Weather as entertainment

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You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” — Bob Dylan

WCVB-TV meteorologist Mike Wankum seemed crestfallen last Sunday night during a post-mortem of Winter Storm Jonas. A mere six inches of snow fell on Boston as a large swath of the country – 71 million Americans in 16 states, we were constantly reminded – were affected by this “epic storm” and “most impressive blizzard,” which set numerous weather-related records.

For greater Boston, this storm presented a “forecasting challenge,” Wankum said, as just 45 miles separated the region from massive snow, massive disruption and, presumably, massive media coverage.

Today, as evident from Jonas (a name with Hebrew origins, meaning “peaceful being”), local and national meteorologists seem not only confounded by the weather itself but also by how to present it with adult decorum.

Before the days of Euro models and Doppler radar, talk of the weather was whimsical. Mark Twain famously quipped, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” Now, talk of the earth’s erratic thermostat is political as the fronts of atmospheric science and contemporary politics have collided with time and technology. So we now have the “settled science” of global warming (now known with a sort of reverential but ambiguous panache as “climate disruption”).

But nothing is settled.

The constant oscillations of nature’s fury remain unpredictable, and sometimes inexplicable. While the ice is melting in Arctica (supposedly contributing to negligible rising sea levels), NASA climate scientists report that Antarctica ice is growing. Despite the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, no major hurricanes (category 3 or above) have hit the continental United States in over a decade (Wilma in 2005). You must go back to the mid-1800s to find a longer period between major hurricanes.

During a special presentation – pre-empting The Bobby Vinton Show – on Boston’s Channel 7 in the aftermath of the Blizzard of 1978, available on a grainy YouTube video, the host asked a young meteorologist, Harvey Leonard (now on WCVB): “What are the chances of the particular combination of circumstance that caused this, happening again?”

Leonard answered, “I don’t think there’s a strong chance, Ted, we’ll ever see anything like that again or perhaps our families either…” The chances, “almost impossible.”

But then there was the Blizzard of 2013, called an “extreme nor’easter,” that bore a remarkable resemblance to its 1978 winter ancestor.

And the winter of 2015.

And so on.

At least back then there was calm reflection and a sense of seriousness about the weather. Which brings us to Jonas.

The Weather Channel (TWC) began naming winter storms in late 2012. But as Accuweather, a private forecaster, warned in 2013, “The TWC has confused media spin with science and public safety.”

Perhaps stung by this criticism, TWC felt compelled to explain the process on its website in late 2014, in a self-serving info-bulletin entitled “The Science Behind Naming Winter Storms at [TWC].”  As a civics lesson put into practice, however, it is a failure. TWC is owned by NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast; all three thrive on ratings, not public service announcements.

So educating the curious masses about the science of weather is largely lost as it is diluted with entertainment and endangerment. And the weather provides an endless supply of frivolity and fear.

Amidst shop talk of “convergence” and “orientation,” Meteorologist Paul Goodloe, reporting from Charlotte, North Carolina, advised viewers of TWC to hold their cell phones horizontally, not vertically, as the best way to send videos of the storm. And with a droll irony only Twain could appreciate, an in-house advertisement showed a car skidding on a snowy road as meteorologist Jen Carfagno’s voice-over emphasizes the necessity of TWC, which “drives home the importance of what we do.” Shortly thereafter, an SUV is buzzing through the snow in a paid advertisement.

Local reporters are not immune from this way of presenting the weather. On Twitter, NECN (owned by Comcast) newsman Justin Michaels encouraged followers to “See me play in the #snow in Falmouth” but later reported on the air with a dire sense of foreboding of the 2,000 power outages in the same town.

If the Kardashians and Korea don’t provide you with the entertainment and endangerment you crave from television programming, stay tuned to the weather. The next winter storm is aptly named “Kayla.”

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. Read his past columns here.