The National Weather Service wants to know why drivers heed or ignore winter weather warnings.
The return of winter to Minnesota means the return of a key question: How do you drive in this stuff?
This year, the National Weather Service wants to go further, asking people WHY they drive at all in the face of winter weather warnings.
In an online survey that will run at least through this winter and next, the agency and several partners in government, academia and the media will try to find out what makes some people stock up on food, water and gas when a storm approaches, while others shrug and head for the hockey game.
"We want to know why people act or don't act," said Amanda Graning, a meteorologist and forecaster in the Weather Service's Duluth office who is overseeing the survey. "If we have only a few sentences to write or someone on TV has only a few seconds for a warning, what is it that people will react to?"
Maybe the typical weather warnings are too larded with meteorological minutiae to help people judge the threat they're facing, said Graning and Matt Taraldsen, a St. Cloud State University meteorology and communications student who's managing the survey. For example, while a blizzard warning has a specific promise of winds of at least 35 miles per hour along with some snow, most people might not know the definition. Meanwhile, a "winter storm" warning may seem less threatening, but the heavy snow or ice can be just as crippling as the technical blizzard.
"We want to bridge the connection between what we as scientists see as the weather and what everybody in the public sees," Taraldsen said. "We want to fix that communications gap."
It may not be as easy as fixing a gap. Suzanne Stangl-Erkens, a St. Cloud State communications professor who helped design the survey questions, said she sees a "lack of trust" between the Weather Service and the public. Warnings may make things seem worse than they will be, she said, and that's what the public may remember.
But the Minnesota weather consumer may also have a bit of an attitude problem, she said.
"People tend to be fairly blasé [about warnings]," Stangl-Erkens said. "I think it's a Minnesota thing. But that's what [the survey] is trying to figure out."
The survey will be posted following winter storm warnings, the highest level of alert. Websites for the Weather Service offices in the Twin Cities, Duluth, La Crosse, Wis., Sioux Falls, S.D., Aberdeen, S.D., and Grand Forks, N.D., will post the survey, as will some regional television stations and newspapers, the Minnesota State Climatology Office and Minnesota Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Questions will ask about more than travel habits. The survey also probes respondents for how they prepared at home after a warning, whether they bought gas or food or snow shovels, how they heard the warnings and how they passed information along.
By running the survey through at least the winter of 2009-10, Graning said she hopes to shed light on some puzzling preliminary findings.
In three test surveys following winter storms in northern Minnesota late last winter, fewer than 5 percent of the respondents allowed themselves more driving time after a weather warning. That was even the response to blizzard warnings for a storm that ultimately brought 30 inches of snow, winds exceeding 50 miles per hour and 300 survey respondents.
But there was a somewhat contradictory return, too. Of those people who did alter their routines after the warning was issued, 48 percent said they did so because of the prospect of poor travel.
Graning said the survey will help sort out discrepancies like that, while bringing the Weather Service feedback it's not used to getting.
"Bashing? Oh, yeah. We already got that," she said.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646