What is the Difference Between a Weather Watch and a Weather Warning?

Sherry Holetzky

The basic difference between a weather watch and a weather warning is the immediacy of weather conditions. A watch is issued to alert people in a certain region, in advance, that conditions are favorable for dangerous weather. When certain meteorological circumstances are present, severe weather can develop quickly, and watches are issued to prepare people for this possibility so they can take appropriate safety measures. One can be issued for any type of severe weather, including winter storm and wildfire conditions, but most frequently involve severe thunderstorms, floods and flash floods, or tornadoes.

A weather warning is often issued for tornadoes that have touched down.
A weather warning is often issued for tornadoes that have touched down.

The simplest distinction is that a weather watch indicates possible severe weather, while a warning indicates that severe storms or the conditions that produce severe storms have been observed in nearby areas and will likely reach the location being warned. A watch does not necessarily mean that severe weather is imminent; it indicates that it is possible, and likely, due to existing or predicted atmospheric events or conditions. There are distinct guidelines for determining if a watch or a warning should be issued.

A handful of hailstones from a severe thunderstorm.
A handful of hailstones from a severe thunderstorm.

For example, a severe thunderstorm watch is issued if conditions suggest that winds may reach 55-60 miles per hour (about 88-96 kilometers per hour) or higher, or may produce hail that is 0.75 inches (about 1.9 cm) in diameter or larger. A severe thunderstorm warning, on the other hand, is not issued until such a storm has been physically observed or is spotted on radar. A tornado watch is issued when conditions may produce a tornado, and a warning is issued when a tornado has been sighted, or when rotation is seen on radar.

Lightning from a thunderstorm striking a field.
Lightning from a thunderstorm striking a field.

It is important for everyone to pay attention to weather alerts, to begin taking safety measures if conditions favor bad weather, and to prepare to take cover or move to a safer location immediately in case a warning is given. It is wise for a family to prepare a safety plan and conduct drills occasionally to make sure members know how to respond once a weather watch or a warning is issued. It is also a good idea to make a post-storm plan, and arrange a meeting place, so family members know where to look for each other if separated during a storm.

The threat of wintry conditions can constitute a watch or warning, depending on the extent of the threat.
The threat of wintry conditions can constitute a watch or warning, depending on the extent of the threat.

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Discussion Comments


@giddion – My family and I have several meet-up locations, and if the first one on the list has been blown away, we try the second one. We did have a tornado a few years back in our town, and my sister's house did get hit.

We had been under a tornado watch all day, and unfortunately, the rotation was already right above her house when the actual warning was issued. She only had time to go to the most central room in the house without windows before the tornado ripped off the roof and a couple of walls.

Not knowing whether or not our homes had been hit, she drove to our meeting location right away and found us there. We had all been so worried, because the radar had pinpointed the rotation right on her road, and we had all heard this on TV.


I've never been under a fire weather watch before. That would have to be the scariest kind!

I'm more used to dealing with winter storm watches and warnings that happen in January or February. Winter storm warnings mean that either ice is falling or freezing rain is coming down and turning into ice as it hits.

I remember a bad ice storm from a few years ago. The weather man predicted that it would be bad, and the warnings were correct. Ice weighed down trees and power lines, and we were without electricity for two weeks.


I always associate a watch with keeping an eye on the situation, or watching it closely. I think of the term “warning” as more serious, because if any authority figure has been watching me and then they decide to deliver a warning to me, then I know I am on thin ice.

That's just the way I keep it straight in my head. “Warning” has always been a word I associate more with danger, while “watch” just means be aware of your surroundings.


I never thought about having a plan for meeting up with family after a storm. I just always assumed I would either go to their house or they would come to mine to check on me, but since we live in the same town, it is very possible that a tornado could destroy both of our homes. It's a very good idea to have a post-storm plan.


Simple mnemonics / easy way to remember - Warning has an "i" which can stand for "imminent" or "is" happening right now.


Never choose "inaction" - at least decide, according to the level of warning, how much to prepare, how often to check the radar or tv reports, according to the warnings.

Taking precautions dozens of times, for years, then nothing ever happens, can fool a person. Stay in touch with the reports and in-touch with the radar. Do *some* preparation ahead of time at least so you won't go from zero to full-on threat in just one minute.


Remember too, a severe thunderstorm can produce a tornado with little or no warning -- particularly if a tornado watch is already in place. So even a storm that does not have a tornado warning on it can still produce a twister. Pay attention to the safety precautions and take them!

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