Can we talk about how we talk about the weather?
DENVER – Last week, days after a bomb hurricane (associated with a series of atmospheric rivers, including some of the Pineapple Express variety) devastatingly targeted California, a downtown conference center has been flooded by the responsible forces – not for the driving rain and wind but for the forecast.
Dozens of the world’s top meteorologists and meteorologists gathered to share the latest research at the 103rd meeting of the American Meteorological Society. The subject line of an email to attendees on the first day projected optimism – “Daily Forecast: A Deluge of Scientific Knowledge”.
But there were troubling undercurrents. Scientists agree on the increasing frequency of extreme weather events – the blizzard in Buffalo, the floods in Montecito, California, the prolonged drought in East Africa – and their disturbing impacts. At the Denver meeting, however, there was another growing concern: how people are talking about the weather.
The widespread use of colorful terms like “bomb cyclone” and “atmospheric river,” along with the proliferation of storm and weather categories, colors, and names, has struck meteorologists as a mixed blessing: good for public safety and climate change awareness, but potentially so amplified that it leaves the public numb or unsure of the actual risk. The new vocabulary, devised in many cases by the meteorological community, threatens to spiral out of control.
“Language evolved to grab people’s attention,” said Cindy Bruyere, director of the Capacity Center for Climate and Weather Extremes at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She sat with two fellow scientists in a cafe between sessions and became increasingly animated as she discussed what she called “buzzwords” that didn’t make sense.
“I don’t have any image in my head when I hear the term ‘bomb cyclone’.” She said: “We need much clearer language, not buzzwords.”
Others find that the words, while evocative, are sometimes used incorrectly. “The worst thing is the ‘polar vortex,’” said Andrea Lopez Lang, an atmospheric scientist at the State University of New York at Albany, as she stood in a hallway between meteorology sessions. Dr. Lopez Lang is an expert on polar vortices, which are technically stratospheric phenomena that occur at least six miles above sea level. “But over the past decade people have started to describe it like cold air at ground level,” she said.
In an effort to contain the runaway verbiage, meteorologists have begun to study the impact of extreme weather language. How do people react to the way the weather is communicated? Are they taking the right precautions? Or do they?
It’s “a hot topic,” said Gina Eosco, a social scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather program office. “Literally, communication is our #1 concern.” In 2021, Dr. Eosco authored an article with the less than concise title, “Is a Consistent Message Achievable?: Defining ‘Message Consistency’ for Weather Enterprise Researchers and Practitioners.”
For now, the answer to the log’s question is: cloudy. To highlight the problem, Dr. Eosco – sitting on the floor in a conference room – pulled out her phone andshowed a collection of posts from various television stations and websites that used competing graphics, colors and language to characterize Tropical Storm Henri, in 2021. The presentations were not very distinct from each other, noted Dr. Eosco, but they alluded to the diversity in intense weather branding approaches.
“I’m trying to see how people conceive of it this year,” she said. “They’re giving it a facelift, basically.”
To fully understand the impact of how people talk about the weather, Dr Eosco said, more information is needed. His NOAA division has called for researchers to quantify the effectiveness of weather messaging strategies, including “visual, verbal messages, naming, categories.”
The larger goal, she said, was to ensure that the official cascade of weather terminology promoted understanding and appropriate public response, not confusion.
“I got a text from a family member over the weekend that said, ‘Is an atmospheric river a real thing?’” said Castle Williams, a social scientist sitting by land next to Dr. Eosco; the two were co-authors of the 2021 paper on consistent weather messaging. “She thought it was a made up word for intense rain.” He added: “I gave him a lot of information about atmospheric rivers.” Dr. Eosco noted that researchers are exploring whether to group atmospheric rivers into categories, much like hurricanes were numerically classified according to their severity.
Some living terminology begins with scientists – “bomb cyclone”, for example. “The reason we called it a bomb is because it’s the explosive intensification of a surface cyclone, in other words, the winds you feel near the ground where people live,” said John Gyakum, a meteorologist at McGill University who helped invent the warrant in the 1980s. The least concise definition is a “24-hour period during which the central pressure drops from at least 24 millibars”, which is a measure of atmospheric pressure.
At the start of the terms, the weather pattern “was primarily an ocean phenomenon”, Dr Gyakum said, and it still largely is. Maybe more people are affected these days because the coasts are more densely populated. “Why do we hear more about bomb cyclones than 40 years ago? ” he said. “People pay more attention to extreme weather conditions than before.” He added: “Talking about bomb cyclones is not necessarily an indication of increased frequency.”
According to Google Trends, the phrase “bomb cyclone” was barely uttered until 2017, but has since become a din, along with “weather bomb” and “weather cyclone bomb”.
Some meteorologists said they had become cautious about what they said, to avoid sensationalism. “Once you use a term and let the cat out of the bag, you can’t put it back,” said Andrew Hoell, research meteorologist at NOAA, where he is co-lead of the drought task force. “It can be used in ways you never imagined.”
He had just finished speaking at the “Explaining Extreme Events” press conference, which was quite dry, linguistically. Subsequently, Dr. Hoell was more adamant about what he won’t say: “I don’t use ‘mega-drought’.” , or a permanent change? A changing paradigm for drought in the western United States.
“You won’t hear me use that term,” repeated Dr. Hoell. “It’s irrelevant. I can characterize it in simpler language.
As? “Prolonged drought,” he said.
Ultimately, the language dilemma reflects a larger challenge. On the one hand, scientists say, it’s hard to underestimate the profound risk global warming poses to Earth’s inhabitants over the next century and beyond. But the pace of the language may not suit the day-to-day nature of many weather events.
Blame is usually cast in the passive voice: meteorologists have created catchy terms, which have been swept into the ratings-driven media vortex. Daniel Swain, a climatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said technical terminology was widely used without context by mainstream news media and on social media “where some people might use a term half-jokingly and others are really freaking out.”
He added: “The headlines literally sound like the end of the world.”
Consider the “ARkStorm”. The term originated in 2010 in a project led by the United States Geological Survey, which explored a “megastorm scenario originally projected as a 1 in 1,000 year event”. The term is a verbal mass combining “atmospheric river”, “k” (representing 1,000) and “storm”, with an overall biblical resonance.
“The acronym exists, predictably, as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Noachie’s Flood, although the scenario is frankly not that far removed from the biblical depiction,” said Dr Swain, who was among the researchers involved. in a 2018 report titled ARkStorm 2.0.
ARkStorm research proposes weather conditions that could flood thousands of miles, cause hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, cause the evacuation of over a million people, and occur more frequently than every 1,000 years, in especially on the west coast. (The original forecast, according to Genesis, called for “floods upon the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth shall perish.”)
No matter how epic, historic, or apocalyptic, there was no ARkStorm going on as of mid-January, despite an email sent to Dr. Swain by a media outlet asking if the ARkSTorm “is going to hit California tonight” .
He quickly called back, to prevent misinformation from spreading, Dr Swain said. He assumed that the media had read the report or read its title, but had not read the report itself. “No,” he told the outlet, “it’s not literally the end of the world.”
Leave a Reply