Do you know the difference between a severe weather watch and a warning?

Courtesy: James Montanus. Lightning over Lake Ontario, March 2021.

This week is Severe Weather Awareness Week in New York. The collaboration between the National Weather Service and the New York State Office of Emergency Management is designed to help you understand the actual meaning of common severe weather alerts.

Think about it. These alerts happen all the time. We move about our day and maybe we’re only half paying attention to the weather. We may have a vague idea that something may happen as the sky starts to darken or the rain begins to fall, but until that phone or device delivers that alert, we may be unsure as to what the appropriate reaction should be to approaching weather.

Then the phone or device sends an alert. It may be a watch, or a warning, or an advisory, or even in some situations, an emergency.

Did you ever stop and wonder the meaning behind the terms and the severity of the alert? Is an emergency as bad as a warning? What exactly is the difference between a watch, a warning, and an advisory? What should the reaction be when one of these three is issued? Does the alert sent require an immediate reaction, or should the reaction be more cautionary and not as swift? Is my property in danger? Is my LIFE in danger?

Let’s start with a little background about how severe weather warnings got their start.

Some history….

First of all, all official watches, warnings, advisories, and emergencies are issued by your local National Weather Service office. But that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, there was a time where it was considered “taboo” for the National Weather Service (formerly the U.S. Weather Bureau, and U.S. Signal Service) to issue tornado or severe thunderstorm warnings.

In 1884, John Park Finley of the U.S. Army Signal Corps proposed an experimental tornado forecasting system. The system was flawed, and after scandals and questionable forecasts, the system was abandoned in 1887. After the U.S. Weather Bureau formed in 1891, it established regulations prohibiting its staff from forecasting tornadoes. For the next 60 years, not much changed.

That is, until 1948, when on March 25, two Air Force meteorologists at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma informed their commanding officer that they believed thunderstorms capable of producing a tornado could develop that afternoon. The two were involved in some experimental thunderstorm forecasting because of an unforeseen tornado that struck their base just five days prior!

Courtesy of NOAA Photo Library

It turned out…that they were right. The photo above shows the extensive damage to a large Air Force carrier at Tinker AFB. It was this storm that resulted in the first broadcasted tornado warning by the U.S. Weather Bureau.


The above meme from a meteorological discussion board says it all!

If the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz was the Tornado Warning, you take action immediately to save life and property. A tornado is imminent, or already occurring. Take shelter right away, preferably as low to the ground as possible, and in an interior room away from windows. Seek further information, and check forecast updates.

If ever there were a tornado emergency issued, it means that significant, widespread damage is expected to occur and a high likelihood of numerous fatalities is expected with a large, strong to violent tornado. This kind of situation would be extremely rare for our area.

In the situation of a Tornado Watch, check forecast updates, monitor sky conditions, and know where you may need to take shelter in case a warning is issued. It’s a time to be vigilant, and know that conditions are favorable for a tornado to form.

The same idea applies to a severe thunderstorm alert. By definition, a severe thunderstorm contains any one of the following: 58 mph wind gusts, 1″ diameter hail, or a tornado.

A severe thunderstorm watch means that conditions are favorable for severe thunderstorms over a period of several hours. A severe thunderstorm warning means that severe thunderstorms are imminent or that they are occurring.

The same applies to flash flood alerts. A flash flood warning means you need to seek higher ground immediately.


Staying “weather aware” is important every day but particularly on days where severe weather is a possibility.

Count on News 8 for the latest severe weather updates from the latest weather alerts to the most up to date forecast. Download the News 8 app here!

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