Poor Media Use of Weather Terminology

Jeff Duda

EF6+, PhD
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Oct 7, 2008
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I'm starting this thread to collect lol-worthy examples of media totally biffing descriptions or naming of various weather events.

This inaugural post includes a link to another thread where this is already discussed: VIDEO: Maryland Tornado (Ida), but also this entry:
This thread is meant to get laughs and also face palm at botched media coverage of weather events such as:
  • "possible tornado" from a video or image of what is almost certainly (or is 100% surely) a tornado
  • "The polar vortex is coming!" (hint: it's always there)
  • "vortex"/"cyclone"/"whirling dervish"/"zephyr"/all goofy terms used to describe what is actually a tornado
  • "Mysterious power surge during thunderstorm causes outages"
  • etc.
 
Feb 19, 2021
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Wichita
There was a lightning delay with tonight's Monday Night Football in Los Angeles...due to lightning...in a dome.

While the announcers were on the field (the teams had to be in the locker rooms but I guess TV people are expendable), they actually said,

"Lightning can't go sideways."

"I'm not a meteorologist but I play one on TV. "
 
Dec 8, 2003
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Southeast CO
www.youtube.com
I watch Weather Nation. A couple years ago they were constantly referring to the northern plains as the "high plains", as if "high plains" means the plains that are up high on the map. I sent them an email about it, explaining that Fargo and Omaha, for example, are NOT on the high plains. I got no reply, and they continued doing that for many months, but I think they have finally quit doing that.

This year they all got very fond of the term "spin-up". Every time there was a risk for tornadoes it was "a chance for a spin-up here and there".

Another thing I saw beginning this year was that they displayed the 500mb relative vorticity graphic a couple times, without any explanation, as if more than 0.0001% of their viewers would have the slightest idea what to make of it.
 
Oct 10, 2004
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Madison, WI
As someone who works (behind the scenes) for a local TV station, I see this a lot. I often glance over weather-related scripts and let the producers/anchors know to correct any that I find, usually copied verbatim from national network scripts.

Another common one is failing to update national scripts that dropped 6-12 hours ago, e.g. that "tropical storm" has rapidly intensified and is now a Category 4 hurricane. Weather changes fast. I always advise them to go right to the official source (SPC/NHC) or, better yet, ask our own meteorologist.
 
Feb 19, 2021
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Wichita
The amount of shoddy wire service reporting about weather is unbelievable. Makes you wonder about the accuracy of their other stories.


As someone who works (behind the scenes) for a local TV station, I see this a lot. I often glance over weather-related scripts and let the producers/anchors know to correct any that I find, usually copied verbatim from national network scripts.

Another common one is failing to update national scripts that dropped 6-12 hours ago, e.g. that "tropical storm" has rapidly intensified and is now a Category 4 hurricane. Weather changes fast. I always advise them to go right to the official source (SPC/NHC) or, better yet, ask our own meteorologist.
 
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Michael Towers

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Jun 28, 2007
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The old “clashing of air masses” causing tornadoes is a frequently made blunder. I remember a local TV met using the phrase to explain why a tornado outbreak happened and I tweeted her the link below which I think is informative in debunking the phrase:

 
Nov 11, 2017
21
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Overland Park KS
I frequently hear and cringe when TV meteorologists refer to rain and snow accumulations as "moisture". It is precipitation. The glossary of meteorology says moisture is water vapor suspended in the atmosphere. Not rain and snow. I wish the AMS would remove their seals of approval as this is repeated over and over and over again. End of rant.
 

Chris Jackson

Enthusiast
Oct 1, 2019
5
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Cayce, South Carolina
"High Water" .... Replace it with the correct choice of two terms. Either swiftwater or floodwater. As an NFPA and Internationally Accredited Swiftwater Rescue Instructor it drives me insane to hear a made up word used like this.

