Is 'folk science' the X-factor that adds to tornado threats?

By John Roach, AccuWeather staff writer
March 14, 2019, 2:36:42 PM EDT

Alabama tornado

Tornado damage overwhelms the landscape near Lee County Road 38 in Beauregard, Ala., Monday, March 4, 2019, a day after tornadoes ravaged the area. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)

It’s logical to wonder, ‘What went wrong?’ in the aftermath of the recent tornadoes that hit parts of Alabama, Georgia and Florida and resulted in 23 deaths. It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in the U.S. since May 2013 when a massive tornado killed 24 people in Moore, Oklahoma.

Were people given enough advance warning? Did they heed the warnings? Did they have somewhere safe to go? If no is an answer to any of those questions, how can that be fixed?

But there is a factor affecting tornado risk and safety that’s unchecked by those basic, essential questions: human nature.

“I know I have to do ‘X,’ but until the moment arrives that I absolutely have to do ‘X’, it’s not the thing I’m focusing on,” said Susan Jasko, professor at California University of Pennsylvania, who has researched how people respond to disasters. “People are complicated.... We have trouble imagining the unimaginable.”

Josh Spivey lives in Auburn, Alabama, just a few miles from where an EF4 tornado that was a half a mile wide and packing 170 mph winds -- and possibly more, according to AccuWeather -- cut a path of devastation in Beauregard. On Sunday March 3rd, he heard “the sirens go off and that’s your cue to flip on the TV and see what’s going on, to get a human voice to tell you what to do.”

Spivey certainly wasn’t alone in checking the news, or in what he did next. He put on his forecaster’s hat.

"Half of the people in Alabama fancy themselves as a meteorologist because we see so much of it,” said Spivey. He was six miles away from where the most damaging tornado struck and, trusting the forecast and his experience, did not seek shelter.

Kim Klockow-McClain, a research scientist at the University of Oklahoma, has done extensive research on people’s thoughts and reactions to tornadoes, and Spivey’s response echoes her work. “The local knowledge people generated about their home place can shape how they perceive and react to tornado risk,” she and her team wrote for a chapter in a book titled, “Explorations in Place Attachment.”

She uses the term “folk science” to indicate beliefs about tornadoes people have that may “lead to the development of unfounded feelings of safety and security.” Folk science examples affecting tornado risk include beliefs in the protective powers of a waterway, a vulnerability created by a new highway, the protective nature of hills, and optimism bias, the simple feeling that it will happen “there” but not “here,” as she and her team noted in a GeoJournal article.

That can lead to residents of an area developing attitudes and perceptions that are at odds with existing scientific knowledge. “A few miles north, south, east or west does not look significant to a storm that can move hundreds of miles over its lifetime, guided primarily by strong winds of the upper atmosphere that have little regard for the features of the earth’s surface," the article noted.

“You have to understand why people believe what they believe and address that motivation,” Klockow-McClain told AccuWeather. “You have to speak to their interests.”

She contends that a greater understanding of peoples’ beliefs can lead to better communication about tornado risk. “The development of improved technology in forecasting has been going on for decades,” she said. “Thinking about how our audiences receive and respond to messaging about tornadoes is relatively new.”

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In order to save lives, branches of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) will issue public tornado watches and warnings, which are based on different criteria. Watches are issued by NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center while warnings are issued by local offices of the NWS.

A watch means people should be prepared; tornadoes are possible in and near the watch area, according to the NWS. A warning means people should “take action. A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. There is imminent danger to life and property.”

The weather industry partners with NWS to get its advanced warnings into the hands of the general public and businesses quickly as well as provides unique insights on the impacts of severe weather tailored for a particular business or industry, including highlighting the risk for severe weather and tornadoes days in advance to meet their specialized needs. Users of AccuWeather’s free app, for example, receiver NWS warnings immediately after they are issued.

For the destructive tornado in Beauregard, the NWS advised of “a tornado or two” a day and a half before it struck, with regular updates throughout Saturday and into Sunday. A watch was issued 2½ hours before it hit, with a tornado warning going out 23 minutes beforehand, and a tornado emergency declared 12 minutes in advance.

Beauregard strong

Students from Beauregard High School in Beauregard, Ala., post a sign in support of the victims of Sunday's deadly tornadoes on the school's fence Monday, March 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)

A 12-minute notice is considered good forecasting. But a number of things potentially affected people in the tornado’s path, including socioeconomic factors, optimism biases, the availability of safe shelter and complacency.

“When a warning is issued by the National Weather Service concerning life-threatening conditions, we put that alert front and center on our mobile app,” said AccuWeather founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers. “We put these alerts in the palm of our users’ hands with higher priority and faster than many other sources, but they have to pay attention to it.

“A warning is not to be messed with,” said Myers. “Sure, there is a good chance it may not hit you directly. It may be a couple of miles away, but the threat is only going to last a limited amount of time, usually a fraction of an hour. Whatever inconvenience it is going to cause is not worth the risk of losing your loved ones.”

Given human nature, the learned behavior from previous local events, and the other factors affecting peoples’ responses to tornado risk, what can be done moving forward?

“The challenge with mass communication is finding a message that resonates with each individual viewer,” wrote Gina Eosco, a social science consultant to NOAA, in an email to AccuWeather. “Is the individual at home? In a car? Outside? Do they know their safe place? Do they have enough time to reach their safe place? Forecasters should continue to express the weather risk and emphasize all the options for safety. Calm, but serious tones help convey that this storm is different and action is needed.”

“Communication is an exercise in mutuality – it involves learning about the knowledge and points of view of those with whom you are conversing,” Klockow-McClain and her team wrote in one study. “To be sure, if meteorologists are heard as they wish to be heard, they need to take some time to listen to – and understand – what the people ‘out there’ are seeing and hearing.”

Spivey and other amateur meteorologists like him are certainly paying attention on their end. "When it comes to tornadoes, from my experience, you learn to watch the radar ... so you can track what the tornado is doing. And that's what we did. It was tracking 6 to 7 miles away and that's what happened."

The AccuWeather Ready site includes educational weather news and videos, facts about the potential health impacts of different weather events, safety tips and resources, personalized weather preparedness plans, detailed checklists, and more. Users also can receive severe weather push notifications in the AccuWeather app on iOS and Android.

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