Weather and the Media - a rant - March 25th 2008


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People will probably be familiar with some of this stuff, found with just a few clicks via Google:


Blizzards will blast Britain as a vicious cold snap sends temperatures plummeting to -8C (17.6F) bringing in the coldest Easter on record, weather experts warned.  Daily Express, March 21st 2008

This was in fact a bog-standard Northerly outbreak with showers or longer spells of rain, sleet and snow - not at all uncommon in March - less so in April - and the figure -8C refers to a wind-chill prediction for the north, which was mentioned near the bottom of the article.

A blizzard has a fairly specific definition: winds of 35 mph or more along with considerable falling and/or blowing snow reducing visibility to less than one-quarter mile for three or more hours.

White-out conditions occur primarily over the mountains, during heavy snow where the cloudbase is low and unless one has been in a true white-out, one would not appreciate how intimidating they are. In a white-out, neither the ground nor the horizon can be identified - there are no ground-features visible due to them being covered in snow. The sky and the ground blend together to the extent that it is impossible to find any point of reference and it is very easy indeed to walk straight over the edge of a crag in such conditions.


WINDS of up to 100mph will batter Britain in "the worst storm of the century", experts warned yesterday.
Daily Express, March 7th 2008

If the GFS guidance from Thursday 6th had proved to be the correct solution, this would have been the worst storm for a few years..... the century's only 8-and-a-bit years old! Hurricanes are severe tropical storms that can only form over warm tropical seas. This was, by contrast, a severe Atlantic depression (although these can occasionally bring winds of low hurricane force on the Beaufort Scale - i.e. Force 12 - in excess of 73mph). The tropical storms known as hurricanes are measured in Categories 1-5 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale: a Category 1 is one with winds of 74-95mph whilst a Category 5 has winds greater than 155mph and gusting up towards a phenomenal 200mph. They are therefore completely different beasties!


STORMS forecast to sweep the country today will leave Britain with a £1billion clean-up bill, experts warned last night.......Ferry services have been cancelled, bridges and roads closed and motorists told to avoid unnecessary journeys as the worst weather front since the great storm of 1987 hit Britain. It has already brought death and destruction to the US and Canada and last night there were fears it could also claim lives in the UK.
Daily Express, March 9th 2008

The storm DID NOT cause death and destruction in the US and Canada - it first developed in the Eastern Atlantic on Sunday March 9th! The 1990 Burns' Day Storm caused many more fatalities than the 1987 storm - and was a far more potent affair than the 10th March 2008 storm was ever expected to be. The storm on 27th October 2002 was much stronger than the recent March one was forecast to be.

Pedantic? Moi?

Now, that probably reads like a load of pedantic nit-picking! So, why do I get so irritated with this sort of stuff that one finds throughout the media?

Once you start specialising in any branch of science, you get labelled as an "expert", people read the papers and what the "experts" have said and then blame the "experts" when the sensational, terrifying conditions portrayed in the headlines do not occur. That's why.

Next time a severe weather event is threatened, why not Google your way to the Met Office, Meteogroup and other professional agencies and see what their actual press-releases say? They will be sober assessments of what may realistically be expected.  Here's the Meteogroup's press release, regarding the March 10th storm:

Meteorologists at MeteoGroup, Europe’s largest independent weather company, say that the current unsettled weather will climax on Monday morning, as an explosively deepening low pressure system swings east across the UK. It will bring heavy rain and gales or severe gales throughout the country, and the pressure in the centre of the low could fall as low as 930mb west of Ireland.

The lowest pressure ever recorded over the UK is 925.6mb at Ochtertyre, near Stirling, in Perthshire in 1884. However, the impending storm, bad as it looks, is unlikely to be quite that deep when it crosses the country.

Winds will gusts to 60 or 70mph over a wide area early on Monday as a band of squally rain whips through, and perhaps up to 80mph in exposed areas of the west and near the south coast. Winds will ease a little during the day but reinvigorate towards evening, with fierce gusts returning after dark, most likely in the western and southern UK.

The storm will develop in response to a very strong jet stream moving out of Canada on Saturday then crossing the Atlantic and the UK during Sunday and Monday. Winds speeds five or six miles up in the atmosphere will approach 240mph in this jet. Anyone flying back from North America at the end of the weekend might do so in record time.

That was pretty much what happened. It's severe weather capable of causing tree and structural damage and most certainly a lot more care than usual is required if out and about. Why the press should choose to sensationalise such matters is an interesting question, but it is quite clear that such sensationalism is very unhelpful indeed. People need educating about how to handle severe weather of various types, for sure - ask any Mountain Rescue team leader - but the advice should be specific to what is expected to happen. Otherwise, the risk is obvious: people reach saturation point with respect to sensationalised events that did not play out as the media portrayed them. Then - and it will happen eventually - a really serious weather event does come along and people take little notice of the warnings, typically dismissing them as "the usual hype". If only I had a pound for every time I've heard that....

I know one thing - if the Met Office predicted winds of 90-100mph to affect the area in which I live, I would take their warning very seriously indeed.

I have an uncomfortable gut-feeling that it's all part of the "lowest common denominator" culture, also known as "dumbing-down", where information is formatted to appeal to those with the shortest attention-spans. If so, this is an appalling trend. I work in scientific interpretation and I feel very strongly that the public deserve to be treated as intelligent beings, and not as morons whose attention will only be captured by apocalyptic one-liners. If the latter were really true, book publishers and retailers would all have gone out of business long ago.

Personally I'd like to see more people, no, all people, treated as intelligent beings by the media. Sensationalism, usually proving to be hype, just serves to nurture ignorance and prejudice across the board and in the case of the subject of this page, it perpetuates a profound and completely unjust mistrust of scientists (the "experts") within popular society. This mistrust is dangerous: it is precisely the opposite direction to the way we need to be heading as a civilisation. There are a number of potentially significant issues coming along that will need an intelligent community-wide response - climate change, energy and food security being key examples. The scientific community will play a key role in predicting the timing and severity of these as there are meteorological and/or geological factors involved as major driving-forces behind all three. Given that they are all things we need to prepare for, if we are to cope with potential future adversity, it begs the question:

Who should we be listening to?


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