Bill Nye “the science guy” fumbles storm explainer

To educate viewers on the science of the recent mega-blizzard that socked New England, MSNBC’s Craig Melvin brought onto his program noted “science guy” Bill Nye . What followed was the one of the most flawed discussions of meteorology I’ve ever seen on a national network.

In likening the blizzard and hurricane Sandy, Nye implies both storms originated off the coast from Africa, which is wrong. Sandy formed in the Caribbean (not from an African wave) and the blizzard formed off the Mid-Atlantic coast (from the merger of two North American disturbances).

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Nye then draws an absurd comparison between East Coast storms and West Coast storms in an attempt to equate them.

“If you live on the West Coast ... that same type of storm is called a Sou’wester,” Nye says. “If you go to the sailboat store you can get a Nor’easter hat in New England but it’s a Sou’wester hat in Seattle.”

Big problem: storms typically hit Seattle from the west not from the south. They don’t form off the Pacific coast of Los Angeles or San Francisco and charge northward. Until hearing Nye speak, I had never encountered the term “Sou’wester” in reference to a West Coast storm (a google search reveals there is an apartment complex and a lodge with such a name in the region - but I couldn’t find a meteorological reference).

There is a good meteorological reason for the lack of “Sou’westers”: Whereas the warm Gulf Stream current creates a zone of temperature contrast that allows storms to form along the East Coast and move northward, there’s no equivalent current in the Pacific to steer storms up the West Coast. I challenge a reader to find a “Sou’wester hat” for sale...

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Update, 2:30 p.m.: An astute Facebook reader - Alan McEwan - found a reference to a so-called Seattle Sou’wester from 1940. Another reader - Brendan Richards - found Sou’wester hats sold online. So Sou’westers apparently occur (and there are hats, apparently), but they don’t typically cover the latitude of Nor’easters. They’re very different storms.

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Update, 11:40 p.m.: I exchanged some emails with University of Washington atmospheric science professor Cliff Mass, author of a blog on Seattle weather, who said the term “Sou’wester” is “never really used along the West Coast” but noted some of Seattle’s strongest storms do in fact come in from the southwest (and have winds from that direction.) Bottom line: yes, Seattle has storms that come in from the southwest, but they’re not commonly called “Sou’westers” and they have important differences from Nor’easters.

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Nye then makes a convoluted comment about spin in different parts of the storm that serves as a non-sensical transition into a discussion of climate change. The climate change discussion is somewhat more coherent than his earlier comments but overly simplistic.

Why MSNBC turned to Nye for weather wisdom is headscratching, considering it has access to a stable of competent meteorologists at the Weather Channel.

Nye has created some wonderful science educational programs for children, but a weather expert he is not.

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.

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