No matter where you live, severe weather can affect you in some form. Whether you live in tornado alley, in the path of a hurricane along a coast, or just in a location that is prone to rain, there’s always a potential for the next big storm or climatic event.

You should always keep an eye on the weather forecast. The National Weather Service exists to alert us of impending severe weather threats. Usually, it isn’t difficult to understand a weather forecast. We see and hear them on television, the radio and online all the time. However, one common mistake is mixing up what it means to be under a watch versus being in a warning.

Watches and warnings are similar across most types of severe weather. However, there are a few key differences.

Severe Thunderstorms and Winter Storms

A severe thunderstorm watch means the atmospheric conditions have the makings to produce a severe storm. It does not mean there’s an imminent storm coming. It just indicates the conditions are favorable and there is a likelihood based on previous data. This is the same for a winter storm watch.

A severe thunderstorm or winter storm warning means the storm is imminent, already happening or is extremely likely. This usually comes with an accompanied clause about the threat assessment on your life and belongings.

Severe thunderstorm and winter storm watches are generally issued between 12 and 36 hours prior to an expected event. On the other hand, warnings are generally issued only a few hours ahead of time if there’s sufficient data. A watch is based on previous data and current readings. A warning is based on current conditions and often, confirmed reports.


Tornado watches and warnings are similar to that of thunderstorms and winter storms. A watch represents favorable conditions for a tornado to form. A warning means a tornado is imminent or has touched down and someone has seen and reported its existence. 

In both scenarios, it is smart to take shelter and tune in to local media for precise updates on the situation. A watch can be issued 3 to 6 hours in advance. Tornado warnings are generally issued as soon as they can get them out, usually only an hour or less before an event unless it forms directly overhead.

Hurricanes and Tropical Storms

If you live along the East Coast, near the Gulf of Mexico, or in Hawaii, you may have to deal with hurricanes or tropical storms. Hurricane and tropical storm watches and warnings are similar to severe weather and tornado watches and warnings.

The good news is, unlike short notice on thunderstorms and tornadoes, hurricane and tropical storm warnings are usually issued up to three or four days in advance.

One of the smartest ways to stay up-to-date on watches and warnings is to purchase a weather radio. These radios are plugged in and ready to alert you at any change in the status of the weather from the National Weather Service.

Stay safe!