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Weather Watch vs. Weather Warning

Margaret Minnicks has been an online writer for many years. She writes articles that are interesting to her readers.


During bad weather, there are two terms that meteorologists use that the public needs to know what they mean. Those two expressions are a weather watch and a weather warning. So what is the difference?

The short answer is that they both are based on timing. A watch means that there is the potential for severe winter conditions to occur within 24-72 hours of the announcement. It is time enough for people to prepare for the storm. A warning is made when the storm is much closer.

The National Weather Service (NWS) can also issue an advisory at any time before a watch or a warning. The advisory is issued to let people know a storm is coming in their area.


Weather Watch

Think of a weather watch as something to "watch out for." A watch is based on weather conditions that are favorable for dangerous weather to occur. It is announced so the public can get ready in case the weather turns severe. Sometimes a serious thunderstorm, tornado or flash flood can happen so quickly that warnings can't be issued in time. Therefore, a watch is all that happens without it being upgraded to a warning.

A weather watch always comes first before a warning. A watch can be upgraded to a warning. The watch area is typically large, covering numerous counties or even surrounding states.

A watch means a severe storm might occur because all conditions are favorable even if a storm is not detected on the radar. The watch is mostly to inform the public that a storm is likely to happen.

Weather Warning

For a watch to be upgraded, information about the storm will show up on the Doppler radar. After a warning announcement is made, some action is required by the public.

The warning issued by the NWS means hazardous winter conditions are either occurring at the time or are quickly approaching in a particular area. Usually, this is issued within 24 hours of an event. The warning is serious enough for immediate action to be taken.


Winter Weather Advisory

A winter weather advisory is not like a winter weather watch or warning. All of them are issued by the National Weather Service, but an advisory is less severe and does not meet the criteria for a watch or warning.

People are given information about the weather before it reaches the stages for a watch or a warning. Snow, freezing rain, or sleet could be happening and are dangerous but not enough for a watch or warning.

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Not All Weather Conditions Have Watches or Warnings

Only some weather conditions have watches and warnings. Some conditions might have one or the other but not both. Some weather conditions may have a watch but never get upgraded to a warning.


A blizzard watch or blizzard warning can be issued if winds or wind gusts are 35 mph or greater. They can also be issued if visibility is reduced to a quarter-mile or less. The watch or warning comes after three or more hours.

Snow doesn't need to fall for a blizzard warning. It can be based on how much snow is blowing that has already fallen. Besides, there is no temperature requirement for a blizzard warning or watch to be announced.

Ice Storm

There is no ice storm watch. The announcement goes straight to an ice storm warning. It could also have had a freezing rain advisory. An ice storm warning is issued when freezing rain is expected to produce a significant amount of ice that will be dangerous for the public. In some places, at least a half-inch of freezing rain will warrant a warning. In other places, only a quarter of an inch will result in a warning.


Wind Chill

A wind chill watch and a wind chill warning are issued when a combination of cold temperatures and strong winds could cause harm to the human skin. The determination to call it a watch or warning depends on the location. A wind chill comes often enough in the northern states not to require a warning. However, in states where wind chills are rare, a wind chill warning is issued.

Winter Storm

A winter storm watch and a storm warning are what most people hear more often. A winter storm watch is issued when large amounts of snow, sleet, or freezing rain are expected. The watch can be upgraded to a warning when the storm is less than 24 hours away.

A winter storm watch or warning is also based on how much snow falls in a 12 or 24 hour period. In the north, a location needs nine or more inches over a previous time period. In the south, it takes only five inches of snow in 24 hours for a winter storm warning to be issued. In other words, it depends on where you live to determine if you will get a winter storm watch or warning.

Something Else to Know

Even though advisories, watches, and warnings are issued by the NWS mostly during the winter months, they can be announced at any time of the year.

It is not uncommon for advisories, watches, and warnings to be issued during the hot summer months to protect the public from dangerous road conditions and so they can prepare in advance.


For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Which comes first?
    • A Weather Warning
    • A Weather Watch
  2. Which one can be upgraded?
    • A Weather Watch
    • A Weather Warning
  3. Which shows up on the Doppler radar?
    • A Weather Watch
    • A Weather Warning
  4. Which one require action to be taken?
    • A Weather Advisory
    • A Weather Watch
    • A Weather Warning
  5. What does NWS mean?
    • New Weather Service
    • National Weather System
    • National Weather Service

Answer Key

  1. A Weather Watch
  2. A Weather Watch
  3. A Weather Warning
  4. A Weather Warning
  5. National Weather Service

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