Friday, June 14, 2013

You Need To Be Informed, Not Hyped Into Submission

Yesterday's squall line of severe weather was classified by the Storm Prediction Center as a derecho as, according to them, it produced wind damage reports over a long duration (and thus a long distance) with a fast-moving thunderstorm complex. In the sense of technicality, the storm complex over the Midwest and Lakes did meet the criteria of a derecho...having traveled 600 miles in 12 hours (nearly 50 mph forward momentum) and having produced 150 damaging wind reports.

Storm Prediction Center graphic.

Yesterday's derecho paled in comparison to what developed a year ago (see below), as the event that catapulted through the Great Lakes and into the Mid Atlantic produced nearly 800 damaging wind reports over its life.  Yeah, that's five times as many damaging wind reports.  Yeah, that derecho meant business.

Storm Prediction Center graphic.

It was also the most recent derecho of substance to impact the East Coast...and was what most non-meteorological types related to when they hear the term from meteorologists or talking heads on TV.

Derecho climatology -- courtesy of NWS in Sterling, VA.

Derechos do happen more often than many of us think in this part of the world. Climatology suggests we experience them once every two years or so in most of Pennsylvania and most of New Jersey, more frequently in the Great Lakes and Midwest (about once a year), and less frequently to our south and east.  It's not like last year was the first time we ever had one around here but last year was the first time the term hit mass market media consumption in a while -- mainly due to the power that storm complex provided.

In our hype-driven, ratings-focused, chicken little world, these terms sell a few ratings points and generate a few extra eyeballs...even if the end game impact pales in comparison to past events.  Derechos aren't usually classified until after the fact by NOAA or the Storm Prediction Center because they require set criteria to be met -- damage over duration and distance traveled. Sometimes, in the case of last June, you can almost "call it" as it happens because of the power and explosiveness of the event.  For times where derechos do develop, there are many other instances where they do not meet the criteria despite mentioning the possibility.

In that case above, we did get severe weather (and it was a pretty bad event) but it was also geographically isolated and thus didn't meet the criteria.  With that tweet coming just a week after the June 2012 event, it certainly had some folks talking in the weather community about hype and alarm. This isn't meant to be a singular rip on Greg Forbes as this is meant to make a statement more on how tossing terms around freely isn't always a good thing.

Yesterday's event, even though it technically met the definition, certainly did not meet the expectations of hype that were being laid out there from a number in the community.  Was it a bad severe weather outbreak? Absolutely...but not on the order of last June.  The derecho bar was set with last June...and yesterday didn't hit that bar. Not by a long shot for many individuals.

Why is the weather community worrying about labels and titles when the end user (the public) only gives a damn about what the thunderstorm is going to do? Is it going to produce wind damage, tornadoes, heavy rain, hail, or some combination thereof?  Not all derechos, just like with hurricanes, are alike!  Yet the meteorological community, media talking heads, and others continue to worry about titles and labels and ignore the impact as the primary consideration.

Most people that I talk to only care that "damaging winds" and "severe weather" are expected. When you communicate that, the expectation bar has been set properly.  In throwing derecho around freely, folks associate last June as the outcome.  Knowing that yesterday's derecho was nowhere near the same class of June, it should be a realization to the meteorological community that labels really don't matter unless you're trying to score a cheap ratings point.

As a good friend put it regarding how information should be communicated during severe weather outbreaks, "they need to be informed, not hyped into submission."

I wholeheartedly agree.  I only wish more of the meteorological community and the media community would agree with this.  There is a fine line between informational and hypersensational but the last year has seen the meteorological community push wayyyyy over that line.