Explosion of weather lingo is the worst
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The language of weather apps has become increasingly unhinged, hasn’t it?
I started to notice it last April, during The Storm. You remember The Storm. The storm that made people buy all the milk. The storm that introduced us to the term “dry slot.” The storm that people deemed “overhyped.”
The hyperbolic language being used to describe said storm probably created some of the, um, bluster. Here is how my app teased out the Colorado low in the days leading up to it: “Worst blizzard in decades looms,” “potent spring storm moves in tonight,” “potentially historic blizzard on horizon,” “stay home: major blizzard looms.”
Then, Environment Canada took great pains to point out that, “Colorado lows are notoriously difficult to predict.” Now, I’m no meterologist, but there’s a 100 per cent chance this was in response to all the armchair weather people lighting up #mbstorm on Twitter with all their “you call this a storm” fist-shaking.
This kind of language isn’t just reserved for “potentially historic” winter storms, either. In the summer, I was alerted to “explosive storm potential today.” An adjective almost exclusively used to describe diarrhea is now being used to describe a storm. And not even a storm. The potential for a storm.
Words such as “threatening” and “looming” tend to get a workout, too. Severe weather is often described as an “event” to “gear up for.” Personally, I think they should start using old-timey language. I want to open my app and see that a “storm’s a-brewin’.” Just once, I want to be instructed to batten down some hatches.
The thing is, weather is already exciting. It doesn’t need to be… more exciting. I used to watch the Weather Network for hours as a kid, especially during “active weather;” a severe thunderstorm warning still sets my heart a-flutter. Weather-as-entertainment is nothing new; how else to explain the age-old practice of making some poor wind-whipped reporter in a poncho do a live hit from a hurricane.
Weather apps, like everything else, are clamouring for our attention, which is why many of them have built-in newsfeeds now, featuring viral weather stories with deliberately clicky headlines so we spend more time on the app. It’s not surprising some of that language has spilled over into the actual weather text. If an alert says “worst blizzard in decades looms,” people are probably going to click on it.
Terms to describe extreme weather phenomena, such as “bomb cyclone,” “atmospheric river” or “polar vortex,” that have also been adopted, for better or worse, in everyday language — and meterologists are of mixed minds about it, according to a recent New York Times article reporting on the 103rd meeting of the American Meteorological Society. Extreme weather is increasing in frequency, and how people are talking about the weather is changing.
In the pro column, the mainstreaming of these terms is good for public safety. So, too, is punchy language that inspires people to pay attention and take action.
Yes, the April storm was not as bad as we thought it would be, but preparing for the worst certainly kept people off the roads.
In the con column, people might not use terms such as “bomb cyclone” and “polar vortex” correctly, or misunderstand them. As residents of a city prone to confusing temperature and wind chill — I love you, Winnipeggers, but it’s never been -50 C here; closest we’ve come is -47.8 C on Christmas Eve, 1879 — we’ve seen this in action. The use of dramatic language in warnings, meanwhile, may have diminishing returns when it comes to preparedness; it’s easy to become desensitized to it, or ignore it because it doesn’t mean anything.
Hyperbole can undermine credibility, too. I noticed people making jokes about last April’s storm being “fake news,” which is troubling. It wasn’t fake news. The storm happened. It still snowed — a lot. The situation had simply evolved; that’s what weather does. If people start dismissing weather warnings because they think they are exaggerated, they will get hurt.
Then again, it’s probably better to be disappointed by an overhyped storm than completely caught off guard by an underhyped one.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.