How Much Weather News Can America Stand?

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
17 October 2005

pen5Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, flash floods, heat waves, droughts, winter storms, El Niño effects, La Niña effects, brush and forest fires, high winds, and hail storms occur in the United States every year, somewhere. These are for the most part seasonally differentiated. Hurricanes have their season from April to November. Heat waves are usually in the summertime, fires are in summer and fall, and so forth. We have a weather channel that is on for 24 hours a day/seven days a week/fifty-two weeks a year. Many people stay awake at night until they hear the weather reports on TV and they wake up in the morning thinking about getting a glimpse of the weather during coverage of the morning’s news. And then there is the back page of USA Today, which is totally devoted to weather.

To me it is pretty clear that the US public is immersed in weather information from morning till night and from cradle to grave. Weather coverage does not stop at the US borders. Listeners are also informed about typhoons, cyclones, droughts, famines, fires and haze around the globe. Is there an upper limit for how much weather news America can stand? I think there is. I think we are at that point, if we have not in fact already surpassed it.

With such constant coverage in the media on a daily basis, are Americans likely to become desensitized to reports about weather and its impacts when it becomes important for them to know about it? Little effort is put in by the media to use their airtime to educate the public about weather. What does it mean when they say there is “a 60 percent chance of rain”? Where will it fall? Is it in a specific location where I am going to be, or is the forecast meant for a much larger area? This could help the public to understand why forecasters show yb using statistics how accurate their forecasts have been, while the general public thinks the forecasts are unreliable? What, for example, is the significance, if any, about reporting that a rainstorm was the worst in six years? Is that a significant fact?

I would argue that, as supersaturated as we are with weather information, weather knowledge of the general public is not very high. Their understanding of weather phenomena, that is, the science that underpins weather events and processes, is not very good. I would also argue that it is important for people to know the science even at a rudimentary level, because they often are putting themselves at risk to its impacts without realizing it.

America is a very mobile society. A significant portion of the population moves from one location to another in a given year. Even if they have come to know something about weather- and climate-related hazards where they have lived for some time, they may have little understanding of the weather conditions in the place to which they are moving. They’ll have a general knowledge: the East and Gulf coasts are subjected to hurricanes, the Midwest and Southeast to tornadoes, snowy cold winter outbreaks in the northeast, ice storms in the central US, and so forth. But that is likely to be all they know. The frequency, severity, and the coping tactics and strategies are often unknown and, therefore, unconsidered by them — until an extreme weather event occurs.

When there are negative impacts of an extreme weather event, all hell breaks loose. Finger pointing begins with claims that governments or agencies did not respond appropriately. But what responsibility do people have for their own well-being related to weather and climate?

I recall a New Yorker who had relocated in Colorado saying that he “had it with the winters there” and was going to move to the west coast of Florida . He specifically noted that he was not moving his family to the eastern Atlantic seaboard of that state because of the risk to hurricanes. He moved. As it happened he did avoid the wrath of Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. He was jubilant at his brilliant decision to avoid Florida ‘s hurricane-prone east coast. However, in mid-March 1993 his home and business were hit by the most intense winter storm of the 1900s, Superstorm ’93. In Florida that particular storm was call the “No-name storm”. It struck the state before the hurricane season had started and during which they name hurricanes. This one came from the Midwestern US and was out of the state’s perceived severe storm season.

Now the global climate is changing. On this most scientists seem to agree. They do not agree as to the cause or severity of the change (e.g., global warming) or to the likely impacts that might occur. Questions abound: will there be more heat waves? Will they appear earlier, last longer, and become more intense? The same questions can be asked about tornadoes, hurricanes, bush and forest fires and flooding? The climate change community has been concerned in the past about the possibility of single-event blockbuster storms, and it seems that since the early 1990s there have been several storms that have been called “superstorms.” They had been called so because of their record-setting properties or because of their severe economic or social impacts on society. However, now, at the onset of the 2st century, what I call “The Climate Century,” I think a new concern has emerged that has not been on the radar screen of scientists: a season of superstorms.

In 2004, for example, Florida was hit by a record-setting 4 hurricanes in a season. At the same time of year, Japan was hit by a record-setting number of typhoons (ten) making landfall. Okay. One could legitimately argue that these were independent freak occurrences. In 2005, however, the US Gulf coast was hit by two major hurricanes within a few weeks (Katrina and Rita, respectively), almost hitting in the same location. Some climate researchers have suggested that the appearance of more intense and more frequent tropical storms is consistent with global warming arguments.

A key hurricane researcher, Bill Gray of CSU, has shown that in the 1930-60 period hurricanes were much more numerous than they have been in the 1960-95 period. He contends that hurricane frequency fluctuates on the decadal scale and that we are now moving back to an era of hurricanes similar to that of the 1930s to 1960s. How this debate becomes resolved is not yet clear.

The jury is out on this particular scientific issue, but it does not let people or their governments off the hook. They each have a responsibility when it comes to weather-related hazards awareness.

So, at a time when Americans are supersaturated with weather information, they are likely to be bombarded with even more weather information. If there has ever been a time for people to have knowledge about weather and the climate system that produces it, that time is now.

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