is given in a way that won’t scare people.

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