Weathering the winter season

Your guide to advisories, watches and warnings

The word winter brings many things to mind. For some, it’s bundling up to brave the cold temperatures, school snow closings, and fun-filled days of sledding. For others, it invokes treacherous commutes punctuated by blizzard conditions, slippery roads, and fender benders. This winter, understanding the differences behind National Weather Service’s advisories, watches and warnings could save your life or someone you love by knowing the appropriate action to take.

Brooklyn, NY, USA - February 13, 2014: Mothers escorting their children to school in a snow storm in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Brooklyn, NY, USA - February 13, 2014: Mothers escorting their children to school in a snow storm in Borough Park, Brooklyn. (iStock)

Know the signs of winter weather

  • Outlook – An outlook is used to indicate that a hazardous winter weather event may develop. It is intended to provide information to those who need considerable lead time to prepare for the event.
  • Watch – A watch is used when the risk of a hazardous winter weather event has increased, but its occurrence, location, and/or timing is still uncertain. It is intended to provide enough lead time so those who need to set their plans in motion can do so. When a watch is issued, it’s prudent to listen to NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards and check the forecast frequently at NOAA’s National Weather Service Web site.
  • Warning/Advisory – These products are issued when a hazardous winter weather event is occurring, is imminent, or has a very high probability of occurrence. A warning is used for conditions posing a threat to life or property. An advisory is for less serious conditions that cause significant inconvenience and, if caution is not exercised, could lead to situations that may threaten life and/or property.
Ice storm.

Before, during and after a storm, pay close attention to your local National Weather Service forecast for detailed information on the type of weather conditions expected, accumulations, possible impacts, as well as advisories, watches and warnings like these:

  • Winter Weather Advisory – Any combination of snow, blowing snow, freezing rain and sleet that meets or exceeds a locally defined 12 and/or 24 hour advisory criteria, but remaining below warning criteria.
  • Winter Storm Watch – Conditions are favorable for a winter storm event (any combination of heavy snow, heavy sleet, ice storm, and blowing snow) to meet or exceed local criteria.
  • Winter Storm Warning – Winter weather event that includes: snow, ice, or sleet meeting or exceeding locally defined 12 and/or 24 hour warning criteria; or a combination of snow, ice, or sleet and blowing snow with at least one of the precipitation elements meeting or exceeding locally defined criteria.
  • Blizzard Warning – Sustained wind or frequent gusts greater than or equal to 35 mph accompanied by falling and/or blowing snow, frequently reducing visibility to less than 1/4 mile for three hours or more.
Winter on the beltway.

Drive safer this winter

“Thousands of people die every year in weather-related traffic accidents,” says John Koch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “The best way to avoid a tragedy is to be aware of weather conditions and limit travel when hazardous weather conditions exist.”

To keep safe, consider doing the following before driving in winter weather conditions, especially if the National Weather Service has issued warnings or watches in your area:

  • Keep the gas tank full to keep the fuel line from freezing.
  • Let someone know your destination, route, and when you expect to arrive.
  • Keep a cell phone or other emergency communication device with you.
  • Pack your car with thermal blankets, extra winter clothes, basic tool kit, (including a good knife and jumper cables), an ice scraper and shovel, flashlights or battery-powered lanterns with extra batteries, and high calorie, nonperishable food, and water.
  • Use sand or kitty litter under your tires for extra traction, especially if you find yourself stuck in a slippery spot.

Be winter-weather wise!

To learn more, visit NOAA’s Winter Weather Safety and Awareness Web page.