Ominous-looking but harmless severe thunderstorm in Charleston, WV in May of 2009
It's been like discovering the "man behind the curtain" in the Wizard of Oz. The more I go storm chasing, read scientific journal articles/books, view photos/videos, watch the weather and read the news, the more I lose my sense of respect for the severe thunderstorm. And you should, too. Over the past few years, it's become increasingly apparent to me that this subset of the meteorological and storm chasing field gets far too much attention, far too many allotted resources and far too much respect/fear from the public.
Don't get me wrong, severe storms are awesome, dramatic, photogenic and generally fun to experience as a chaser - but the severe thunderstorm is "all bark and no bite", and when it does bite, the effects are either negligible or unmitigatable. They are scary-looking to the public, but usually benign. This realization has brought me to an unexpected and likely unpopular position: most severe thunderstorm research, warning, mitigation and awareness efforts are a waste of time, resources and taxpayer money, and as such should be discontinued and related resources re-allocated to more productive and worthy subjects.
Now of course, with stating such a position, a disclaimer must be made: yes, some of the more extreme severe thunderstorms deserve our attention and resources. Derechos (a rare and powerful type of squall line) and strong supercells (tornadic or not) can produce notable threats to life and property, namely significant winds and very large hail. But these types of 'mega' severe storms are quite rare, rarer even than tornadoes. We would do well to keep severe thunderstorm warnings if criteria is raised to only cover these more extreme events.
Another harmless severe thunderstorm near St. Louis in May of 2010
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"
Severe thunderstorms are mostly unmitigatable, non-hazards or both. Let's look at some facts about them, by official definition (in the US) a storm with 1" or greater hail and/or winds of at least 58mph:
Most severe thunderstorms are low-to-no impact events: The vast majority of storms that trigger severe thunderstorm warnings produce little damage. It is extremely rare for a severe thunderstorm to cause a death or injury, with the incidents being more of the 'freak accident' type (such as a tree falling on a moving car). I have been in countless severe storms, and while hail, heavy rain and high winds are dramatic, in reality they are no more threatening to either me and my vehicle than going through a car wash.
Truly damaging severe thunderstorms can't mitigated by warnings: When a hailstorm or damaging winds descend on a community, there is not much that anyone in the path can do in response to reduce its impact, even if they receive and have time to react to a warning. The lone exception may be the individual at home able to pull their vehicle into a garage/carport, or maybe a vendor securing their pop-up tent at the county fair. Other than that, everyone else has no real option to do anything about the threat. In all practical senses, a severe thunderstorm is no different to the average person than a sub-severe storm. You go inside, you roll up your car windows, you bring the dog in, close the patio umbrella, postpone the baseball/soccer game, etc. You don't need a warning from the NWS to do any of that. Nature has provided a very effective visual (very bright) and audible (very loud) warnings of an impending storm that everyone understands!
Lightning presents a greater hazard than severe thunderstorm effects: Lightning is present in all thunderstorms (by definition), severe or non-severe, and is responsible for more deaths and injuries than hail/wind in severe thunderstorms. Yet we (rightly) don't see the need to have lightning warnings (lightning usually warns of itself very adequately).
Tracking, warning and public awareness of severe thunderstorms is a significant use of resources: All that goes into severe thunderstorm warnings - including forecaster duties, warning dissemination, media interruptions, and more - use large amounts of resources in terms of manpower, taxpayer funds and public anxiety.
Looking at the facts, one can easily see the virtual zero return on investment gained by having severe thunderstorm warnings. Their cost, prominence and given priority are indefensible. So why do we still have them, and how did we get them in the first place? That answer, I believe, is related to the issue to tackle next:
Personal fascination versus public service motivations
It's no surprise that the vocation and/or avocation of many is probably closely tied to their own personal, selfish interests. That's usually not a bad thing. The Wright Brothers, Einstein and Newton probably wouldn't have accomplished what they did unless they had a pre-existing fascination with their subjects, and derived some enjoyment in carrying out related ambitions. But there is a line that is easily crossed with such a phenomenon, when one allows their fascination to become purely self-satisfying with 'blinders' on toward any productive outside benefit to society or to others. It's a tendency of human nature that all of us have to keep in check.