Swiftwater is any body of water with a current speed of 1.14mph or greater. I promise anyone out there that while you might be able to wade through rapidly moving knee-deep water, you're only one slip away from death. Debris loading which is extremely common in natural disasters only increases these forces exponentially.
Floodwater pertains to any body of static water or water moving under 1.14mph in an area that under normal circumstances is dry land.
Static Water - Lake/Pond.

To my knowledge, The Weather Channel was the first to use the term high water on air that I am aware of and for whatever insane reason its just been adopted by media far and wide. The reason this is poor terminology lies a bit deeper than just a word. If anyone in emergency management ever uses this term it is because they are just parroting what they hear on tv and have a cushy office job and lack the professional qualifications to speak on the matter (no disrespect intended).

For one there is no such term as "high water" listed in NFPA 1670 or used anywhere in the professional rescue world and the entire reason the term Swiftwater was coined was to better communicate risk with simple wording that is self-explanatory. If the average person hears the term high water it doesn't convey the true potential danger as Swiftwater does. I also wish the media would actually reach out to local responders, not an emergency manager in an office somewhere (no offense), but the boots on the ground people that actually conduct rescues and are well-versed subject matter experts in risk mitigation and disaster preparedness communication.

How many times have we heard our favorite meteorologist on air tell you that it's dangerous to take shelter from a tornado under an overpass, or turn around don't drown? Literally thousands.

How many times has that same meteorologist explained with more than 2 very basic reasons WHY you should never drive or wade through swiftwater or floodwaters...?
- In Swiftwater everything can kill you. Chain length fences, tree branches, anything that allows water to pass through but will not allow a human to pass through is called a strainer and they are everywhere and they are the biggest risk to people that find themselves in a bad situation.

Even more importantly, people should absolutely never walk in floodwaters in urban populated areas due to the fact they will 100% be wading through raw sewage containing dozens of waterborne pathogens and communicable disease's that can make you extremely sick or kill you. I know this first hand following the Columbia SC flooding of 2015. The first rescue assignment that day I was in my drysuit for 5 hours in one neighborhood plucking people from homes and swimming them to a boat or safety. Once we got everyone out as we walked back onto dry land we all smelt like human feces and had to do gross decontamination under the nozzle of our ladder truck with soap. With sometimes zero breaks between calls for service, we spent almost 30 hours nonstop conducting rescues. Once statewide resources arrived we got an hour break and then went back to answering calls for another 22 hours.The 22 members of our swiftwater team were either all on duty or were called in at the same time and we all worked for 52 hours before being told to go home and sleep, period. Most of us arrived back at the firehouse 10hrs later to only work another 48 nonstop. There wasn't a body of water we encountered that didn't smell like a literal dirty toilet. The best part was going a week later to get a witches brew of shots and tests to make sure we didn't contract anything we encountered.. An experience I will never forget.

Outside of the biological hazards mentioned above, it's also a chemical cesspool of hydrocarbons like gasoline & diesel fuel that are easily seen via sheen on the water or by smell along with god knows how many polar solvents are mixed into the water and may be much harder to detect.

Went on a hell of a lot longer mini rant than I intended, but educating and teaching people swiftwater rescue/boat operations/static water rescue is one of my biggest passions in life.

And because my petty side thinks "high water" sounds utterly stupid.
 
Jul 5, 2009
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Newtown, Pennsylvania
Here’s another one about the overnight Friday 12/10 event, which I posted into the event thread

 
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Jul 5, 2009
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Newtown, Pennsylvania
Good luck finding something worse than this. Thought it must be a joke at first, now I'm not so sure... They even used my pic of the Fairdale, IL tornado (legally).
At least they got the EF scale correct, despite associating it with hurricanes… That’s better than the Wall Street Journal, which cited the F scale (see link in my post immediately above this one).
 
