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Weather War Room: What Goes In To Forecasting Severe Weather

After April 27, there are no more casual weather observers in the Tennessee Valley.  The words ‘warning’ and ‘watch’ make people stop and pay attention to what the heavens here are about to bring.

But sorting through waves of weather information can be intimidating.  Learning the lingo, learning what the warnings and risk terms mean can ease the fears of those people who start breathing deep when the thunder rolls.

WHNT News 19 recently traveled to the Storm Prediction Center just outside of Oklahoma City in the town of Norman, Oklahoma.

With all the tools we have, all the high-tech forecasting ability at our fingertips, predicting severe weather is still very unpredictable.

We’re taking you inside the ‘weather war room’ to show you how we work together to get you the information you need to know when severe weather threatens.

The new normal, post April 27 for the Tennessee Valley, is for nerves to be on razor’s edge every time it thunders, or lightning paints the sky.

The Storm Prediction Center designated north Alabama’s risk for severe weather as “high” back on April 27, 2011.  They were right.

After the dust settled, more than 100 people died in 10 north Alabama counties.   It’s a grim day which statistics show and families pray won’t happen again anytime soon.

“For the people of Alabama that lived through that, they should understand that this is an exceptionally rare event – a very unfortunate event,” said John Hart, Lead Forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center. “But, nevertheless, let’s hope we don’t see another one like that for a long time.”

The Storm Prediction Center is the war room when mother nature bares her fangs in the worst way.  And while we think tornadoes and tornado seasons, for the Storm Prediction Center, it’s 24/7 12 months a year.

“We draw surface charts every hour on busy days and there’s four of us in the room doing it all looking at different area of the country and different types of threats whether it’s winter weather, severe weather, fire weather,” said Hart.

The average person now voraciously consumes weather information.  However, those weather forecasting words which come from the Storm Prediction Center were orginally meant for pros.

“All the products that come out of SPC are really meant for other meteorologists and people with some knowledge of meteorology, decision makers, emergency managers — people who are skilled at understanding meteorological jargon,” said Greg Carbin, Warning Coordination Meteorologist.

So what does that mean for people at home?  Listen for two key words.  First, the word ‘watch’.

“The watch is our public product to tell the general public it’s time to start paying attention,” said Carbin.  “We try to issue that an hour or two before the first storms started getting strong or severe.  We are trying to give as much lead time as we can, but at the same time be specific into the right area.”

Second, when you hear the word warning, you should have another gear in your severe weather reaction plan.

“Once the storm forms on radar, once the warning is in effect, we’d like to say that’s a definitive warning,” said Carbin.  “Then there is a definitive risk.”

But back to that “high risk” designation from the Storm Prediction Center on April 27.  What does that really mean?  Is there statistically a chance of severe weather or is it a ‘lock’ and going to happen?

“When you see a probability for something like a tornado approach 10 to 15 percent, that’s a high probability,” said Carbin.  “Doesn’t sound high with respect to rain, but it is a high probability when it comes to a tornado event.”

The answer is, when you are looking at protecting your family, a high-risk designation is a bright red flag.

“So you have to adjust your thinking and scale your thinking to those numbers,” said Carbin.  “A five, 10 or 15 percent probability of a tornado in our outlooks — that’s a high number and people ought to be paying attention.”

As meteorologists, we focus on outlook.  Storms are possible, but because the forecast factor might be vague, we’re not sure.

Second — a watch takes it up a level.  We’re certain storms “could” form and we all need to
focus on the information that comes from a meteorologist.

Third — warning.  That means you need to take action.  You need to implement your severe weather plan.

One thing you can count on when the weather starts to fire — WHNT News 19 will be here for you.  You can count on all of us.  Brandon, Ben, Christina, and I will be watching everything the weather brings on all the WHNT News 19 platforms.  We are taking action for you, so you can keep your family safe.