Social science study identifies Spanish terminology improvements for tornado warnings

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NOAA-funded social science research has shown that the Spanish words currently used by the US National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for tornado warnings do not carry the same level of urgency needed to spur protective action as their English counterparts.

Joseph Trujillo-Falcón, lead author and graduate research assistant for NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations (CIWRO), said, “Our research shows significant inequities in understanding watches and warnings between English and Spanish speakers. To reduce this language barrier, our data supports using the Spanish word ‘vigilancia’ for a tornado watch and the Spanish word ‘alerta’ for a tornado warning.”

NOAA currently uses the Spanish word ‘vigilancia’ for a watch and ‘aviso’ for a warning. On its website, FEMA uses ‘advertencia’ and ‘vigilancia’ for a watch and ‘aviso’ for a warning, but also uses ‘advertencia’ and ‘amenaza’ for watch and warning, respectively, in its social media messaging.

The National Weather Service issues tornado watches when severe thunderstorms and tornadoes are possible in and near the watch area. An issuance of a watch does not mean that a tornado will occur. A tornado warning is issued when a tornado is imminent or happening. When a tornado warning is issued, people should seek safe shelter immediately.

Trujillo-Falcón is working closely with the National Weather Service to share the research and expects that any changes to the Spanish words for watches and warnings and other alerts will occur after further research and the involvement of US Spanish-speaking communities. “We published this study to raise awareness of the issue and we want to work closely and collaboratively with NOAA’s National Weather Service and emergency management partners to develop a solution,” he said.

Allison Allen, director of the NOAA National Weather Service’s AFS (analyze, forecast and support) office, added, “This important social science research confirms and builds on information we’ve collected through surveys as part of our ongoing hazard simplification initiative. Before we formalize our use of Spanish language terminology, we will carefully consider these findings as we determine the most effective Spanish language translations for our alerts.”

Trujillo-Falcón’s research is based on results from a survey conducted annually by the University of Oklahoma Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis. Called the ‘Severe Weather and Society Survey’, this survey has been given in English from 2017 to 2020 and for the first time was given in both English and Spanish in 2021.

The survey asked Spanish and English speakers questions in their respective languages about tornado watches and warnings. Researchers found significant differences in how English and Spanish speakers understood these terms. For example, while 66% of the English speakers correctly identified the meaning of a tornado watch as an early notice of possible severe weather, only 38% of the Spanish speakers chose this definition.

The survey respondents were also asked to rank five Spanish words according to the level of urgency they expressed. Spanish speakers agreed that the words ‘emergencia,’ ‘amenaza’ and ‘alerta’ expressed the most urgency, while the words ‘vigilancia’ and ‘aviso’ – which are currently used by the National Weather Service for watches and warnings, respectively – did not communicate as high a level of urgency as the other three words.

Trujillo-Falcón said the research validated earlier studies showing that literal translations of English words to Spanish do not always carry the same level of urgency. He added that while the word ‘aviso’ is a literal Spanish translation of the English word ‘warning’, the word ‘aviso’ in Spanish is more like advice you might get from a parent, but does not carry the urgency of an official warning to take action.

To view the study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, click here.

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Dan first joined UKi Media & Events in 2014 having spent the early years of his career in the recruitment industry. As editor, he now produces content for Meteorological Technology International, unearthing the latest technological advances and research methods for the publication of each exciting new issue. When he’s not reporting on the latest meteorological news, Dan can be found on the golf course or apprehensively planning his next DIY project.

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