DENVER — Last week, days after a bomb cyclone (coupled with a series of atmospheric rivers, a few of the Pineapple Express variety) took devastating aim at California, a downtown conference center here was inundated by the forces responsible — not for the pounding rain and wind but for the forecast.
Scores of the world’s most authoritative meteorologists and weather scientists gathered to share the most recent research on the 103rd meeting of the American Meteorological Society. The topic line of an email to participants on the primary day projected optimism — “Each day Forecast: A Flood of Scientific Knowledge.”
But there have been troubling undercurrents. Scientists are in consensus on the increasing frequency of utmost weather events — the blizzard in Buffalo, flooding in Montecito, Calif., prolonged drought in East Africa — and their worrisome impacts. On the Denver meeting, nonetheless, there was one other growing worry: how people talk in regards to the weather.
The widespread use of colourful terms like “bomb cyclone” and “atmospheric river,” together with the proliferating categories, colours and names of storms and weather patterns, has struck meteorologists as a mixed blessing: good for public safety and climate-change awareness but potentially so amplified that it leaves the general public numb to or unsure of the particular risk. The brand new vocabulary, devised in lots of cases by the weather-science community, threatens to spin uncontrolled.
“The language evolved to get people’s attention,” said Cindy Bruyere, director of the Capability Center for Climate and Weather Extremes on the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She sat with two fellow scientists at a coffee bar between sessions and have become increasingly animated as she discussed what she called “buzz words” that lack meaning.
“I even have zero pictures in my head once I hear the term ‘bomb cyclone,’” she said. “We want significantly clearer language, not hyped words.”
Others find that the words, while evocative, are sometimes used incorrectly. “The worst is ‘polar vortex,’” said Andrea Lopez Lang, an atmospheric scientist on the State University of Latest York in Albany, as she stood in a corridor between weather-science sessions. Dr. Lopez Lang is an authority in polar vortices, which technically are stratospheric phenomena that occur a minimum of six miles above sea level. “But within the last decade, individuals are beginning to describe it as cold air on the bottom level,” she said.
In an effort to contain the runaway verbiage, weather scientists have begun to check the impact of extreme-weather language. How do people react to the best way the weather is communicated? Do they take the correct precautions? Or do they tune it out?
It’s “a hot topic,” said Gina Eosco, a social scientist with the Weather Program Office on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Literally, communication is our No. 1 concern.” In 2021, Dr. Eosco was an creator of a paper with the less-than-pithy title, “Is a Consistent Message Achievable?: Defining ‘Message Consistency’ for Weather Enterprise Researchers and Practitioners.”
For the moment, the reply to the paper’s query is: cloudy. To underscore the problem, Dr. Eosco — sitting on the ground in a single conference hall — pulled out her phone and showed a group of messages from various television stations and web sites that used competing graphics, colours and language to characterize the tropical storm Henri, in 2021. The presentations weren’t terribly distinct from each other, Dr. Eosco noted, but they hinted at the variety in approaches to branding intense weather.
“I’m attempting to see how are people designing it this yr,” she said. “They’re giving it a face-lift, essentially.”
To totally understand the impact of how people speak about weather, Dr. Eosco said, more information is required. Her division of NOAA has put out calls for researchers to quantify the effectiveness of weather-messaging strategies, including “visual, verbal messages, naming, categories.”
The broader aim, she said, was to make certain that the official cascade of weather terminology promoted understanding and an appropriate response from the general public, not confusion.
“I got a text from a member of the family this weekend that said, ‘Is an atmospheric river an actual thing?’” said Castle Williams, a social scientist sitting on the ground beside Dr. Eosco; the 2 were joint authors on the 2021 paper about consistent weather messaging. “She thought it was a made-up word for intense rainful.” He added, “I gave her loads of details about atmospheric rivers.” Dr. Eosco noted that researchers were exploring whether to group atmospheric rivers into categories, much as hurricanes were ranked numerically in keeping with severity.
A number of the vivid terminology begins with the scientists — “bomb cyclone,” as an illustration. “The rationale we called it a bomb is since it is the explosive intensification of a surface cyclone, in other words, the winds you might be experiencing near the bottom where people live,” said John Gyakum, a meteorologist at McGill University who helped coin the term within the Nineteen Eighties. The less-pithy definition is “a 24-hour period wherein the central pressure falls by a minimum of 24 millibars,” which is a measure of atmospheric pressure.
Within the term’s early days, the weather pattern “was primarily an ocean phenomenon,” Dr. Gyakum said, and it still largely is. Perhaps more individuals are affected today since the coasts are more densely populated. “Why can we hear more about bomb cyclones than we did 40 years ago?” he said. “Individuals are paying more attention to extreme weather than within the olden days.” He added, “Talking about bomb cyclones shouldn’t be necessarily a sign of increased frequency.”
Some meteorologists said that they had change into cautious about what they uttered, to avoid sensationalism. “Once you employ a term and let the cat out of the bag, you may’t get it back in,” said Andrew Hoell, a research meteorologist with NOAA, where he’s co-leader of the drought task force. “It may possibly be utilized in ways you never imagined.”
He had just finished speaking on the “Explaining Extreme Events Press Conference,” which was fairly dry, linguistically. Afterward, Dr. Hoell was more emphatic about what he won’t say: “I don’t use ‘megadrought.’” Nevertheless, later within the conference he was scheduled to take part in a town-hall discussion titled, “Drought, Megadrought, or a Everlasting Change? A Shifting Paradigm for Drought within the Western United States.”
“You won’t hear me use that term,” Dr. Hoell said again. “It’s not relevant. I can characterize it in additional plain language.”
Comparable to? “Prolonged drought,” he said.
Ultimately, the linguistic dilemma reflects a bigger challenge. On one hand, scientists say, it is difficult to overstate the profound risk that global warming poses to Earth’s inhabitants in the following century and beyond. However the drumbeat of language might not be appropriate for the day-to-day nature of many weather events.
Blame is usually solid within the passive voice: Weather scientists crafted attention-grabbing terms, which were drawn into the ratings-driven media vortex. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist on the University of California, Los Angeles, said that the technical terminology was widely used without context by traditional news media and on social media “where some people might use a term half-jokingly and others are genuinely freaking out.”
He added, “Headlines literally sound like the top of the world.”
Consider the “ARkStorm.” The term emerged in 2010 in a project spearheaded by america 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, as one might expect, as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Noachian flood, though the scenario frankly isn’t that far off from the biblical depiction,” said Dr. Swain, who was among the many researchers involved in a 2018 report called ARkStorm 2.0.
The ARkStorm research proposes weather that might flood 1000’s of miles, cause tons of of billions of dollars’ price in damage, prompt the evacuation of greater than one million people and occur more continuously than every 1,000 years, particularly on the West Coast. (The Original Forecast, in keeping with Genesis, called for “floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Every little thing on earth will perish.”)
Nevertheless epic, epochal or apocalyptic, there was no ARkStorm underway in mid-January, despite the e-mail to Dr. Swain from a media outlet inquiring if the ARkSTorm “goes to hit California tonight.”
He quickly called back, to maintain misinformation from spreading, Dr. Swain said. He surmised that the outlet had read in regards to the report or read its headline, but had not read the report itself. “No,” he said he told the outlet, “this shouldn’t be literally the top of the world.”