National Weather Service to Limit Spectrum of Color-Coded Alerts

By Brian K. Sullivan | April 17, 2017

The National Weather Service uses 122 colors to communicate the weather. There are watches, warnings and advisories arrayed on website maps in a Crayola box worth of colors.

An example of the new Public Severe Weather Graphic that includes the new categories. NOAA/NWS

Tornado watches come in yellow, blizzard warnings in scarlet and storms in a pinkish hue. Air-quality alerts are splashed in smoggy gray. Winter weather advisories arrive in an Easter-egg purple that prompts hopeful thoughts of spring.

The problem is, it might be too many. The Weather Service has posted online surveys about new flood notices and winter storm bulletins that will stay up until May 31. The Hazard Simplification Project, if the public supports it, would roll out a new way of doing things by next winter. The palette would turn a little more organized – and subdued.

“This is all about improved communication,” said Eli Jacks, chief of the agency’s forecast services division in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Currently, if a big storm roars up the East Coast, local Weather Service offices release their own blizzard of notifications that pile up on weather maps from Maryland to Maine. Each comes in its own color. March’s nor’easter spawned winter-weather advisories, winter storm warnings, blizzard watches and warnings and flood and flash flood bulletins. These came in reds, greens, purples and pinks.

It’s Al Roker meets Jackson Pollock.

The Weather Service is looking to drop individual bulletins for freezing rain, lake effect snow, blizzards and include that information in redesigned general-purpose winter weather advisories, winter storm watches and winter storm warning notices.

The untamed deluge of flood warnings would become an orderly stream. The agency would combine flash flood and flood notices into single announcements and drop individual bulletins on urban and small stream flooding; arroyo and small stream flooding; and mere flood and hydrologic advisories.

Jacks said people struggle with the difference between a watch and a warning and which is worse. (It’s a warning.) The new statements would break out information using a no-nonsense what, where, when format.

“You shouldn’t have to look up anything,” Jacks said. “It should be intuitive.”‘

When the surveys went live Tuesday, a tsunami of 10,000 weather aficionados weighed in. Jacks gave no forecast of the survey’s outcome.

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