A tornado touches down in a field in Akron, Colo., during a severe weather outbreak on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.
A tornado touches down in a field in Akron, Colo., during a severe weather outbreak on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (AP Photo/The Indianapolis Star, Matt Detrich)

For all of us who have ever weighed a tornado “watch” versus a tornado “warning,” it’s no surprise that a growing number of researchers say distinguishing between Spanish words like “aviso” and “alerta” in weather bulletins can be a life or death choice.

If a twister sprouts east of Pueblo, or a climate-driven wildfire threatens Jefferson County, or more hurricanes pummel Florida, Spanish-speaking communities need weather warnings to meet the moment. More and more meteorological and social science research shows they’re failing. 

As Hurricane Ian bore down on the west coast of Florida, weather service parent agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was talking about its new research suggesting Spanish translations need to bump up in urgency. NOAA and the weather service — as well as FEMA — mean to say “warning” when it comes to tornadoes and hurricanes and other hazards, but the Spanish word they have been using, “aviso,” is not taken as seriously by Spanish speakers. 

Researchers asked more than 1,000 Spanish speakers to rank advisory words. The researchers were told that the words they’d been using as strong, “aviso” and “vigilancia,” were not heard as forcefully as the more urgent Spanish words “emergencia,” “amenaza” and “alerta.” 

The author of NOAA’s study, which was published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, said the study backs up other recent work comparing signals from English words versus signals from Spanish. 

“Aviso” is a literal translation of “warning,” but aviso is “more like advice you might get from a parent,” and doesn’t come across as an urgent official warning to act, said Joseph Trujillo-Falcón, lead author from NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations in Oklahoma. 

The difference can literally mean life and death, as Florida officials struggled to convey the dangers of Ian’s intense ocean surge to evacuation stragglers around Tampa. How Spanish speakers accept the words is also key in tornado-prone spots with large Hispanic populations, from Colorado to Texas. As climate change makes emergency weather events more frequent, language and communication matter all the more, researchers say. 

“It’s just so important to get people the right information at the right level of urgency,” said Ben Hatchett, assistant research professor for atmospheric science at Reno’s Desert Research Institute.

In tornado advisories, for example, the word “watch” means conditions are ripe for a tornado and residents should be alert. “Warning” means a tornado has been spotted or is imminent and residents should take shelter. The study notes that “66% of the English speakers correctly identified the meaning of a tornado watch as an early notice of possible severe weather,” but “only 38% of the Spanish speakers chose this definition.”

“Our data supports using the Spanish word ‘vigilancia’ for a tornado watch and the Spanish word ‘alerta’ for a tornado warning,” Trujillo-Falcón said. 

9News meteorologist Chris Bianchi, who often handles the regular Spanish-language weather casts for the station, agrees with the research and is writing about it at 9News.com. He commented on the studies just before leaving for Florida, where he joined the hurricane coverage.

The Daily Sun-Up podcast | More episodes

“This is absolutely critical,” Bianchi wrote from DIA, as he waited for his Tampa flight. “There has long been a huge, discernible gap between English and Spanish forecasting and terminology.”

Hatchett also does research from his base in Santa Rosa, California, on whether English-speaking communities are hearing bad-weather warnings with the urgency forecasters and safety officials intend. It’s crucial, he said, to study local dialect and geography, and which communicators are the trusted sources of information. 

In Reno, Hatchett said, weather listeners don’t pay enough attention to warnings of “up to 6 inches of snow in the area.” They assume that means up on the mountains in the Tahoe area, not so much in the lower-lying Truckee Meadows.

“But if you say, ‘It’s going to snow 6 inches down here,’ everyone’s like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna snow down here in the valley in downtown Reno. OK, got it. Got to think about how I’m going to get to work tomorrow,’” Hatchett said.

Climate and weather researchers are also trying to use high temperature ranges rather than one number when expressing growing dangers from urban heat waves, Hatchett said. Instead of saying just, “It’s likely to hit 106 degrees tomorrow,” they use probability forecasting: “It’s very likely going to be above 95 and could hit 100.” 

How then, Hatchett said, to best present that range visually or verbally, to enclaves of different speakers and listeners, from San Diego to the San Luis Valley? Will they be concerned enough to think about staying home from an outdoors job, or keeping kids out of an unairconditioned school?

It’s “super important,” he said, to use translation from native speakers familiar with a community to find the words “through the lens of the local person who you’re trying to convince to make a decision.”

Meteorologists appear to welcome the flurry of social scientists researching how to sharpen communication in their field. 

“We often forget how young meteorology is,” Bianchi said, adding that 100 years ago weather warnings were coming primarily from priests on the hurricane frontlines in Cuba. He’s worked on some of the NOAA research panels, and he sees the impact of words while talking with the 9News audience.

 “Translating and accounting for regional dialects and slang can be very difficult,” he said. 

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: @MBoothDenver