POLITICS

Blustery weather lexicon mixes winter storm hype with science

01/07/2014 12:28 EST | Updated 03/09/2014 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Weather bombs dot the landscape, snowmageddons loom on the horizon, Frankenstorms lurk around every bend.

With forecasts like that, Canadian weather watchers could be forgiven for believing we live in particularly dire meteorological times.

But experts suggest that reality is being largely shaped by forecasters and media outlets alike, adding both parties are falling prey to whims that are as fickle as the subject they're covering.

The demands of the 24-hour news cycle, the rapid spread of information via social media and a growing focus on public safety have all combined to change the way weather is discussed in Canada, they said.

Chris Scott, chief meteorologist with the Weather Network, said he's seen a clear shift in the tone of most weather coverage over his 15 years in the business.

Scott attributes much of the change to social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, which allow weather enthusiasts to congregate and exchange ideas more publicly than they have in the past.

The result, he said, is an expanded vocabulary that has trickled down to the public at large.

"There's a lot more information out there, and these terms that only us weather geeks would use at a party are now becoming fairly common terms and being picked up by the media," Scott said in an interview from Oakville, Ont. "There's no question there are terms out there that have not been used in the past."

Some of those terms, such as "polar vortex" and "flash freeze," are specific phenomena that are clearly defined by Environment Canada.

The national weather agency has a fair amount of control over the country's climate lexicon, laying down guidelines for everything from storm types to precipitation warnings.

But senior climatologist David Phillips said even those guidelines have undergone a noticeable shift in the past decade or so.

Environment Canada has developed 22 different types of weather warnings across all four seasons, Phillips said. There was a mere handful of warnings at the beginning of his career.

Phillips said the increase has allowed the agency to provide more nuanced forecasts while satisfying Canadians' keen appetites for all things weather related.

Discussing Mother Nature in more descriptive language, Phillips said, has proven an effective way to engage with the public.

"There's 33 million weather weenies out there. We all love to talk about the weather. We curse it, we bless it … We don't leave home without getting the weather word," Phillips said. "I think it helps to reach Canadians by expressing it in this common way and maybe even more of an upbeat way."

Some media observers, however, feel the tone of the coverage has crossed the line from informative to sensationalistic.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus, said Canadian weather coverage has followed a trend first established in the U.S.

Media outlets eager to retain a customer base have given greater emphasis to issues such as traffic, weather and crime, Dvorkin said, adding such "low-hanging fruit" have direct local impact and are comparatively easy to cover.

The greater focus on forecasts and ongoing competitive pressure have left media searching for ways to reel in an audience.

Evocative terms such as "snowpocalypse" and "superstorm," he said, are one way to do so.

"It becomes a way of doing news coverage, doing it in a very inexpensive way, and making it appear to be more interesting, exciting, or even dangerous than in fact it is," Dvorkin said.

Phillips and Scott concede the language surrounding forecasts can stray over the top, particularly in inexperienced hands.

But both contend that severe weather can be a life or death matter and that sometimes forceful word choices have their place.

"We're really anxious for the public to pay attention to our forecast . . . that really is our reason for existing," Phillips said. "The perfect forecast is useless unless it's in the hands of someone who can make some advantage of it, whether it's to turn a profit or to make life more secure and safe."

Scott said some of the onus rests with the public, adding it's up to each individual to sort through the sea of information and focus on the most credible.

"The message can get diluted if things are talked about in an aggressive way too often," he said. "There's no shortage of information out there. It's all about trying to find the best source, the accurate source."