The Difference Between Storm Watch and Storm Warning
The labels of "storm watch" and "storm warning" are used year-round and in different situations across the country. Knowing the difference between a watch and warning — and what actions you should take when they're issued — can help you and your family take appropriate precautions and stay safe.
National Weather Service alerts
The National Weather Service (NWS) keeps an eye on forecasts and climate data around the country. When it detects a potentially serious weather pattern, the NWS will notify local meteorologists in the area. Since you may not always be near a radio or television, you can stay up-to-date on weather changes by following your local news stations on social media, downloading the NWS app or signing up for text alerts from the NWS.
When you hear news that a storm watch or storm warning has been issued, keep in mind that the term being used describes both the immediacy and level of force of the storm.
What does "storm watch" mean?
A storm watch means that severe weather hasn't occurred yet, but upcoming weather conditions are expected to produce potentially dangerous weather, such as heavy rain, hail or strong gusts of wind. Because conditions can change quickly, the NWS wants to give you as much time as possible to safeguard your personal property and take shelter.
What does "storm warning" mean?
A storm warning indicates that meteorologists have already observed severe conditions. If you hear that a storm warning has been issued, it means potentially dangerous weather is imminent in or near your location. Depending on the type of weather warning, take appropriate action as quickly and safely as possible.
Types of storm watches and warnings
• Severe Thunderstorms. A thunderstorm watch, which can be in effect for several hours, means weather conditions exist where severe thunderstorms can easily develop. A thunderstorm warning means current storm conditions can turn worse, including heavy rain and strong winds. Whether a watch or a warning, it's best to stay inside and away from windows.
• Tornadoes. April, May and June are the most active months of the year for tornadoes to occur. A tornado watch means severe weather, such as large hail or winds over 58 mph, has the potential to turn into tornadic activity. A tornado warning indicates that either a strong weather rotation could produce a tornado at any moment or that a funnel cloud has already been spotted. In either situation, you should seek shelterimmediately and pay attention to local news updates.
• Flash Floods. A flash flood watch signals that even if there isn't any standing water in your immediate area, you should be ready for those conditions to change at any moment. Flash flood watches can turn to warnings quickly, meaning that flooding of nearby bodies of water is imminent or already happening. In either case, move to higher ground as safely as possible, and stay out of the flood's path — for instance, don't try to drive your vehicle through large areas of pooling water.
• Tropical Storms. The NWS tries to issue tropical storm watches as early as possible to allow enough time for emergency prep, including the possibility of evacuation. If you hear a warning, though, a tropical storm is expected within the next 36 hours, and you should take shelter immediately.
• Hurricanes. Whether there is a tropical storm expected to strengthen into a hurricane, or one that's already formed, a watch means a hurricane has the potential to impact your area. You should gather emergency supplies and be prepared to act quickly. Warnings are typically issued up to three days in advance — if one is issued, take direction from local authorities on whether to take shelter or to leave the area immediately.
• Winter Storm. A winter storm watch is usually issued at least 24 hours in advance of the storm. It lets you know that while hazardous weather conditions are likely, the exact areas and timing may not be known yet. If a watch is upgraded to a winter storm warning, try to avoid traveling, as visibility and road conditions can become unsafe.
No matter the type of watches or warnings that may come your way, it's important to properly prepare for storm conditions in advance. Also, be sure to review your policies with your insurance agent so you know what's covered in case of storm damage.