During the first weekend of March 2022, nature reminded us that tornado season typically ramps up at this time of year. Deadly EF3/EF4 rated tornadoes tore up counties near Des Moines, Iowa. Although this region does experience tornadoes, it is quite rare to have such high-end tornadoes in March according to the National Weather Service (NWS). To make matters worse, these storms came at a time when the National Weather Service experienced a technology glitch, which hampered the delivery of warning information. I immediately saw discussions, posts and tweets in the social media/media about whether people had received any warnings. Let’s dig a little deeper.
The answer is complicated but also contains clarity. CNN reported that damaged fiber optic cables in the Dallas-Ft. The Worth NWS office prompted to switch to another communication network. The satellite network, which can lag during busy weather events, has been overwhelmed and has created messaging backlogs throughout the NWS Central Region, including the NWS Des Moine office. Daryl Herzman, a systems analyst at Iowa State University, tweeted his observations as the event unfolded. He identified delays in issuing warnings (measured by latency) of around 5 minutes. On March 6, he tweeted, “Still upset about this 🙁 To reiterate, this was a national NWS issue and not something under the control of NWS Omaha/Des Moines.” There were clearly issues that resulted in messaging delays in this window, which could have impacted information delivered to the public through broadcast weather forecasters or app-based messaging.
So yes, at a critical time scale, there were issues with dissemination. However, this is not a binary situation (yes/no or 0/1). There were still multiple and timely warnings. Susan Buchanan is director of public affairs for the National Weather Service. She told me, “Each tornado that touched down had an active warning that was communicated to the public before touchdown.” I want to sift through the noise and the immediate reactions to see where the signal is on this event and what we can learn from it.
Buchanan noted that the NWS forecast office in Des Moines was still issuing warnings with an average delay of 20 minutes. Research studies have shown that national average is in the range of 10 to 14 minutes. Buchanan shared something else that caught my eye. She said the Des Moines Forecast Office is aware of the communications delay affecting Weather.gov and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). According to Buchanan, they issued “warnings earlier than they normally would in similar circumstances to compensate and ensure the warnings reach the public in a timely manner.” Warnings were also broadcast via NOAA Weather Radio and the No Delay Emergency Alert System.
It’s also worth noting that storms “rarely come without warning” in 2022, although that’s often a headline after many high-impact events. The NOAA Storm Prediction Center (SPC) released forecasts in the days leading up to the storm (map above) indicating the potential for tornadic terms on March 5. I also found this statement in the NWS Des Moines forecast discussion about the Saturday storm potential at least 2 days before the event – “The window for severe storms will be narrow, although in this window damaging winds and tornadoes are the main threat, especially near the low center of the surface.”
As past president of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and a leader in the weather business, I try to learn from these events. Here are my takeaways:
- There was an obvious anomaly in the communication infrastructure of the NWS infrastructure which caused broadcast delays, but the local office made adjustments, which still resulted in alert delays exceeding the average. In 2021, The Washington Post reported on communication infrastructure issues within the National Meteorological Service. The work of this agency touches literally every aspect of our daily lives and is one of the highest values in the federal government. It is essential that their infrastructure is adequately supported to accomplish its mission.
- There was a clear meteorological understanding in the days leading up to the event that tornadic storms were possible. Tornado warning information is available on many time scales (days, hours, or minutes). I personally monitor all of these weather scales when there is a threat, but everyone has different levels of weather attention. As we move into spring, review your severe weather plans and ways to receive warning information. I highly recommend multiple alert modes rather than relying on a single source. Keep your WEA activated on your phone, remember that tornado sirens are not designed to alert you indoors and have a night plan before you go to bed.