Recently an RVWeather member told me he was interested in learning about weather strategies when traveling, and how to avoid and reroute around severe storms.
… I want to ask for you for any recommendations/advice on weather apps/strategies for traveling. We have a pretty significant [RV] trip coming up mid-June… It would be nice to see if there is some way to monitor severe storms while underway and reroute if needed.L.T.
As we continue severe weather season and watch the Atlantic hurricane season come to life, now is a great time to review what being “weather aware” really means — and how can you stay “weather-aware” on the road.
In this blog I’ll cover:
- Why I rely on the National Weather Service for weather warnings
- The “Ready -Set – Go” concept
- How to get the information you need
- What the future may hold
Where do Warnings Come From?
The National Weather Service, from its origins in the U.S. Army Signal Corps over 150 years ago, and as a civilian agency for over 130 years, has the legal mandate to provide weather forecasts for the protection of life and property, as well as for economic benefit. They provide a high-quality, consistent level of service throughout the United States. (In Canada, Environment Canada has a similar mission.) The service is free (the National Weather Service and its supporting components cost every American about $10 /year in taxes), and the products are distributed via many different channels. When high impact or severe weather threatens, virtually all TV and responsible, mainstream weather companies use the Weather Service warnings to inform the public of the pending danger.
Like any government bureaucracy, the lexicon can sometimes be obtuse, the systems complex, the terminology not always 100% consistent, and its internal structure not clear or obvious to the public. For our purposes though we only need to know a few terms that will take us a long ways to being “weather aware”.
There are four key terms the Weather Service use everyday and two terms that are rarely used but important. The common terms are:
- Warning: A Warning is issued when “a hazardous weather event is occurring, imminent or likely. A warning means weather conditions pose a threat to life or property.”
- Watch: A Watch is issued when “the risk of a hazardous weather event has increased significantly, but its occurrence, location or timing is still uncertain. It is intended to provide enough lead time so those who need to set their plans in motion can do so. A watch means that hazardous weather is possible.”
- Advisory: “Advisories are for less serious conditions than warnings, that cause significant inconvenience and if caution is not exercised, could lead to situations that may threaten life or property.” Just note the National Hurricane Center labels their six-hourly hurricane forecast updates “advisories” whether the storm is in the middle of the ocean or making imminent landfall.
- Outlook: Surprisingly, there is no single definition used by the National Weather Service. A good way to think about a weather service ‘outlook’ though is a forecast, potentially for several days into the future, that concentrates on a type of hazardous weather, be it severe thunderstorms, flash flooding, winter weather or unusual heat or cold.
Two terms that are not used that often but are most important to know are:
- Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS): PDS Watches are issued “for rare situations when long-lived intense tornadoes are likely. This enhanced wording may also accompany Severe Thunderstorm Watches for widespread significant severe events, usually produced by exceptionally intense derechos.”
- Emergency: Rarely used, the term ‘Emergency’ used in ‘Tornado Emergency’ and ‘Flash Flood Emergency’, are not new warnings per se, but enhancements of existing warnings to notify population areas that highly destructive weather (i.e., a large tornado, severe flash flooding) that could cause significant loss of life is imminent. If you hear the word ‘Emergency’ as part of a Warning, this is the Weather Service’s way of saying “please, please, please, pay attention, because otherwise this extreme weather event might kill you.”
Ready – Get Set – Go
You’ve likely heard this construct before; it’s been used by emergency managers for some time, especially when dealing with wildfires. While not a perfect match, the National Weather Service Outlooks, Watches and Warnings correspond reasonably well to ‘Ready’, ‘Set’, and ‘Go’, respectively. Where it gets a bit messy is when Advisories are issued with no preceding Watch; conversely the progression may be ‘Outlook –> Watch –> Advisory’. Think of ‘Advisory’ as ‘Go’ (still), but while the phenomena will likely get your attention (as anyone who has towed in a couple inches of snow or hauled their RV across Nebraska in 45 mph cross-winds), take some satisfaction that “it could be worse”.
For severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, your go-to source of “Ready” and “Set” information is the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center (SPC). The SPC issues outlooks on a scale of 1-5 (‘marginal’, ‘slight’, ‘enhanced’, ‘moderate’, and ‘high’. Don’t pay a huge amount of attention to these words. Rather know that if the outlook is ‘2’ (slight) or higher, someone, somewhere will likely see a severe thunderstorm or tornado. Also know that the level ‘4’ and ‘5’ outlooks are pretty rare … think of them as the SPC banging the “big and severe storms are coming!!” drum. I would think seriously about avoiding towing or traveling through a level ‘4’ or ‘5’ area if that is feasible.
The “Get Set” weather information is a ‘Watch’, as defined above. Much more specific than an outlook it has a specific geographic location, a specific time, and the type of hazard most likely to be encountered. It does NOT mean there is imminent danger, but it is the way the NWS and SPC tell the public “Watch out!!”. You can treat tropical storm, storm surge, and hurricane watches, winter storm watches, high wind watches and flash flood watches in the same way: Know there’s a reasonable chance that significant weather is heading your way!
