May 6, 2024 - Energy & Environment

The difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning

Picture of tornado damage in Indiana.

A destroyed home is seen following a tornado on March 15 in Winchester, Indiana. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The National Weather Service uses a variety of tornado alerts to help protect people when severe weather strikes, but these are often misunderstood.

Why it matters: Any confusion of what a warning means could result in someone wasting time to get to shelter, and therefore being in a more dangerous situation.

What is a tornado watch?

Zoom in: A tornado watch is issued when conditions are favorable for tornadoes, meaning the atmospheric ingredients are present, but there is no imminent danger.

  • Sometimes the NWS issues what are known as "Particularly Dangerous Situation" tornado watches, or a "PDS Watch."
  • These signal to TV meteorologists, public officials and others that multiple strong (EF-2 or EF-3) or violent (EF-4 or greater) tornadoes are likely within the watch area, although they may not be occurring yet.

What is a tornado warning?

The intrigue: Tornado warnings mean a tornado has been spotted from the ground or detected by radar, and people within the warning area need to take shelter immediately.

Photo of a social media post using tacos to describe the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.
The difference between an extreme weather watch and a warning is explained using tacos. Image: NWS via X.

What is a "tornado emergency?"

A tornado emergency is a relatively recent addition to NWS' warning lexicon, and is used when a "severe threat to human life is imminent or ongoing," according to the NWS forecast office in Little Rock, Ark.

Its issuance also requires catastrophic damage that is imminent or ongoing, and that a tornado has been reliably spotted from the ground or via radar.

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