A Failure To Communicate

James Spann
Nov 25, 2016 · 5 min read

I think it is now clear to many of us in the weather enterprise that we have to rethink the way we communicate weather information to the public.

Not many of you are old enough to remember the 1968 movie “Cool Hand Luke”, but the most famous line from that movie involves this topic…

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A good example of our problem has cropped up in recent days. Much of the Southeast U.S. is in the midst of a serious drought, and it seems to be making all of us rather cranky. Our forecasts advertised a “pattern flip” in mid-November, which would open the door for rain to return. I did my best to make it clear (across television and our digital/social mediaproducts) that a pattern flip doesn’t mean the faucet will be turned on and it rains and rains immediately, it simply means the persistent mean upper ridge across the region breaks down, opening the door for multiple traversing mid latitude waves, which in turn will ultimately bring rain.

The first two waves came through working with a very dry airmass, and produced little meaningful rain. It did end the number of consecutive days without measurable rain in Birmingham (at 61) on November 19, and some North Alabama communities saw a quarter of an inch. But, rain with those waves was never expected to be significant in the face of the drought. We did our best to strongly communicate that. But, somehow people got the idea we were forecasting some kind of big soaking rain, and when a deluge didn’t happen, the attacks started.

Here is one email example…

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FYI, I send Tim a note thanking him for his service.

Social media, of course, always brings them out…

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I can’t wait for Robert to prove we are “wrong all the time”.

Are people not listening to us on television? Not reading the blog? Not seeing the graphics? Not going past a Facebook headline? Selective reading/hearing?

Sure, we can be wrong. This is weather forecasting. We are going to be wrong from time to time. But, concerning the drought situation and the last few waves, I thought the forecast was excellent.

Let’s move past the drought.

The most important weather communication issues come during high impact and life threatening weather. Winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods.

It has always been a mystery. I will spend considerable time putting together a simple, easy to understand (in my opinion) map or graphic that describes the coming weather threats and risks. I post it on social media, and right out of the gate the first comments are like…

What about Cullman?
What about Jasper?
What about Pell City?
What about Fayette?
What about Eastaboga?
What about Sylacauga?
What about Hamilton?

And, it goes on and on. A simple 2 minute read of the blog post, or a good review of the posted map or graphic will answer those questions. But, they keep coming year after year. And, of course, I don’t have time to write a custom forecast for 200 smaller municipalities.

Some examples of maps you see from me, and the National Weather Service…

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It might seem easy to understand, but the issue is coming to light. Most people simply can’t find their location on a map. And, I believe this cuts across all socioeconomic lines. Young, old, educated, high income, low income. Ask most people to put a red dot down on these maps representing their home, and they just can’t do it.

Young people are very good at opening the map app on their phone, and using it for directions using GPS, but they are simply following the “turn right here” and “merge left” directions and getting absolutely no understanding of the maps they are seeing. And why even worry about finding yourself on a map with the cool technology we have today.

We are expecting a major research project next year (if it is funded) looking at this issue. I would not be surprised if the study finds 80 percent or more can’t find their location on a map with counties. And, most can’t name one single county to their west. And, yep, some don’t even know the name of the county where they live.

This is a huge problem in weather communication, and we have to understand this.

And, the other big issue… some people don’t have adequate reading skill. With each social media post, I usually include a graphic, and a link to a blog narrative I have written with very deep details about an upcoming high impact event (works the same way on routine days). I have reason to believe most people never click on the link to read the post, and for those that do, some can’t understand it because of minimal reading comprehension.

We must rethink our use of maps, the way we write forecasts and discussions, and the overall techniques of communicating weather. I don’t have the answers now, but I know we must change.

Add to the mix the problem of local and national media outlets coming up with their own watches, warnings, and severe weather indices, and this whole thing could really go down the tubes in a hurry. We can’t even agree on “call to action” statements during tornado warnings. One TV person says “you must be underground” to survive, another one says “drive south”, and another one says “get into a small room on the lowest floor of your home”.

This is a wake up call for all of us in the weather enterprise. Now. We must put egos, pride, power, titles, and territorial boundaries aside to stop loss of life during dangerous weather. And, even on routine days, we have to change the way we communicate with the public.

It will be my goal in 2017 to bring us all to the table so we can get our act together. It will take all of us; broadcasters, National Weather Service, private sector weather groups, and social scientists. The time for change in weather communication is now.

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