“Go!” This is the warning (or advisory for winds, winter weather, or fog). The weather phenomena is either occurring or imminent with a very high probability of occurrence. At this point, depending on the exact type of weather, you need to avoid (go faster, slower, or go around the bad weather), seek shelter, or power through it.
There are some types of weather (e.g., hurricanes and storm surge, blizzards, floods) where, if you have not taken action to avoid in the “Ready” or “Set” stages, may be difficult to avoid now – and worse case, your RV or even life could be in danger. The actions you will take will depend on the type of weather you are encountering, but RV’s are NOT safe havens from flooding streams and rivers, hurricane-force winds, or very high winds in severe thunderstorms. RV’s are an exceptionally dangerous place to be in a tornado – and you put your life at significant risk.
Clearly, to avoid some types of hazardous weather, particularly weather that impacts a significant geographic area, you need to take action (as described above) before the “go” stage. Particularly in hurricane evacuations, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of other people may be getting the same idea as you at about the same time, with predictable consequences for road congestion. In general, if you have the time and flexibility, it’s better to go early and accept that in a few cases, the weather may not have been as bad as you first thought, rather than waiting and getting caught in the huge exodus, when fuel, shelter, and patience are all in short supply.
There are a couple of ‘sneaky’ (my word, not the NWS!) advisories that are particularly important if you are on the road. ‘Dense fog advisories’ can mean zero visibility. Towing in very low or near zero visibility is incredibly stressful for me and I will avoid that if at all possible. However, the Weather Service does not have a ‘warning’ for fog or low visibility — just an advisory.
The other advisories I pay particular attention to are ‘wind’ and ‘winter weather’. The NWS usually does not issue a High Wind Warning until they expect gusts to reach 60 mph (or higher). But, as anyone who has towed through winds gusting 40-55 mph knows, it can be a ‘challenging’ tow, depending on your specific hitch setup and relative weight distribution. Same for ‘Winter Weather Advisories.’ Even an inch or two of snow on the road, particularly when temperatures are right around freezing, may give you a much more exciting trip than you had planned on.
Where can I get the needed information?
I always recommend having multiple (two or even three) ways of obtaining credible weather information. One of those methods should be a NOAA weather radio. Personally I have a couple of Midland Portable Weather Radios (model HH50). I keep one in the truck and one in the Airstream. They’re about $20 each, use three ‘AAA’ batteries, and have an ‘alert’ function to tell you about an NWS Warning. Importantly, this radio automatically seeks out the strongest (almost always the closest) NOAA Weather Radio Transmitter so you get information relevant to your location as you are traveling around the country. [I have no affiliation with, or links to, Midland – I just use their radio].
Other good sources of weather information are the National Weather Service website, the major commercial providers (e.g., Weather Underground, The Weather Channel, DarkSky, AccuWeather, etc) and especially local TV or a news Radio if you have reception. Most TV stations will break into their regular coverage to alert viewer on dangerous weather. Many will also run a ‘crawler’ on the screen to inform you about significant watches or warnings in your viewing area.
Each method has its pros and cons. NOAA Weather Radio often refers to locations by County. Great if you live in the area but more challenging if you do not know the detailed local geography. Websites and apps assume an internet connection. Be careful with weather apps when you are traveling on the road. Even if you have the “location always on” option toggled on, many times the apps will ‘think’ you are in a location that is different from where you really are. On our round-the-country RV trip a couple of years ago, I was still getting thunderstorm warnings for Illinois — when I was physically in Wyoming! Digging into the “whys” becomes technical very quickly — suffice to say, don’t rely on any weather app for real-time warnings unless you are 100% confident it is using your correct location.
For many reasons (the details of which could be its own blog!) the NWS does not have its own dedicated weather app. However, there is a little-known app “National WX” that (at least for Apple/iOS systems), with no drama, provides the official NWS forecast for any given point in the lower 48 states.
My website (if you have internet access) will get you the needed information to keep you safe. In addition to the Daily Forecasts, there is a section for NWS Outlooks (the “Ready” part of the equation). The Watches and Warnings section covers the “Get Set” and “Go” portions of warning and notification.
Currently, the warnings do not ‘push’ to your phone/computer or know your current (and real) location. As mentioned above, it turns out making mobile phones 100% reliable for weather-related location data is harder than you would think (certainly harder than I thought it would be). But if you check the website and know the outlook, you can keep yourself informed and safe.
I am working with another innovative small weather company to provide RV’ers a more reliable method to receive critical weather warnings NO MATTER WHERE YOU ARE — in a campground or heading down I-40. Think of this service as an analog to your Tire Pressure Monitoring System: most of the time it’s just ‘there’, but when you really need it, you really need it to work!
We envision the service to account for the speed and direction of travel, and to give you alerts if you are driving into an active warning area. Conversely, we will not give you false alarms if your route keeps you out of the warning polygon. We are integrating proven tracking and warning technology. Please stay tuned for more details as we can release them!