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Tornado Forecasting: Is Longer Really Better?

Imagine you had just 13 minutes to prepare for the possibility of a tornado touching down where you live. When it comes to the complexities involved in tornado forecasting, the truth is that this timeline may be the best-case scenario in terms of lead time. However, even as scientists continue to push the boundaries of knowledge and technology in order to improve tornado forecasting, others worry that doing so risks losing sight of the main message. Let’s take a closer look at the current research, along with why more time may not translate to decisions that save lives.


Meteorologists use a combination of current weather conditions and forecast models to predict severe weather. While these computer programs have some value, they rely on one critical factor: That notoriously unpredictable weather will actually behave the way we want it to. Sophisticated new forecasting technology also helps meteorologists understand just how likely the weather is to conform to expectations, as well as to understand the full range of possible weather conditions.

While today’s average lead time of 13 minutes may not sound like much, it’s vastly longer than the less-than-five minutes of just decades ago. But is adding more time the most life-saving solution? Some experts say, “No.”


The concern of University Corporation for Atmospheric Research meteorologist and behavioral scientist Kim Klockow, rather than giving people more time to prepare for impending storms, history shows that additional lead time may trigger poor decision-making. For example, rather than shoring up their homes and putting disaster plans in place, many people instead succumb to the urge to flee—in itself a dangerous prospect when multiplied across millions of people doing the same thing.

Says Klockow, “Some of the gaps [that lead to this poor decision] include people not knowing how safe their homes really are. People see the destruction and they don’t know that 99 per cent of people survive in well-built home, even in the worst tornadoes. If you’re trapped in a car, even a small tornado could kill you.”

So what’s the alternative to more time? More information. Understanding the value of planning and preparation is the first step. Also of equal importance? Better communication practices.

Ultimately, knowing that a storm is coming is only one small part of the picture. Having a plan in place to weather that storm is equally vital, and yet can be dangerously overlooked in the push for more time.


Luckily, there are things every organization can do right now to save lives in the event of an extreme weather event—whether with five days or five seconds of lead time.

Long before a tornado watch or warning becomes imminent, devise communication strategies aimed at making sure people get the essential information they need when they need it. This means taking into considering not only the different channels through which people communicate in our omni-channel world, but also differences among individuals themselves. In other words, it’s more than a mere matter of conveying information, but also in conveying it through the most productive means.

Think of it this way: While tornado sirens don’t tell you what to do in an emergency, timely, pre-recorded, optimally delivered emergency notification systems can and do. Rather than helplessly wondering when a tornado or other weather-related emergency will occur, visit Send Word Now to learn more about how to ensure optimal decision-making among your constituents when disaster strikes.