Severe weather season has arrived and people across the country are already experiencing extreme weather and the devastating consequences it leaves behind. The Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Oklahoma, working closely with the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has undertaken a five-year program to harness extreme weather forecasts and revolutionize the way we deliver information that saves lives and reduces property loss in the United States.
Joe Ripberger, Ph.D., deputy director for research and associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (IPPRA) and associate professor in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences, is leading a team seeking to empower people with information about extreme weather so that they can evaluate their options and make decisions that are best for themselves and their family.
“Even if meteorologists provide the best available forecasts, people have to make the decisions about what to do with that information,” Ripberger said. “We’re trying to ensure people get the severe weather information they need, understand what that information means and know how to protect themselves thanks to that information.”
The IPPRA program is also trying to understand how forecasters can better communicate important forecasting information. The researchers want to ensure that forecasts are both accurate and that residents in that area see value in the communication. If both criteria are met, the researchers call it a “good forecast.”
“We want to know that people can look at the forecasting information and make a reasonable decision based on that information,” Makenzie Krocak, Ph.D., research scientist at IPPRA and OU’s Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations within the Storm Prediction Center, said. “But where you live and your previous experience with severe weather really impact how you understand forecasts.”
Many Oklahomans have years of experience with severe weather and know the meaning of terminology used by forecasters. That’s not the case for everyone in the United States, however, especially for vulnerable populations and non-English speakers.
“There seems to be variation in how well people understand the information we’re providing, and that’s concerning,” Ripberger said. “Many of our Spanish-speaking residents have never experienced a tornado. They don’t know what the word ‘tornado’ means in English, much less in Spanish. So, it’s important that we not only tell them that a tornado warning has been issued, but what actions they can take to protect themselves, their families and their communities.”
Krocak added, “The translation for the word ‘tornado’ or ‘hail’ may not exist in a way many Spanish dialects can understand in a meaningful way. In fact, we’ve found that the translations for the words ‘watch’ and ‘warning’ don’t actually convey the urgency they should. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg in this research, but we must be careful to make meaningful translations instead of direct translations.”
Local forecasters are an incredibly important part of IPPRA’s research focus due to their knowledge of the local community, population centers and infrastructure that may be impacted by severe weather.
“We want to make sure forecasters and meteorologists have the tools, knowledge and confidence to adequately convey extreme weather information,” Krocak said. “In many meteorology programs, you’re taught how to forecast, read models, and do the calculus behind the equations. But you’re not often taught how to communicate that information in an effective way. We need them to do both.”
IPPRA began systematic data collection around this topic in 2017 and will continue to scale their efforts through 2025. Most of their data come from annual public surveys given to people across the United States.
“At IPPRA, we have the Extreme Weather and Society Survey series that asks Americans how they’re receiving information about extreme weather, their understanding of watches and warnings, and how they respond to those events,” Ripberger said. “We take that data and upload it to an interactive dashboard that forecasters, emergency managers and meteorologists can use to better understand the populations they serve and refine their risk communications strategies.”
Social media also plays a large role in this research. The IPPRA team uses social media to investigate what people are asking about when severe weather hits their community and how meteorologists can provide valuable, actionable information to those communities.
“We're starting to understand how social media influences how people get weather information,” Krocak said. “Our youngest respondents consistently say that phone notifications, apps, websites and social media is where they go for weather information. As forecasters and meteorologists, we must be prepared to provide information on those sources, otherwise people might get it from less reputable sources.”
Based on their research findings, Ripberger’s team plans to provide training, insight and suggestions to forecasters and other experts about weather communications.
“We’re providing training to forecasters on how to best convey risk to different populations,” Ripberger said. “Eventually, we’ll also provide suggestions for what their visualizations look like and what kind of graphics they use on traditional and social media.”
As new national policy changes are implemented around how the U.S. develops and provides forecasting information, IPPRA’s research will be an invaluable resource.
“If there are changes to the way we issue watches and warnings, for example, we want to know if those changes increase people’s understanding,” Ripberger said. “Five or ten years from now, we hope to look back and determine which changes have a positive effect on society.”