I love the Internet, but there are some days I just want to unplug. This is one of those days.
Two weather-related headlines are getting way too much attention right now, and not just within the meteorology community. Readers are confused. WeatherTwitter™ outrage is (comically) in full swing. My head hurts.
First, a headline by Gizmodo published Thursday: “America Has Never Seen a Hot Weather Outlook Like This.”
Then, this morning, from Bloomberg: “Forget Tornadoes: Rain Bombs Are Coming for Your Town.”
This is the kind of thing that gives us a bad rap.
Gizmodo aggregated its hot-weather story (if you can “aggregate” from a single source) from an article by Andrea Thompson over at Climate Central. NOAA’s most recent temperature outlook calls for higher than normal chances of above average temperatures across the entire Lower 48 plus Alaska. Thompson saw this outlook and was curious if NOAA had ever issued an outlook like that before, so she did the leg-work and spoke to a NOAA forecaster who told her they hadn’t — but the archives only go back to 1995. So take from that statistic what you will.
The actual content of Gizmodo’s story was fine. It explained that the archive only goes back to 1995. It also dives into what these outlooks really mean — not that there will be above average warmth but that there’s an increased likelihood of it. But the headline is so over the top that it nullifies everything that follows.
Now let’s talk about “rain bombs.” Where do I even start?
By “rain bombs,” the author is referring to microbursts, which we’ve discussed and pondered frequently here at the Capital Weather Gang. They can happen in any part of the world that is prone to thunderstorms, including across most of the United States. Bloomberg reports that microbursts are “informally known” as rain bombs, but I’ve personally never heard that term and I am actually a meteorologist who actually uses words to communicate with the public about the weather.
Then, instead of using the sub-headline (or blurb, or summary) to take a breath and explain what the story is referring to, it doubles-down on the original hyperbole: “Climate change is weaponizing the atmosphere.”
You don't see these click-bait terms for sciences like biology, chemistry or in the medical field. Why is it acceptable in meteorology?
— Becky Elliott (@AccuWxBeck) July 29, 2016
What makes headlines like this particularly annoying is that people don’t read the whole story. We know this because we have fancy software that tells us, on average, how far down people get before they click the “x” and move on to other things. Readers usually only see the headline and the first two, maybe three paragraphs of a story before they are gone.
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t start to explain the phenomenon until around the sixth paragraph.
There is certainly a time and place for colorful language when describing weather, especially if it helps your audience grok a particularly nuanced topic. There are also times when an event absolutely calls for strong language. I am not saying that I’ve never written a “colorful” headline, but it has always come from a place of concern, awe or excitement about the science that I love.
I’m not the only one who has the feels about this, because it just gives us a bad name. It’s hard not to go a little nutty because people are actually reading these headlines, and they’re being confused at best and at worst, misled. And they’re the same readers who we need to connect with — and who need to trust us — when honest-to-god dangerous weather is coming down the pipeline.
This plea is futile, but the “weather Web” needs to rein it in. If only wishing made it so.