I have been saving this title for awhile, and with the recent 75th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz, in which the cowardly lion says this line as he notices the fallen snow on the poppy field, I find it a fitting start to a discussion about extreme weather. Interestingly, this might also be the first case where a blockbuster movie promotes the idea that average weather can manifest into “extreme weather,” such as a garden-variety tornado in Kansas turning ugly and transporting people to alternate universes.
As a meteorologist, I often run into self-proclaimed armchair meteorologists all the time. It has never been easier to get weather information via a blog, Twitter, or on television, which now has at least four cable channels devoted solely to weather. Because weather impacts almost everyone on a daily basis and changes often, it is closely watched. However, with this accessibility of information, one can easily become brainwashed with the idea that normal weather is somehow extreme.
The Media Research Center has just released what I think is fascinating research. The Center analyzed broadcast television network transcripts for morning and evening shows looking for stories using the phrase “extreme weather” between July 1, 2004 and July 1, 2005, and also between July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014. Ten years ago, ABC, CBS, and NBC barely used the phrase. Now, its use is prolific, despite scientific disagreement regarding extreme weather trends, as discussed in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (Chapter 2).
According to the Media Research Center, between July, 2004 and July, 2005, the three networks only used the phrase “extreme weather” in 18 stories on morning and evening news shows in that entire year, even though there were several opportunities to use the phrase when reporting on the 13 named storms that impacted the U.S. during that period.
Now, the familiar phrase of the networks, “if it bleeds, it leads” has taken a backseat to “extreme weather.” In the past year (July, 2013 through July, 2014), the same network news shows discussed extreme weather 988 percent more often, in a whopping 196 stories. That is more than enough stories to see, on average, one every other day. Here is a short video montage to illustrate:
The Media Research Center study states that “extreme weather” was frequently used by the networks to describe fairly normal weather events, such as heat waves, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes and winter storms, and they often included the phrase in onscreen graphics or chyrons during weather stories. ABC even has an extreme weather team, dedicated to covering such events. We also get footage from storm chasers that make a living driving into the worst weather.
Since some people still read the old-fashioned newspaper, let’s analyze the 162-year history of the New York Times, which can be done using a tool for graphing the frequency of use of certain words and phrases called the Chronicle.
It is interesting to note that the 1933 hurricane on Long Island or a major drought in 1988 were not considered extreme weather events. The disproportionally high use of the phrase “extreme weather” started after 2005.
The publishing of news is inherently an ephemeral act. A big story will consume public attention for a day, a month or a year, only to fade from memory as quickly as it erupted. There is no doubt that weather events get more attention in this day and age of instant communication and technology, and the speed with which this information is shared certainly has an influence on how people think. It is important to remember that extreme weather is completely natural and there will always be extreme weather somewhere, as the atmosphere is in a constant battle to reach equilibrium. In fact, it is less likely to have a day that is perfectly average than to have one that is one or two standard deviations above or below the average. However, the use of the phrase “extreme weather” in the media occurs with alarming regularity and is undoubtedly influencing the insurance industry.