How Will More Extreme Weather Affect Public Perception of Warnings?

A telephone pole leans after damage from a storm.

Many climate scientists are predicting that we’ll see more extreme weather events in the future. As USA Today put it recently, “ …this is only the beginning of what will be decades of increasingly dangerous and damaging extreme weather…”  Last week’s huge run of tornadoes seems to fit into that pattern, even if most experts caution about attributing specific events to broader climate trends. 

Which got us wondering how the headlines about extreme weather affect the public’s perception of emergency alerts about the weather. So we went back into the research to see what it says.

As in most social science research, the data is a little murky. But this point stood out to us: people in the Southeast – where tornadoes have the deadliest effect – tend to take tornado warnings more seriously than folks who live where tornadoes are less frequent. 

And another point that was really interesting: most tornado warnings – one source said 75% – are false alarms. Which means that those same folks in the Southeast are both getting false alarms and taking them seriously, regardless. 

And that makes sense to us. While there might be lots of false alarms, there are also many actual tornadoes that cause great destruction: destruction that shows up on the local news. And every time an area gets hit with a disaster, it increases interest in being prepared for “the next time.”

We’ve seen the same thing happen in areas with big wildfires. Some of the biggest spikes in registration for emergency alerts happen exactly when there’s front page evidence that the information in alerts might actually be useful. 

So we’re going to go out on a limb and make this prediction: as extreme weather events of any nature – tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, etc. – become more frequent, the public’s interest in emergency alerts is going to increase.

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