Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Q & A: How can social science improve weather safety?

Q & A: How can social science improve weather safety?

We sat down recently with Kim Klockow, Ph.D., visiting scientist at NOAA Research’s Office of Weather and Air Quality, to learn about her work bringing together the study of meteorology and human behavior to help the public better use weather information to save lives and property.

What led you to become a meteorologist?

I was seven years old when a tornado struck the neighboring town of Plainfield, Illinois. I’ll never forget my mother racing to get us home, teaching us to say the Catholic prayers. The Plainfield tornado of Aug. 29, 1990, took 29 lives and injured close to 300.  That day, I saw how important it was to have good warnings and wanted to make sure no one had to go through that again.

Why is social and behavioral research needed to improve weather warnings?

Making this nation more weather ready takes more than advancing the physics that improve weather forecast models. We need to understand what motivates people to prepare and take action, and how our partners like emergency managers and broadcasters use our information to do their jobs. To answer these questions and improve the way we communicate risk, we need social science research.  

How is NOAA using social science to create a more weather ready nation?

One very practical way social science is making a difference has been to inspire NOAA’s National Weather Service to create Integrated Warning Teams that bring together, well in advance, weather forecasters, emergency managers and broadcasters to make sure they are speaking from the same page.  The teams focus on the needs of our community partners – especially emergency managers and broadcast meteorologists – and try to meet their needs and timelines. These practical conversations help us create shared best practices and, ultimately, get the most timely and effective messages out as widely as possible.

Is social science improving NOAA’s severe weather information?

Original precipitation forecast graphic

Original precipitation forecast graphic

NOAA-funded researchers interviewed residents of flood-prone areas in the Delaware Basin and learned that this precipitation graphic could be made more helpful and usable. (NOAA)
Improved precipitation graphic

Improved precipitation graphic

Residents found this new and improved precipitation graphic easier to understand. It has clear titles with plain language messages, better defined state and county boundaries, and major cities have been identified to orient the reader. (NOAA)
One example is a study that NOAA’s Office of Weather and Air Quality co-funded with NOAA’s National Weather Service to look at how people living in flood prone areas of the Delaware River basin understand and use National Weather Service flood warning tools. Social scientists found that several flood warning tools, while scientifically state-of-the-art, were difficult for people to use because they were overly technical. Researchers recommended changes to key flood risk graphics that made these tools more understandable and useful to the public. Some of the changes involved clearer titles, better use of color, and more specific geographical information on flood risk forecast maps. The National Weather Service has made some of these changes to products offered in this region and the findings may help inform improvements in other areas.

What is your research focusing on?

I focus on how people’s beliefs about risk affect their decisions to respond to severe weather. My research has shown that even in areas where tornadoes are better understood people may lack the knowledge necessary to take the safest action. An example occurred on May 31, 2013, when the most tornado-savvy population in the world reacted to a tornado warning by fleeing en masse, clogging the highways around Oklahoma City, and putting people at far greater risk than if they’d stayed home. The reaction may, in part, have been due to frayed nerves from an EF5 tornado that struck 11 days earlier in nearby Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24, including 7 children in an elementary school. I am also investigating how safe people feel in their homes when tornadoes threaten, and whether these feelings make people more inclined to flee.  Had the May 31 tornado not ended up lifting as it came toward Oklahoma City, the number of people killed could have climbed to the hundreds. In most cases, people are safer staying in their homes. To prevent this kind of mass fleeing in the future we need to improve our ability to better observe and predict the world of people, and get them all the information they need to make decisions. This is done through investing in social science research and transferring these findings into the hands of our weather forecasters in NOAA’s 122 forecast offices around the nation.

What’s the future of social science to improve weather readiness?

We need to build NOAA’s capacity to do more routine observations of people’s attitudes, beliefs and responses to NOAA weather information. As part of that effort, NOAA Research, NOAA’s National Weather Service and the Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration are now funding a study by the National Academies of Sciences to create a plan for generating and applying social and behavioral science research to meteorology, weather forecasting, weather preparedness and response. This effort involves the private sector, academia, and the federal government, because all of those groups must come together to make this work.  The findings from this study will build a solid foundation for making smart investment decisions about social sciences at NOAA.

For more information, please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Research, at 301-734-1123 or by email at monica.allen@noaa.gov


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