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Watch vs. advisory vs. warning

Jan 17, 2013 - By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- Ever hit a mental whiteout pondering the difference between a winter storm watch and winter weather advisory?

The National Weather Service is looking at the idea that less is more when it comes to such jargon.

This winter, the federal forecasting agency is trying out simple, descriptive language to possibly replace its 14 watches, advisories and warnings for wintry weather -- from ice storms to blizzards, wind chill to lake-effect snow.

Recent example: Alongside a winter storm watch for northeast Wyoming, the Weather Service released a possible substitute statement: "The National Weather Service in Rapid City (S.D.) is forecasting the potential for a significant winter storm."

"The purpose of this project is to use language that is self-evident, that everybody would immediately understand," said Eli Jacks, the forecaster leading the experiment.

The experiment began in December and runs through March 31 at 26 Weather Service offices covering Alaska, Oregon, the northern Great Plains, Michigan, New England, Appalachia and Oklahoma. A separate website for the project avoids confusing people who just want to look up the forecast.

The clear-and-simple approach could be carried over to heat waves, flooding, dangerous wind and other conditions, but that will depend on what the public has to say.

Reaction so far has been partly cloudy. Many people don't want to give up familiar terms that have been around for generations, Jacks said.

"But then other people say, 'Well you know what, I've always been confused by 'watch' and 'warning' because they both start with 'wa.' Or, 'I've never quite known what an advisory means,'" he said.

Jackson said he's thought about the problem for years and got to work on changes about two years ago. Hear, hear, said one Cheyenne-area man as he waited for his flight to California at the city's tiny airport.

"It is confusing. What is the difference between a warning and a watch? To just have it spelled out in plain English would be handy," Roger Longstreet said.

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