Cumberland Times-News

January 17, 2013

Weatherspeak

NWS wants to simplify the language of its forecasts


Cumberland Times-News

— The English language has evolved it to the point where even those who speak it fluently aren’t always sure what’s being said.

The government and the media are largely responsible for this. The apparent desire is to sanitize things or make them sound more impressive than they actually are.

During the Vietnam War, for example, the federal folks described enemy combatants as having been “eliminated with extreme prejudice,” instead of merely “killed.”

Thanks to the media, what used to be a “crisis” is now a “crisis situation.” The same phenomenon has infected weather reporting: Rain is a “rain event.” We also have “snow events” and “wind events.” (What’s next? A “crisis situation event”?)

Do you wonder, when you hear or read the forecasts, how a “winter storm watch” differs from a “winter storm warning” or “winter weather advisory”? Most of us know the meaning of “blizzard” or “freezing rain.”

What constitutes “snow showers,” “snow flurries,” “light snow,” “snow” and “heavy snow”?

Until one struck last July, few people had heard of a “derecho” (a widespread, long-lasting straight-line windstorm associated with thunderstorms).

Aware of the confusion, the National Weather Service plans to start substituting plain English for the 14 terms it now uses to describe weather, weather events and weather situations.

One possible example reads: “The National Weather Service in Rapid City (S.D.) is forecasting the potential for a significant winter storm.”

Most people should be able to understand that. The only questions left to be answered are: When will it start? How long will it last? and How much are we going to get?

Tropical storms (some of which become hurricanes) already are named under a system established by the World Meterological Organization.

Not satisfied with that, The Weather Channel has begun naming winter storms. The idea is that people will pay more attention to Winter Storm Helen than to a storm that has no name.

December saw Winter Storm Draco, which was named for an ancient Athenian legislator.

All things considered, that seems appropriate. Therefore we offer this proposal: Let’s start naming our manmade disasters after the legislators and other politicians who are to blame for them.