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

Brian Davidson/Getty Images
Brian Davidson/Getty Images

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.

12 Powerful Facts About Hurricanes

iStock/shaunl
iStock/shaunl

Hurricanes are a stunning, and dangerous, display of nature’s power. They’re some of the largest and most intense storms nature can produce. Today, we know more about these systems and have an easier time measuring and predicting them than ever before. There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to hurricanes. As the 2019 hurricane season kicks off (it runs from June 1st through November 30th), here are some things you might not know about these dangerous storms.

1. Hurricanes are only "hurricanes" around North America.

A tropical cyclone is a compact, low-pressure system fueled by thunderstorms that draw energy from the heat generated by warm ocean waters. These tropical cyclones acquire different names depending on how strong they are and where in the world they form. A mature tropical cyclone is called a hurricane in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific Oceans. What’s known as a hurricane in the Atlantic is called a typhoon near Asia and simply a cyclone everywhere else in the world.

2. Hurricanes come in all shapes and sizes.

Not all hurricanes are picture-perfect. Some storms can look so disorganized that it takes an expert eye and advanced technology to spot them. A full-fledged hurricane can be as small as a few dozen miles across or as large as one-half of the United States, as was the case with Typhoon Tip in the western Pacific Ocean in 1979. The smallest tropical cyclone on record was 2008’s Tropical Storm Marco, a tiny storm in the Gulf of Mexico that almost made it to hurricane strength. Marco’s strong winds only extended 12 miles from the eye of the storm—a distance smaller than the length of Manhattan.

3. The greatest danger in a hurricane is in the eyewall.

The spiraling bands of wind and rain that radiate from the center of a hurricane are what give these storms their distinctive buzzsaw shape. These bands can cause damage, flooding, and even tornadoes, but the worst part of a hurricane is the eyewall, or the tight group of thunderstorms that rage around the center of the storm. The most severe winds in a hurricane usually occupy a small part of the eyewall just to the right of the storm’s forward motion, an area known as the right-front quadrant. The worst damage is usually found where this part of the storm comes ashore.

4. The eye of a hurricane is very warm.

The core of a hurricane is very warm—they are tropical, after all. The eye of a hurricane is formed by air rushing down from the upper levels of the atmosphere to fill the void left by the low air pressure at the surface. Air dries out and warms up as it rapidly descends through the eye toward the surface. This allows temperatures in the eye of a strong hurricane to exceed 80°F thousands of feet above the Earth's surface, where it’s typically much colder.

5. You can tell a lot about a hurricane by its eye.

Like humans, you can tell a lot about a hurricane by looking it in the eye. A ragged, asymmetrical eye means that the storm is struggling to strengthen. A smooth, round eye means that the storm is both stable and quite strong. A tiny eye—sometimes called a pinhole or pinpoint eye—is usually indicative of a very intense storm.

6. Some hurricanes have two eyes.

An eye doesn’t last forever. Storms frequently encounter a process known as an “eyewall replacement cycle,” which is where a storm develops a new eyewall to replace the old one. A storm weakens during one of these cycles, but it can quickly grow even more intense than it originally was once the replacement cycle is completed. When Hurricane Matthew scraped the Florida coast in October 2016, the storm’s impacts were slightly less severe because the storm underwent an eyewall replacement cycle just as it made its closest approach to land.

7. The strong winds that a hurricane creates are only part of the danger.

While strong winds get the most coverage on the news, wind isn’t always the most dangerous part of the storm. More than half of all deaths that result from a landfalling hurricane are due to the storm surge, or the sea water that gets pushed inland by a storm’s strong winds. Most storm surges are relatively small and only impact the immediate coast, but in a larger storm like Katrina or Sandy, the wind can push deep water so far inland that it completely submerges homes many miles from the coast.

8 California rarely sees tropical cyclones.

It can seem odd that California occupies hundreds of miles of coastline but always seems to evade the hurricane threat faced by the East Coast. California almost never sees tropical cyclones because the ocean is simply too cold to sustain a storm. Only a handful of tropical cyclones have ever reached California in recorded history—the worst hit San Diego in 1858. The San Diego Hurricane was an oddity that’s estimated to have reached category 1 intensity as it brushed the southern half of the Golden State.

9. Hurricane hunters fly planes into storms.

Aside from satellite and radar imagery, it’s pretty hard to know exactly what a hurricane is doing unless it passes directly over a buoy or a ship. This is where the Hurricane Hunters come in, a brave group of scientists with the United States Air Force and NOAA who fly specially outfitted airplanes directly into the worst of a storm to measure its winds and report back their findings. This practice began during World War II and has become a mainstay of hurricane forecasting in the decades since.

10. Hurricane hunters drop sensors to measure waves.

The Hurricane Hunters assess the storm with all sorts of tools that measure temperature, pressure, wind, and moisture, and have weather radar onboard to give them a detailed view of the entire storm. They regularly release dropsondes to "read" the inside of the storm. Dropsondes are like weather balloons in reverse: instead of launching weather sensors from the ground into the sky, they drop them down through the sky to the ground. The Hurricane Hunters also have innovative sensors that measure waves and sea foam and use the data to accurately estimate how strong the winds are at the surface.

11. We started naming storms to keep track of them.

Meteorologists in the United States officially started naming tropical storms and hurricanes in the 1950s to make it easier to keep track in forecasts and news reports. Since then, naming tropical cyclones has become a worldwide effort coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for maintaining meteorological standards. Today, the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Pacific Ocean each receive a list of alternating masculine and feminine names that are reused every six years.

12. Names are retired if the storm was especially destructive.

If a storm is particularly destructive or deadly, the WMO will “retire” the name from official lists so it’s never used again out of respect for the families of the storm’s victims and survivors. When a name is retired, another name starting with the same letter takes its place. More than 80 names have been retired from the Atlantic Ocean’s list of names since 1954. Earlier this year, it was announced that the names Florence and Michael were being retired as a result of the damage they caused during the 2018 hurricane season; they will be replaced with Francine and Milton when the list is reused in 2024.

This piece originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2019.

Denver is About to Experience Summer and Winter Temperatures Within 24 Hours

iStock.com/mphotoi
iStock.com/mphotoi

In a story tailor-made for exhaustive Weather Channel coverage, Denver, Colorado is about to experience one of the more bizarre weather shifts in recent memory. After an expected Tuesday high of 80°F, residents can anticipate a dramatic shift down to 32°F by midday Wednesday, with an initial half-inch of snow accumulation increasing to up to 7 inches by Wednesday night.

Put another way: Citizens who need to make sure they hydrate in the warm temperatures Tuesday will have to bring out the parkas the following day.

The Denver Post reports that the warm air coming ahead of the cold can result in a clash of air masses, prompting areas of low pressure that can create forceful and damaging weather conditions. The storm could bring winds of up to 60 miles per hour and possibly even cause power outages. Snow accumulation should dissipate by the weekend, when temperatures are expected to climb back into the 60s.

The high temperature record for April 9 in Denver is 81°F, set in 1977.

[h/t The Denver Post]

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