difference between watch and warning

Tornado Watch vs Warning: What Is the Difference Between Them?

You may have heard terms such as tornado watch and warning on the weather forecasts. But it’s important to react appropriately, which is why we need to understand the difference.

difference between watch and warningA tornado warning vs tornado watch; at which point do we prepare? Or are they the same? What do they even mean?

I think you get what I’m trying to say. If you treat a watch as a warning, you’re wasting resources by taking unnecessary preparation.

A tornado can form in minutes and leave you vulnerable in its wake. Most of us have little idea what the alerts mean. A small mistake can do a lot of damage.

Well, if you have a lot of questions as I did when I started, here’s what I learned. In this article, we’ll be learning how these terms were coined and their meanings.

What Is a Tornado Watch?

What is Tornado watch

A tornado watch tells us that the weather has the right conditions for the development of severe thunderstorms. And as we know, thunderstorms can turn into tornadoes in seconds.

So, when the conditions are detected in our radars, they start “watching” for tornadoes on the horizon. That is why it is called a tornado watch.

What is a tornado watch mean?

We know that a tornado watch is activated when the radars and meteorologists have found weather patterns favorable to tornadoes. This is what they mean by weather conditions,

What Is a Tornado Warning?

What is Tornado Warning

This is a much more serious alert than a watch. And there’s not a lot of time left after a tornado is detected. When severe thunderstorms have developed into tornadoes, the experts pick them up and issue tornado warnings.

What Does a Tornado Warning Mean?

When the authority issues a tornado warning alert, it means to prepare for the tornado to hit the region. When a tornado warning is given, the citizens are required to follow the previously given protocols, such as being inside the house and leaving all vulnerable spots.

A tornado warning is issued when there are two conditions,

  • When storm spotters report severe storms and tornadoes
  • When weather radar report analysis tells us that tornado is likely forming

Both the conditions need to be present for a warning to be publicly announced.

All storm spotters take part in training conducted by the National Weather Service. They are the eyes and ears on the ground, while the weather radars help us see the evidence from the radar data.

When a warning is issued, it means both the storm spotters and weather radar operators agree. And it’s time to take shelter.

What Is the Difference Between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning?

Both of the storm alerts tell us to take preparation for what’s coming. But they don’t indicate the same thing as you’ll know shortly. Here are the differences between the two.

The Severity of the Alert

As stated, a tornado watch asks us to be possible to the idea of tornadoes. It doesn’t mean the weather is going to be severe. It doesn’t need you to go to a shelter.

A tornado warning is the opposite of that. When warning alerts are given, it means there’s a high possibility of tornadoes. So it asks the citizens to get ready to leave everything at a moment’s notice.

Also know: Most tornadoes by country

Duration of the Alert

A tornado watch is issued usually for 4-8 hours. That is if tornadoes don’t appear in the meantime.

But tornado detection time is extremely short since thunderstorms can turn into tornados in a matter of minutes. That’s why a tornado warning is issued for only 30 minutes before the tornado hits. Newer technologies have made it possible.

Who Issues the Alerts?

While both of the alerts fall under storm alerts, they are not issued by the same authority. A tornado watch is issued by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma. But before announcing the alerts, they contact the local office of the National Weather Service so that they can update the watch.

On the flip side, it falls under the local National Weather Service to issue a tornado warning. Since they are responsible for updating the tornado watch, it’s naturally their responsibility to issue the warning as well.

Wind Speed 

We know tornadoes have a Fujita scale that starts when the wind speed crosses the limit of 73 miles per hour. And a tornado warning is issued when the wind speed keeps rising from 39 up to 73 mph.

For tornado watches, there is no limit set for wind speed. But it’s good to keep an eye out if the wind speed is more than 20 mph.

Next: How are wind measured?

Comparison Between Tornado Watch and Warning

Here’s a brief comparison between the two terms.


Tornado Watch

Tornado Warning


It doesn’t indicate severe storms, but just the possibility

It indicates a tornado has already been spotted or it’s a high possibility


4-8 hours

30 minutes

The Authorizer

Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma

Your local National Weather Service

Wind Speed

There’s no exact wind speed limit

39-73 mile per hour

What to Do During a Tornado Warning and Watch

There are certain actions to be taken when warnings and watches get issued. And they need to be taken seriously. Research tells us that people usually do not take heed. So, here are the things you and everyone should do.

When there’s a tornado watch,

  • Continue to listen to your local weather station reports and NOAA
  • Check your local weather pattern and be alert for any changes
  • Avoid going outside or any kind of tour plan
  • Avoid going to places with wide-spanning roofs such as supermarkets and shopping malls
  • Make a list of every sheltered place near you
  • Grab your emergency supplies

When there’s a tornado warning,

  • Don’t stop listening to the NOAA weather radio or your local new stations
  • Follow the instructions given by the officials
  • Tie down any loose objects in the yard

If you’re inside a building,

  • Get to the basement or deepest place of the structure
  • Make sure there are as many walls between you and the storm as you can
  • If you can't leave your apartment then the bathrooms are a great place to take shelter

If you’re outside or in a vehicle,

  • Get to a shelter if possible
  • If not then get to a building such as banks and restaurants
  • If you can’t leave the vehicle during tornado then, put on your seatbelt and get down from the windows
  • If you’re on the water, get to land immediately
  • Leave your mobile home as it’s one of the most vulnerable places during a tornado

Tips to Stay Safe from Tornado

You now know what to do during a tornado. Truth be told, you have nothing else to do but to sit duck during the whole time. The actual test begins after the tornado when the surrounding has suffered a huge blow to its infrastructure, roads, electricity, and all other necessities.

Here are some tips to keep in mind to stay safe from the tornado’s effects,

  • Try to acquire a satellite phone if you can
  • Ham radios come in handy during these times
  • Emergency medkit
  • Collect alternative ways to communicate
  • Continue to monitor the media for the next step
  • See if you can get out and if you can’t try to contact the officials
  • Check the people around for damage
  • Check if the electric systems have been compromised
  • Don’t touch any wiring or walk over water since they could be electrified

People Also Ask 

1. Can you see a tornado coming?

Many tornadoes approach while covered in heavy precipitation. And that means it’s hard to see from far. Only if you get close enough, you can see through it.

2. What does a tornado sound like?

When a tornado comes, a loud persistent roar is most common. It’s almost like a freight train moving past you.

In an open field, a tornado sounds like a waterfall. In a populated area, it has a thundering sound.

3. What does a tornado smell like?

Although tornadoes don’t have a smell, if you’re in the right place, you can smell them. You’ll get a noticeable odor of freshly cut grass. Or you can smell natural gas from the house it destroyed

4. What causes most deaths during a tornado?

Flying debris is the deadliest cause of death during a tornado. Any loose objects can be turned into flying debris if you don’t take care of them before the storm.

5. Why is a bathroom the safest place during a tornado?

The bathroom has many pipes in its walls that can work as reinforcement. These will insulate the person from the tornado’s effects. Get into the bathtub if you have one, and take the mattress with you as cover.

Final Words

I think when talking about tornado warning vs watch, the one thing that stands out the most is the necessity of following protocols. No matter what alert they give out, we need to be ready to listen and do exactly what is required of us.

30 minutes or less, you won’t have much time debating where to go once the tornado warning hits.

That chance would have passed with the tornado watch. You can stop your activities for a day. So, do whatever you can before the winds take a turn and push towards you.

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