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Randy Jennings

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May 18, 2013
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To my knowledge, The Weather Channel was the first to use the term high water on air that I am aware of and for whatever insane reason its just been adopted by media far and wide.
I suspect that media use of "high water" comes form the warning road signs that officials often put up when blocking a road. Having said that, I went and looked at the US DOT Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices and "High Water" is not an approved sign. The only approved weather related signs are Road May Flood, Flood Gauge, Gusty Winds Area, and Fog Area.
 

Randy Jennings

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May 18, 2013
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I always cringe when I hear media say that severe weather or tornados are "rare" in December. The SPC WCM page says that the US averages 23 tornados per a year in December (1989-2013) . Rare is subjective.
 
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rdale

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Kentucky averages 0 tornadoes per December, and the areas outlooked today for tornadoes have never had a tornado in December there... So adding in that we've already had 80 reported - I'll give them a pass on "rare" :)
 
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Jeff Duda

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It's probably best to use a statistical approach if you want to be quantitative about adjectives like "rare". Considering the US averages ~1000 tornadoes per year and that the vast majority (like 90%) of those occur between 15 March and 15 July, that means even a handful of tornadoes in an off-month like December is indeed a pretty rare thing in the context of the CONUS annual counts.

10 tornadoes in a day at any time of the year or any location is already a 99.9th percentile event, even if it happens in May.

For example,...the NSSL folks use UH thresholds of like 99.5th, 99.6th, 99.7th, 99.8th, 99.9th, 99.95th for forecasting severe storms from NWP models due to how uncommon higher UH values are.
 

Randy Jennings

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Kentucky averages 0 tornadoes per December, and the areas outlooked today for tornadoes have never had a tornado in December there... So adding in that we've already had 80 reported - I'll give them a pass on "rare"
That is true, and I had the same thought about giving them a pass on that one. There were a lot of national media saying that tornados are rare in December without qualifying that with Kentucky. I also remember the 12/26/2015 and the 10/20/2019 events in the DFW/North Texas area and how the media called them "rare". Texas averages 8 tornados a year in Oct and 4 in Dec. Sure Texas is a big place, and one could argue that statistically tornados are "rare" in these months even in Texas. My concern is that the calling them "rare" discourages public preparedness (although most of the public doesn't even prepare for common events). The other thing that bugs me, and this comes from being a Journalism minor in college, is that "rare" doesn't add anything but confusion to the story. My "rare", your "rare", and John Q public's "rare" are not the same thing. The same word can be interpreted very differently by different people.
 
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Oct 10, 2004
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Madison, WI
Not so much wrong terminology, but wrong information due to misinterpretation/laziness. This morning, we at my local station have been reporting that Sunday's Fort Myers tornado was the first EF2+ in Florida since 1/17/2016. This came directly from an NBC wire script. That seems highly suspect to me. It's probably a conflation of two accurate facts; that it was the first January EF2+ in Florida since that date*, as well as the first one local to the southwest Florida media market. But the entire state, for all months of the year? Doubtful.

*Kind of ironic since a huge part of peninsular Florida was under a high risk on 1/22/2017 with a 30% hatched area for tornadoes, but saw no EF2+ tornadoes.
 
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Jeff Duda

EF6+, PhD
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Not so much wrong terminology, but wrong information due to misinterpretation/laziness. This morning, we at my local station have been reporting that Sunday's Fort Myers tornado was the first EF2+ in Florida since 1/17/2016. This came directly from an NBC wire script. That seems highly suspect to me. It's probably a conflation of two accurate facts; that it was the first January EF2+ in Florida since that date*, as well as the first one local to the southwest Florida media market. But the entire state, for all months of the year? Doubtful.
You are correct. A quick search of NCEI's Storm Events Database confirms more than a handful of EF2 tornadoes after 01/17/2016, including an EF3 on 02/15/2016 in far NW Florida and another one in Pensacola a week later.

The most recent EF2+ tornado in Florida occurred last April, on the 10th.

Source: NCEI Storm Events Database for Florida over the past 5 years

FAIL