The agency is working with social scientists to determine how to best scare people into acting rationally.
Maybe you've heard—it's going to snow, a lot. And it's a very good thing that you've heard we're about to get walloped, because that means the National Weather Service's warning system is working.
Most media reports are saying that the blizzard coming to the East Coast is something to be worried about, and rightly so. But Twitter is full of people saying that "it's just snow," midwesterners calling the East Coast a bunch of sissies, and conspiracy theorists claiming the media is just hyping this for ratings (a not-great article at Salon in 2010 dismissed a much-hyped storm that actually turned out to be pretty devastating: "It's snow. Not locusts or frogs").
But it's not just snow, and It's OK to be scared, and it's OK to hype the storm, and it's OK to not be brave and take off work early and head home.
"The way I put it is, it's not what the weather is going to be, it's what the weather is going to do," Eli Jacks, chief of the National Weather Service's Fire and Public Weather Services branch, told me. "A one to two inch snowfall on a Sunday night is one level of impact. If it falls at five or six o'clock on a Monday morning and it's below freezing, that's a different situation altogether."
"It's important the public perceives this as being dangerous"
That's what happened in Washington, DC a few weeks ago, and schools decided not to close. The snow melted, refroze, and traffic was a complete mess, with many accidents. Underhyped snowfall causes problems around the country, regularly—see what happened in Atlanta last year. Tonight's storm is not going to be one to two inches of snowfall. It has the potential to be a truly historic event.
"We have an unusual situation. We want people to notice and take action, because this is life threatening if you're out there," he said.
"The people saying 'oh, it's just snow,' that is an issue," he added. "The rare event of this blizzard—and this is a rare event—the average person doesn't always know how to interpret the warnings and think it's like some of our other ones."
Jacks's branch is responsible for the wording of winter storm watches (the least concerning type of alert), advisories, and warnings. Today, we have a blizzard warning, which is one of the most dire warnings, and it's not put out lightly. Jacks says a lot of thought gets put into what each of these official releases is going to say.
Stay the hell inside
"Toward the end of each of these messages, we have a call to action, which gets progressively more urgent as you go from watch to warning. You'll see 'use caution,' 'only travel if it's absolutely necessary,'" he said. "Today is a different animal. We want people to take notice and take action. In this one, we tell people that all unnecessary travel is discouraged, and that if you do go out, you might become lost or disoriented."
In a case like this, Jacks says it's better safe than sorry. Overhyping this potential storm and having it underwhelm is less of a risk than not adequately warning people to stay inside and dealing with the traffic nightmares and potential strandings that could occur.
"We have all of our messaging tools out today," he said. "It's almost less important that we actually get the call perfectly right than the public responds to it and perceives it as being dangerous."
If it snows eight inches tonight instead of the up to two feet some models are calling for, chances are people won't be overly furious at the media and the NWS—eight inches of snow is still a lot to deal with.
Getting the messaging right is so important that the NWS is consulting with social scientists and risk communication experts to revise how it issues warnings so that people pay attention to them. When the coverage and the messaging is so uniformly alarming, as it is today, it's not that much of an issue. But those warnings issued for a few inches of snow is where the agency is trying to improve.
"The question is, how can we improve our messaging so people take the desired action?" he said. "People may see warnings and interpret them in one way, and then it doesn't happen, and then we have a false alarm issue, which is something that we're looking at. We're working on better targeting our messaging so that we're reserving dire warnings for when they're really going to occur."
Tonight is one of those times that the agency is pulling out all of the stops. So stay the hell inside.