Oklahoma City is one of the most threatened cities in the United States when it comes to severe weather. At least once a year—often more than that—nature throws violent tornadoes, enormous hail, and destructive winds at the city on the plains. That's why many people have found it a little unsettling that the city's news stations have shrugged off any attempt at standardization and decided to do their own thing when they talk about severe weather.
Do these stations have a responsibility to prevent confusion among the public by using different terminology when forecasting the same severe weather event? This debate is raging among weather geeks on social media this afternoon, with even television meteorologists coming down on different sides of the issue.
One of the bigger weather stories over the past couple of months is that the Storm Prediction Center—the National Weather Service agency responsible for issuing severe weather forecasts—rejiggered their forecasts to make their severe weather outlooks less confusing to the public. Their forecasts used to run on a four-category scale: non-severe thunderstorms, slight risk for severe thunderstorms, moderate risk, and high risk.
Each of these categories correlates to a different probability for severe weather. Under the old system, when there was a low-grade risk (say, a 5% chance of damaging winds), they used to paint that area under a general risk for non-severe thunderstorms and slap a big "SEE TEXT" over the map to clarify a few severe storms aren't out of the question. Nobody but weather geeks ever actually read the text, so most people missed the fact that there could be severe weather even though the map indicated otherwise.
Starting in October, the SPC added two new categories to their scale to solve the "hidden" problems of their old scale. The new scale, which runs from zero to five, was supposed to make communicating the threat for severe weather much easier! Enter television stations, which haphazardly use a mix of their own scales and the SPC's scale to make communication a mess.
Here's the SPC's severe weather forecast for today, showing a moderate risk for severe weather (mainly for hail up to the size of tennis balls) across a swath of Oklahoma and Arkansas, with the risk gradually lowering the farther you get from the region:
These six categories and colors are widely used around the internet, with meteorologists and weather geeks alike circulating the agency's maps to alert their followers of the impending hazards. Television news stations have a different idea, and many of them use their own scales to warn viewers of potentially dangerous weather. This practice came to widespread attention on Twitter today after meteorologists posted screenshots of broadcasts from the three big stations in Oklahoma City.
Here's News 9:
Here's KFOR/Channel 4:
Here's KOCO/Channel 5:
Ignoring the slight differences forecasts, none of them use the same scales or consistent terminology. News 9 has "enhanced" as the highest level of their four-category chart, KFOR uses the old three-category scale, and KOCO uses the SPC's forecast, terminology, and color scale.
It's not just Oklahoma City television stations that do this. News organizations across the country use their own scales. The Weather Channel has created their own severe weather forecasts and used their own three-category scale for decades: orange for thunderstorms, red for severe thunderstorms, and white for the area at "greatest risk."
On one hand, standards make it much easier to communicate risk to the public. If everyone uses the same terminology and the same color scheme, viewers and readers can get used to the idea that "moderate" is more serious than "enhanced," for instance. Standardized colors and terms in severe weather forecasts make it easier for everyone to understand what's going on without running the risk of confusion.
On the other hand, and whether they'll admit it or not, television news stations have a vested interest in eschewing standards and doing their own thing. If four local news stations all use different color schemes and slightly different terminology, it builds up their own brand better than everyone using a standard system—if you try to watch someone else, the forecasts they produce won't be what you're used to. Call it forced loyalty.
The larger answer lies in forecasters actually forecasting on their own. Meteorologists don't walk in lockstep, not even those within the National Weather Service. What if the chief meteorologist for channel 4 disagrees with the Storm Prediction Center's forecast? What if the meteorologists over at channel 5 disagree with both channel 4 and the SPC? Do they all just go with the SPC's forecast? Do they create their own forecasts using the same colors and terminology as the SPC, which could be seen as "mimicking" the SPC's forecasts without using the agency's actual predictions?
What if I disagree with the SPC forecast? Do I just pass along their forecast anyway? Is it my duty to use their work to "avoid confusion"?
We don't pass along the NWS snow forecast... we all make our own. Why is severe untouchable?
It's a tough question where the answer is up for debate. I'm convinced that there's a happy medium to be had between standardizing the terminology we use and allowing forecasters to practice their scientific art without worrying about walking in lockstep with Big Government Weather. Just like they do with snowstorms, stations can easily ignore the agency's forecasts and allow viewers to get weather information from the source they trust the most.
It's possible for stations to use the same terms and colors without having to copy the SPC's thinking. Television meteorologists should at least try to alleviate potential confusion, even if they don't believe they have a responsibility to do so. At the very least, they shouldn't use the same terminology as the SPC but in a different order, as News 9 does by putting "enhanced" as the worst category, where it's a three out of five on the agency's scale.
Even if you think that the SPC's own terms—marginal, slight, enhances, moderate, and high—are ambiguous, each category comes with a number attached to it. In a couple of years, I wouldn't be surprised if saying "four out of five" is more common than saying "moderate risk," as it eliminates ambiguity altogether.
Preventing confusion should be towards the top of the list for meteorologists—after all, what good is your forecast if your audience doesn't understand it?—but as long as ratings, brands, and egos are on the line, the debate will rage on without resolution.