Little did I know when I wrote Warnings that false alarms would play a role in the worst tornado disaster in six decades -- Joplin. I cover the role of false alarms and "siren fatigue" in When the Sirens Were Silent.
Yesterday, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang posted a provocative discussion on the topic of false tornado alarms in the MD-DC area Friday.
I was watching those storms and tweeting about them. In this case, I have considerable empathy for the NWS office in Sterling. There were several storms with nice hook echoes and rotation that I would have warned on that did not produce tornadoes. Even after the fact, we cannot explain why.
There are two types of false alarms when it comes to tornadoes:
- Unavoidable false alarms, like Friday's, occur when Mother Nature creates a situation where a tornado seems very likely but doesn't occur. Our science, as yet, can't explain these.
- Unnecessary false alarms such as intentionally activating warning sirens in areas not included in a warning because of "policy" or other reasons.
I would like to see efforts made by the research community to allow us to better differentiate imposters from genuine tornado-producing thunderstorms.
And, I recommend that emergency managers stop sounding sirens in areas that are not included in storm warnings.