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4 Reliable Ways to Get Severe Weather Warnings—and 1 Unreliable One

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Tornado season ramps up this month. Seconds count when your life is on the line. Your ability to quickly react to a dangerous situation is critical. Knowing how and when to act is especially important when severe weather bears down on your home or office. Warnings from meteorologists are the best way you can keep yourself safe from dangerous weather. If you wait until you can hear the wind or see the water rising, it’s probably too late to get to safety. Having a decent amount of lead time to get you and your family to a safe place can save your life, and it’s possible if you know how to get the alerts as fast as possible.

1. YOUR CELL PHONE CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE.

Most modern smartphones are equipped with a nifty feature known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). If you own one, you’ve likely been startled by the abrupt, screeching tone that suddenly emanates from your device.

These alerts are targeted to you based on the nearest cell phone tower to your location. This enables you to receive alerts only for hazards that are expected to affect you and not some town 30 miles away. The WEA can be activated for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, flash floods, and other local emergencies like dust storms, hazmat situations, and even AMBER Alerts.

However, these alerts only help if you don’t shut them off. Lots of people wind up disabling their phone’s emergency alerts after the first unwanted interruption. That’s not a good idea. The alerts are proven life-savers. Just recently, eight people in southern Georgia sought shelter after their cell phones alerted them to an approaching tornado. The storm destroyed the home, yet everyone inside survived.

Wireless Emergency Alerts are enabled by default on iOS and Android devices. You can check your settings on an iOS device by opening your Settings app and looking under the “notifications” option. If you have an Android device, look for the “emergency alerts” option in the settings of your phone’s default text messaging app.

2. SPRING FOR A WEATHER RADIO.

It’s always good to have a reliable backup in case severe weather alerts don’t come through on your cell phone. Investing in a NOAA Weather Radio is a smart way to keep you and your family safe when bad weather strikes. Modern weather radios allow you to program your county’s unique six-digit code into the device so it can sound a loud alarm when a watch or warning is issued for your county. Some higher-end devices even allow you to select which alerts you’d like to receive and which you’d rather ignore.

NOAA Weather Radios aren’t foolproof—during the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak, early morning storms knocked out multiple weather radio transmitters before an astonishing 363 tornadoes tore through later that afternoon—but it’s an excellent backup to ensure that you receive an alert if your television goes out or your cell phone doesn’t work.

3. WATCH THE TV NEWS.

Getting your news from the television may seem outdated in the age of the internet, but your local television news stations are a great resource for detailed weather information. Most local stations go wall-to-wall with coverage when there are severe thunderstorms or tornadoes in their coverage area, and a trained meteorologist will track the storm with Doppler radar, showing the worst of the storm as it moves from neighborhood to neighborhood. Television is prone to outages and interruptions, but it’s always helpful to listen to a calm voice guiding you through a bad storm.

4. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, FM RADIO STILL EXISTS!

If you’re in your car, you can usually switch on the radio and search for a station broadcasting live weather information. When a particularly dangerous tornado outbreak is in progress, many radio stations—especially in tornado alley—will preempt programming and switch over to a live audio feed from a local television station’s coverage of the storms.

5. TORNADO SIRENS ARE AN UNRELIABLE RELIC OF THE PAST.

One of the first ways entire communities were alerted to an approaching tornado was the use of tornado sirens. These loud outdoor alerting systems were designed to tell people who were outdoors to seek shelter inside before the storm arrived. Despite widespread belief in their effectiveness and continued use in rural areas, tornado sirens are an unreliable way to receive warnings. The sirens are not designed to be heard indoors, and variables likes wind direction, power outages, and equipment failures can render them useless. Don’t rely on tornado sirens for your warnings. Stick with modern technology to keep you safe.

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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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