Thursday, September 1, 2011

Weather -- or not

Cristoforo Colombo had heard about the powerful Caribbean storms that the Taino Indians called "huracan" on his early voyages, and when, on his fourth trip to the New World in 1502, the natives told him that one such storm was approaching Hispaniola, he strategically moved the ships he commanded to the opposite side of the island, saving the small fleet when the rain and wind struck the following day.

Today, of course, we have much more warning and information on hurricanes than Christopher Columbus, as he is now known, did. There is radar and satellite images and computer projections -- and we have the broadcast media, which seems to go berserk when any type of extraordinary weather event unfolds. The flashy graphics and dramatic music bursts from the screen as if America were going to war again, meteorologists and anchors repeat warnings and narrate video with hyperbolic commentary, and reporters in the field -- those poor souls -- are made to stand in outlandish conditions so we can see the worst of the weather without going out there ourselves.

I know that all this drives some people crazy, and I admit that much of it is over-the-top, but I am a weather junkie and when noteworthy storms strike -- as was the case with Hurricane Irene -- I get excited, flip channels, scroll through news items on the Internet, and post updates on Twitter as if the outside world were getting their only information from me. And with Irene, as with other storms of all types, I heard a chorus of voices before, during and after dismissing the hurricane as a "dud." For most people in the Boston area, the storm entailed some wind and rain, leaving them feeling that the projections and the coverage were all hype. However, even in the city limits of Boston, several thousand people lost electricity and 500 calls came in to City Hall about downed trees.

The bigger picture is awe-inspiring -- especially because Irene made landfall as weakening Category 1 hurricane and did significant damage after being downgraded to a lowly tropical storm. Fourteen states, plus Washington, DC, Puerto Rico and a number of other Caribbean Islands were affected; more than seven million people lost power on the US East Coast; damage at this early point is estimated at $10 billion; and, sadly, the death toll now stands at 54. The state of Vermont, far from landfall and coastal surges, is experiencing the worst flooding in a century due to Irene's downpours; at one point 11 towns were isolated as a result of rising rivers and washed-out roads.

Maybe you didn't need that bottled water and flashlight that you ran out and fought crowds to get, but some people did. The information and warnings from the National Weather Service should not be confused with the melodrama that broadcast news -- especially the local TV stations -- foments to go along with it. Local TV is over-the-top every night on virtually every story, so it's annoying, but no surprise, when they do the same every time a storm is on the way. The have to fill their time and they have to keep viewers on edge, and when they go live all day, as they did Sunday with Irene, there are a lot of hours to fill. At one point an anchor narrated a piece of video that showed a roof with two tiles fluttering gently in the breeze. "Look at that," she said. "Roof tiles are being torn off by Irene."

The larger point I want to make is that, despite decades of cliches about their unreliability, meteorologists are terrifically accurate, especially these days. We were told, for example, at the end of last week that the weather in Boston after Irene passed would be upper 70s/low 80s all week and there might be a quick midweek shower but the next chance of a storm would be the weekend. Right on. I hear people complain when a snow forecast is a few inches off, not seeming to grasp that -- despite all the variables of weather and the complexities of predicting what will happen at any moment -- we were told several days in advance that a particular type of precipitation would fall from the sky for a predicted amount of time. Sorry if the forecast eight inches fell in the town next to you and only seven fell on your house.

Someone I know complained out loud one day last spring when it started to rain and I reminded her that the forecast had said there was a 20% chance of showers. "Yeah," she said. "That means it's not supposed to rain." I started to explain and then just threw up my hands.

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