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When The Skies Turn Black

There are signs when severe weather approaches, but are we paying enough attention?

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A storm rolls in above Bangkok (courtesy of flickr user Dennis Wong)

I’m kind of obsessed with weather. There’s a practical side to this—I don’t own a car and getting caught in a rain or snow storm can be a problem—but I also a have quite a bit of awe for the power of nature. I once lived on the edge of Tornado Alley, and I’ve experienced ice storms, torrential downpours, high winds, blizzards and hurricanes. I always keep an eye on the weather and have a plan when something bad is predicted or formulate a plan when something bad starts to happen. But I’m realizing that I may be in the minority.

Back in January, a huge ice storm headed towards Washington, D.C. A local weather blog recommended people be off the streets by 4 p.m., but few heeded the warning. They headed out as the ice started to fall and it took some people eight hours or more to get home. If they made it at all.

When a hurricane heads towards land, some people call the local television station to ask if they should be boarding up their houses. And they get angry when the forecast turns out to be wrong, which can easily happen even with all of our modern prediction tools. That is understandable when a storm turns out to be worse than expected, but it can also be dangerous when it goes the other way. How many people who evacuated from New York City prior to Hurricane Irene, which didn’t bring as much flooding to the area as had been predicted, will heed future warnings?

The death toll from the May tornado in Joplin, Missouri was so high, in part, because people didn’t heed the warnings. There had been so many false alarms in the past that they didn’t think it necessary to take shelter.

In August, five people died and dozens were injured when an outdoor stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair due to high winds. The sky had turned black as a storm rolled in and but few people left.

We have more weather information than at any time in our past. NOAA’s predictions of the paths of hurricanes get better and better. We get warnings that a tornado is headed our way with plenty of time to take shelter. We can learn to make our own predictions from the plethora of raw data available online and even have instant access to weather information on our computers and smartphones.

But that hasn’t made us immune to the dangerous and costly effects of weather. A study earlier this year estimated the cost of weather in the United States may be as high as $485 billion a year. “It’s clear that our economy isn’t weatherproof,” says NCAR scientist Jeffrey Lazo, the study’s lead author. “Even routine changes in the weather can add up to substantial impacts on the U.S. economy.”

I don’t mean to imply that all those costs are avoidable, but surely there’s room for improvement, especially when it comes to personal safety. I worry that many people have become so dependent on technology and the forecasts and advice from others (whether professional meteorologists or friends and family) that we don’t look at the skies anymore. The wind kicks up, the skies turn black, and we don’t do anything. We don’t take shelter. We don’t change our schedules. We don’t slow our cars. And it’s no wonder when bad things happen.

What’s to be done? Well, take the time to educate yourself about the warning signs of severe weather. Learn about hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or any other type of weather event that may strike your area before the threat becomes real. Heed the warnings of professionals, even if they later turn out to be false. Take shelter when the weather takes a turn for the worse. Go home early, before a storm begins. And err on the side of caution. Because it’s better to waste a little time and money than end up dead.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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