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What's the difference between a weather watch, warning or advisory?

Weather terms provide lead time for you to prepare for a threatening flood or snow. (AP)

Fall is here and winter is not far behind. It's the time of year when we get our most active and hazardous weather.

As storms threaten, you hear terms like "outlook," "watch," "warning," and "advisory." What do these mean? Why are they important?

The bulk of Western Washington weather comes from across the Pacific Ocean. Weather systems take up to a week to cross the Pacific from Asia before reaching the West Coast. So forecast confidence on a storm reaching our area versus elsewhere on the West Coast can change as the weather moves across the Pacific.

A flood or weather outlook gives you a heads up; there is potential for a significant storm two, three, four, or perhaps five days in advance. This is your first chance to begin preparing for the event.

A flood or weather watch is issued a day or two prior to the anticipated significant event. It means the odds of the event have increased yet some uncertainty remains for the specific forecast area. Now is the time to get ready, get prepared.

A warning means confidence is high the significant event will occur within the next 24 hours or less, or is underway. Now is the time to take action to help save lives and property.

An advisory is for weather events with up to 24 hour lead time that are more of an inconvenience and not necessarily life-threatening. A winter weather advisory for one or two inches of snow is such an example.

So why are these terms important to you? They provide lead time for you to prepare for the threatening flood or weather event. Avoid waiting until the wind blows, the snow flies or the rivers rise.

Getting ready in advance is the key to helping save lives and property, a part of the National Weather Service WeatherReady Nation initiative to increase the nation's weather readiness. As this past weekend's Midwest tornado outbreak showed, it pays to be weather aware and prepared in advance to save lives.

Now you know what a flood or weather outlook, watch, warning or advisory is. The next time you hear these terms, you will be in a better position to get ready for whatever nature brings us.

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About the Author


Ted Buehner is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service (NWS) in Seattle, a key customer liaison position.

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