The National Weather Service is Simplifying Winter Watches, Advisories and Warnings; Here's What That Means

Jonathan Erdman
Published: October 2, 2017


The National Weather Service has pared down its long-standing collection of winter advisories, watches and warnings in an effort to simplify communication of hazardous snow and ice events.

(MORE: When is Your Average First Snow of the Season?)

 The NWS Hazard Simplification initiative, launched Monday, eliminated five previous watches, advisories and warnings and incorporated them in the existing winter storm watch, winter weather advisory and winter storm warning.

Among those eliminated were lake-effect snow watches, advisories and warnings (in some offices), as well as blizzard watches and freezing rain advisories.

Changes to NWS winter weather alerts implemented on October 2, 2017. The five watches, advisories, and warnings listed on the left side of the graphic were eliminated and incorporated into the existing winter alerts on the right side of the graphic in most offices.
(NOAA/NWS)

The potential of heavy lake-effect snow, sleet or freezing rain will now be highlighted within a winter storm watch. When heavy lake-effect snow is imminent, that will now be covered by a winter storm warning in most offices.

However, NWS Eastern Region forecast offices, including those covering the eastern Great Lakes snowbelts from Ohio to New York state will still issue lake-effect snow warnings.

Blizzard and ice storm warnings will continue to be issued by all offices.

"We wanted to preserve the ice storm warning and blizzard warning due to their disruptive and damaging potential to infrastructure, in the case of ice, and the threat to life, especially when traveling, from a blizzard," said Chad Omitt, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Topeka, Kansas.

More nuisance lake effect snow, freezing rain and sleet events will now be covered by winter weather advisories. 

This cuts the number of NWS winter precipitation alerts in most areas in half from 10 to 5.

Weather impacts that may be included in the various NWS winter weather alerts as of the October 2, 2017, winter hazard simplification implementation.

"Simpler is better," said Tom Niziol, winter weather expert for The Weather Channel. "Effective communication is as important as any forecast."

The NWS will also reformat the text of winter weather alerts using bullet statements to more clearly highlight:

  • What adverse winter weather is forecast
  • Where those conditions are expected
  • When those conditions are expected

These changes were based on feedback solicited from the public and the meteorology community, and supported by research and feedback from social scientists. 

"Analyses from these efforts indicate that users are sometimes confused by the large number of individual hazard messages or 'hazard products' NWS currently issues, wrote Eli Jacks, the chief of the NWS Forecast Services Division, in an NWS service change notice in early September.

"The winter changes are one step in a process to make the watch warning advisory system more effective," said Dr. Gina Eosco, social scientist and risk communication expert at Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs.

Eosco says it's important to keep in mind the technological changes we've seen since the NWS first began issuing watches and warnings.

"No one ever intended six different winter alerts to show up on a TV screen or website. These technological advances now force us to reevaluate how we communicate NWS warnings."

These changes to winter alerts are just one step in the overall Hazard Simplification initiative. The NWS is also looking to revamp flood, marine, wind and excessive heat in the future. 

A sample winter weather alert appearing on The Weather Channel app. Warnings appear with a red banner atop your local forecast. Watches or advisories appear with an orange banner.

    How to Find These Alerts

    You may have heard a winter storm warning has been issued, but may also wonder how to actually read this National Weather Service alert.

    One way to do so is on The Weather Channel app or weather.com homepage. 

    If there is a winter watch, advisory or warning for your area, you should see it pop up in a colored banner when you open the app, or atop your local page on weather.com.

    Simply tap or click on the banner to read the text of the NWS alert.

    You can also set up The Weather Channel app to alert you when your local NWS office issues an alert. 

    To do that:

    • Tap the gear icon in the upper left corner after opening the app.
    • Tap My Alerts.
    • Tap Government Issued Alerts.
    • Make sure Enable is turned on.

    Jonathan Erdman is a senior meteorologist at weather.com and has been an incurable weather geek since a tornado narrowly missed his childhood home in Wisconsin at age 7. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter


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