Weather service aims to make winter alerts clearer

mdunham@adn.comJanuary 20, 2013 

The National Weather Service is looking for a few good words to describe winter's worst conditions.

"Over the past few years, we've gotten a lot of feedback that our current advisory service is confusing," said Louise Fode, the agency's public program manager for the Alaska region.

Currently, alerts are issued to the public as "advisories," "warnings" and "watches."

A warning describes especially dangerous conditions that are occurring or imminent, said Aimee Fish, acting weather coordination meteorologist with the NWS in Anchorage.

An advisory is for conditions less hazardous than those described in a warning.

A watch means there is the potential for bad weather that may not occur at all.

Within three main categories are 14 more specific "winter weather products," including "freezing rain advisory," "ice storm warning" and "blizzard watch." One of the 14 subcategories, "Extreme Cold Warning," is used only in Alaska when forecasts call for at least three consecutive days of air temperature colder than 40 below.

Some descriptions look and sound similar, "wind chill advisory," "wind chill warning" and "wind chill watch," for instance.

"People don't seem to know the difference," said Fode.

So the NWS is trying out different phrases and asking the public to say it the proposed language is any clearer.

The experiment is under way in several mostly-northern states, including Alaska. People can check weather alerts in both the current and proposed language side by side and give their input in an online survey.

On Thursday afternoon, for instance, the Fairbanks office posted this official "winter weather hazard" message for Coldfoot and vicinity: "The wind chill advisory is now in effect until 6 a.m. AKST Friday."

Next to it was the same information in the proposed language: "The National Weather Service in Fairbanks advises caution for very cold and very windy conditions until 6 a.m. AKST Friday."

Both versions gave identical specifics, including a wind chill of 55 below.

Across the country, in West Virginia, the official alert, "Winter storm warning remains in effect," was paired with this alternative, "The National Weather Service in Charleston continues a warning for a dangerous winter storm." (Higher elevations were expecting up to 10 inches of heavy, wet snow and temperatures around freezing.)

The alternative alerts are not being issued to media for public dissemination through weather reports, but only available at the national website, nws.weather.gov/haz_simp, and local office home pages where a "click here" link will be found at the top of the page. Members of the public can give their opinions there.

If there are no dangerous conditions for a given office to report, the link from that office's site will not be active. That was the case in Anchorage on Thursday.

Fode said she was not sure how many Alaskans have chimed in on the survey since it began in December; all responses go to Washington. "But nationally there've been about 3,000 so far," she said.

The demonstration will go through March 31.

"This is just the first step in trying to make our messages more clear, trying to get people to take a look at it and determine if the new version is better," said Fode. "We're not implementing it tomorrow."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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