Point of View

UNC helping improve how weather decisions are made

February 12, 2014 

The snow and ice storm that hit the South during the last week of January brought the City of Atlanta to a virtual standstill. The degree of disruption caused by a relatively small storm was surprising: children stranded overnight at schools, vehicles abandoned by drivers stuck in hours-long commutes and emergency responders stretched to the limit.

While the events in Atlanta might have been surprising, those disruptions were all too familiar to Triangle residents. In 2005 a half-inch of snow paralyzed the City of Raleigh and major transportation routes in the Triangle. Local elected officials, planners and emergency management personnel in North Carolina used the lessons of the 2005 ice storm to better prepare for and respond to extreme weather events.

Research being conducted at the UNC Institute for the Environment, along with partners at other universities, continues to build on those lessons. Meteorologists and social scientists are collaborating with the National Weather Service to improve the type of information provided in forecasts of storm events. These improvements are based on understanding how social and behavioral influences affect officials’ decision-making.

If emergency management personnel, transportation officials and school system leaders better understand the current weather situation and the likely effects, their decisions – opening shelters, activating sirens, salting roads, closing schools – will be better informed and better serve the public.

There are several components to the research, but all are designed to improve the ability of emergency management officials to better serve the public during storm events. Early results led to the development of NC-FIRST, a real-time weather information portal and training program for the emergency management community that brings relevant NWS products – including forecasts, warnings, radar and satellite data – together in one place for easy access. NC-FIRST continues to be a source of information for over 1,100 users in North Carolina.

Another critical piece of research is a regional study in the central U.S. of enhanced weather warnings for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. The study evaluates how more specific NWS warnings – such as “major house and building damage likely and complete destruction possible” – affect the decisions, such as whether to activate sirens, that emergency managers make.

Although likely to grab the public’s attention, these types of enhanced warnings have been criticized for sounding a false alarm if forecasters are even the slightest bit off the mark. Whether similar enhanced warnings for winter weather in Atlanta before the snowstorm would have made a difference in how public safety officials and citizens prepared for and responded during the event is uncertain. Consequently, further research is necessary to find the proper balance between specific-impact-based and generalized warnings.

The foundation underlying all of the research is the need to close the gap between the information the NWS provides and what emergency managers and other public officials need to make the best decisions during weather events. Evaluating not only the type of information but how it is communicated by NWS will greatly improve the odds that the potential harm communicated to emergency managers and the public is accurate, specific and timely.

The science of forecasting storm events and communicating those events to emergency management officials and citizens may never be as precise as we would like. In recent years, real progress has been made through collaboration and research that has resulted in increased public safety. However, more work is needed in this emerging field as we strive to ensure that children in Atlanta, Raleigh and across the country will be able to make it home safely from school regardless of the size of the storm event affecting their community.

Jessica Losego is a research scientist with the UNC Institute for the Environment.

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