Blizzards and freezing temperatures and severe thunderstorms, oh my. No matter the flavor of the winter weather, you can bet someone’s designed an app to predict a storm’s size, distance, and intensity. But how do you know which apps to trust? There are too many out there for me to unilaterally say which ones are good and which ones are bad—you have to do that legwork on your own, downloading and then vetting the software that best syncs up with your lifestyle. Thankfully, that’s easy enough so long as you know what to look for.
Make Sure the App Cites Its Sources
Very few apps actually create their own weather forecasts. They all get their information from somewhere else, and that somewhere else is important when you’re making potentially life-or-death decisions based on the forecast.
I rely on the National Weather Service (NWS)—the official weather-forecasting branch of the U.S. government—as well as private organizations like the Weather Company (the force behind the Weather Channel and Weather Underground) and the smart meteorologists at my local television news stations. These are all known entities, so look for apps powered by their data.
Don’t overlook the apps published by your local television news stations. The folks you see on the local news aren’t just weather presenters; these days, most of them are degreed meteorologists. They’re fairly accurate, and they often know local climate quirks better than the big companies.
Finally, it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid the unknown. If you’ve never heard of an app—and it doesn’t explicitly tell you where it gets its information—it’s best to avoid it altogether. If you still want to use a certain app but are unsure about it, ask a meteorologist or a weather buff.
Remember: The National Weather Service Doesn’t Have Its Own App
This is an important thing to remember when you’re looking for a good app. Any that uses NWS or NOAA in its name should be ignored. The National Weather Service doesn’t have an app, just the domain Weather.gov and links to the sites of associated agencies like the National Hurricane Center and the Storm Prediction Center.
You can easily bookmark any web page as an icon on your smartphone’s home screen, giving any web page the same ease-of-access as an app. Not only does that give you quick access to sites like the Storm Prediction Center, but it also allows you to add the NWS’s forecast for your town right to your home screen.
Avoid Apps with Too Much (or Too Little) Information
There is such a thing as information overload when it comes to weather forecasts. You have to find a source that strikes the right balance between providing enough information and enough good information.
A great example of too much information in a weather forecast is precise snowfall totals before a snowstorm. Some weather apps will provide you snowfall totals right down to the tenth of an inch. It’s scientifically unjustifiable to make such a precise forecast, even as the snow is falling. They’re usually just regurgitating what weather models are saying, but not only is that not a forecast, it’s also straight-up misinformation.
It’s also unsafe to rely on too little information. Some apps will only tell you that there’s a chance of isolated thunderstorms tomorrow. They strip away the important context, such as the chance that those thunderstorms could produce baseball-size hail or destructive tornadoes. You’d never know that little tidbit if you relied solely on an icon and a couple of numbers.
Pay Attention to Emergency Alerts
All modern smartphones are equipped with the capability to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts, a program rolled out this decade by the federal government in order to quickly alert people in the United States to dangerous weather in their area.
The National Weather Service has reported multiple instances of people surviving tornadoes thanks to the arrival of one of these push notifications. Even though many apps have the ability to alert you when a watch or warning is in effect for your location, the default emergency alerts on your phone are a simple feature that could save your life one day.