Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.
I'm going in a different direction today, rather than the usual weather and subsequent forecasting of the weather.
The deadly and destructive outbreak of tornadoes Monday afternoon into Monday night was something that had been worried about since last week when the setup became more and more apparent for what was to happen. There is no 'sugar coating' of the utter devastation brought to the lives of so many in such a short period of time. Some lost their lives, others loved ones, and many, many more lost pretty much everything else except what they were wearing at the time.
I was reading some commentary online this morning about the event, and it went along the lines of hyping an event such as this. Many of us in the meteorological community got into the business because of one aspect or another of the weather. For some, it was the love of winter snowstorms. For others, hurricanes, and still others, severe thunderstorms. As operational meteorologists, most of us find it very easy to get 'in the game' when any one of these types of events is approaching. The same is very likely true of the weather enthusiast.
However, there's a fine line between getting 'up' for an event and responsible forecasting. More to the point, it is very easy to let one's enthusiasm or excitement about a particular weather event spill over into a public expression of opinion. Think about it for a second. Before the development of the severe thunderstorms yesterday, a common term that you might have used, or one that you may have heard, would be this: 'conditions are favorable...' I used to employ that terminology all the time, particularly with regard to hurricane formation and development until it was pointed out to me what that implied.
Unwittingly many of us in the field, both as operational meteorologists and as weather hobbyists, have fostered this kind of excited mentality. For me, it's usually in reference to snowstorms. Even though I've come to dislike their impact on me and my family as I've aged for various reasons, I still get excited about the big ones, especially if it will bring a foot or more of the white stuff to my back yard! I find it very easy to focus on everything as it approaches, and find there's a big let down after the storm has passed. And I know I'm not alone in that regard.
That enthusiasm has to be reigned in, however. Almost every aspect of the weather has some negative consequences. You may be going through a stretch of great days with sunshine and warmth, but what about the farmer who is watching his crops wither from lack of rain? A snowstorm may be a boon to skiers and those who own snowplow businesses, but others may suffer from their businesses being shut down. With hurricanes, the 'excitement' that builds as they grow and make their approach to land quickly turns to horror at the destruction that is wrought over a wide area, be it from wind, torrential rains, tornadoes, coastal flooding, beach erosion or even some of the more tangential things such as travel disruptions, lost power and inland flooding.
On the one hand, it's a good thing to be excited about what you do! Again, it's helpful to sharpen one's focus on the tasks at hand. From my perspective, it is critical to get the word out about an event to the people that need the information the most in a way that is informative and educational so that the end user can protect their homes, lives and property, as well as profit from it in some tangible way.
By the same token, however, we must also realize the consequences of these weather events. In the case of the Moore, Okla., tornado, lives were lost - many - in an instant. Homes and businesses were destroyed. Lives were made a shambles in seconds as the tornado tore through their town.
It makes me think all the harder on how I choose my words going forward. Yes, the conditions were, indeed, very 'favorable' for the development of severe thunderstorms with tornadoes the past two days. They still are. But perhaps a better word would be 'conducive.' It doesn't carry the same implications that the word 'favorable' does. In that case, it's as if we want the tornadoes to happen, and I don't believe that's really the case for most of us, especially when we are faced with the visual and graphic evidence of what tornadoes do. They're going to happen, regardless of whatever we 'want' or don't want to happen, or whatever terminology we use to forecast it. Our personal biases will inevitably work their way in, either to the forecast itself, or in the way we talk about the weather and its impacts. What we ought to strive for is striking that delicate balance between our enthusiasm for the weather (in general) that we love and being responsible and careful in how we portray the weather to our audiences. It's not an easy task, but one that I'm even more cognizant of than ever before.
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