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Here's how storm warnings and alerts are sent out in Sask, according to Environment Canada

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Many residents across Saskatchewan noted the flood of emergency alerts during Sunday’s wave of thunderstorms. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) meteorologist Terri Lang explains how those watches and warnings are sent out to the public.

It begins with meteorologists tracking systems as they grow and change. June 23 saw a low pressure system from Alberta collide with an unstable air mass – creating the conditions for thunderstorms, plough winds and tornadoes to form.

Lang was sure to differentiate between watches and warnings.

“We kind of equate it to making cupcakes. Everyone laughs about that but when we put out a watch that means we have all the ingredients that we need to make cupcakes or in this case, severe weather or tornadoes,” she explained. “They won't necessarily come together in the right way. But everything is there. So we want people to be paying attention.”

Carrying on the analogy, a warning is issued when those ingredients combine in the right way to create a cupcake … or a life-threatening storm.

“That means we have cupcakes and we want people to take action right away, not wait around for it to come,” she said.

Specifically for tornadoes, Lang said meteorologists look for rotation within the supercells.

“That’s usually how most tornado warnings are issued – based on radar and rotation that is seen. Then if we get reports of strong winds or hail, flooding rains, that's when severe thunderstorm warnings are issued.”

As for the logistics of getting the word out to the public, Lang said the ECCC sends out the warnings – but another company deals with disseminating the alerts.

“The Pelmorex Weather Network, they deal with alerting,” she said. “So how it comes through on your phone, how it comes through on the television, that type of thing.”

As many residents across the province witnessed Sunday, tornado warnings have the ability to interrupt regularly scheduled programming.

Alerts to your phone on the other hand are dependent on if the cell tower your phone is communicating with is within a warning area.

“It has to do with your cell phone carrier and where you are with respect to the cell phone towers that are getting pinged off of,” Lang said.

In contrast to the widespread alerts seen on Sunday, Lang explained that ECCC tries to be as accurate as possible when distributing their warnings.

“We define the area based on what we call mesoscale regions. We try and make them as small as possible so that people don't look out the window and go, ‘Oh it’s sunny here’ and don't think there's any tornado.”

Safety practices

Above all, Lang stressed that residents should never ignore weather alerts.

“We want people to pay attention to those warnings and have a looksee at them and look at the detail of them,” she said. “Where is it for? Is it for someplace close to you? Then start paying attention. If it's not then maybe get ready. Maybe it's coming towards you.”

In an extreme weather event, forewarning is key. In the absence of knowledge, confusion leads to panic.

“A lot of people leave things to the last second and then they panic because they don't know what to do. So if you can hear thunder, if you can see lightning, it's time to pack up and go before it actually hits because some of these storms can travel over 80km/h,” Lang explained.

Leaving an area where the storm is set to hit is not always the correct move. Residents don’t want to be caught in their vehicles or on the road in the middle of a hail storm.

Your best bet, according to Lang, is to get inside a sturdy building and hold out in the lowest level, furthest away from windows and doors.

“Most people are injured by flying debris. So [get] as many doors and walls as you can between yourself and the outside. If you don't have a basement, get into an interior room. Closets work really well. Bathrooms are also really good as well.”

More storms?

While Lang couldn’t conclusively say if Saskatchewan was in store for a more active storm season – there’s certainly more of the needed ingredients to make cupcakes this year as opposed to last.

“Last year was hot dry and smoky. We had one tornado last year and that was the lowest ever on any records that we have,” she explained. “We got the rains early this year. We got them in May, early June. That's having an effect on the crops being able to grow and when the crops grow, they give off a tremendous amount of moisture.”

This “evapotranspiration” sends the moisture into the atmosphere to produce more rain and thunderstorms – which in turn continues the cycle.

“We live in Saskatchewan, severe weather is part of our summer and everybody should have a plan,” Lang said. “Know what to do when severe weather strikes and have a way to receive the warnings.”

ECCC watches and warnings can be accessed on its alerts page here.

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