We see this played out when Facebook, Twitter and blog feeds light up with dire warnings for the public to "pay attention to the weather today" when the SPC issues a 5 percent or greater tornado risk, when those feeds are eerily quiet during flash flood watches/warnings, excessive heat warnings, freezing rain advisories, or any type of road icing condition. Again, the data is there for all of us to see: severe thunderstorms and even tornadoes are a negligible risk in the everyday lives of the general public, particularly in comparison to other weather and non-weather hazards. So why the descrepancy between what gets the PR and what actually causes more deaths, injuries and property damage? The answer is simple: nearly all instances of severe weather "awareness" or "research" are the result of the collective members getting involved in an activity because they have a pre-existing fascination with it, rather than for the actual public safety value. The public safety claim is one that is added later as attempts to noblize the activity and justify sometimes unreasonable obsessions and expenditures. The existence of severe thunderstorm warnings and awareness efforts are a glaring example of this.
Interestingly, while I was still doing final edits and proofreading of this article, St. Louis experienced a light freezing rain event on Wednesday morning, February 23. The event was very evident beforehand, with moderate rain showers moving across Missouri toward subfreezing surface temperatures in the St. Louis area. However, no advisories or warnings were issued, no MO/IL DOT information sources activated and no media reported the hazard - that is, until the event was well under way with dozens of accidents, including a 31-car, 21-injury pileup in downtown St. Louis. When was the last time a severe thunderstorm event in the city had that kind of widespread impact in terms of property damage and injuries? So why did this event get ignored by everyone - professional meteorologists, media and the public? The answer, again, is simple: road icing isn't that fascinating to anyone, and consequently no one cares enough to pay attention to it. It's not even that interesting to me, but after seeing what it does on a regular basis, it is hard for me to ignore it while continuing to hype severe storms.
Another scary-looking but benign severe thunderstorm near Carthage, MO in March of 2010
We need proportional (or at least equal) treatment for all weather hazards
I'm not being too critical of severe weather awareness efforts here, and I don't think they should be entirely discontinued. I'm calling out the motivations behind them and appealing for 'equal treatment' for other hazards. I think it's perfectly OK to get involved in research and education efforts in a subject matter you love. But these efforts cross the line when they are billed as being motivated by saving lives and educating the public, while not accompanied by equal efforts toward the more dangerous weather hazards. It's entirely possible that the 'tunnel vision' on severe storms may cause more harm than good, by reinforcing the population's miscategorization of perceived versus actual threats. After all, when social media and television lights up for a tornado/severe storm risk but stays quiet for a light icing event, which one will non-weather-savvy people naturally conclude is more important? I believe issues like this are a fundamental problem in the social aspect of weather warnings, and thankfully we have the WAS*IS organization to start addressing these concerns.
Awareness efforts, research and forecasting for hazards like road icing, flooding and heat are the 'dirty work' of meteorology - lacking in the fun and glamour, but more likely to actually make a difference in public safety.
The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:
So many good points here. What can a minimally severe thunderstorm really do to anyone? Worst-case scenario is somebody loses a shingle or two. I completely agree: use SVRs only for what the SPC now calls "significant severe" weather, SWSs for marginally "severe" storms, and absolutely nothing for any event below the current "severe" criteria. Obviously tornado warnings have to stay, but there should be some distinction between radar-indicated and confirmed tornadoes. - Posted by Andy from Oklahoma
Thanks Andy, it will be interesting to see what the future holds as the WAS*IS movement uncovers ways the NWS can better connect with the public regarding the various hazards. The next 5 years will hopefully see some changes! - Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL