Why I hate the weather (report)

    Remember when the weather was just a couple of quiet minutes at the end of the news? A few words about warm or cold fronts, high and lows, how the weekend looked, and goodnight.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    Remember when the weather was just a couple of quiet minutes at the end of the news? A few words about warm or cold fronts, high and lows, how the weekend looked, and goodnight.

    In our house, we watched Dr. Francis Davis, who forecast the weather before meteorologists had nicknames. Later, Dad and I chuckled at the antics of Jim O’Brien, who drew smiles and frowns on clouds with a magic marker. He was friendly and fun, but the weather was still not a big deal. More recently, mom wouldn’t miss Tom Lamaine’s forecast. Whatever was coming, he was reassuring and calm, as if to say, “It’s only weather. We’ll get through it. Eventually it will get better.”

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    But by then, reporting the weather had already begun to change.

    Maybe it was the arrival of the Weather Channel that made weather so fascinating, and made us want constant updates. It isn’t clear. However, all across America, people started watching the weather all the time. We were transfixed by time-lapse photography, swirling colors, and satellite images. We listened to forecasts for places nowhere near us. We studied crop conditions in Nebraska and storms rolling across Lake Superior as though there would be a test.

    Here at home, some of us tuned in KYW two, three, 112 times a day, tracking conditions as though we were on the launch team at Cape Canaveral. Broadcasters took note of the intense interest. Weather infiltrated the news, appearing early and often, with teasers reminding everybody to stay tuned.

    Suddenly, it took a village of meteorologists and a bank of computers to do what used to require one man with a pointer.

    Meteorological fearmongering

    Was it concern over climate change? Maybe in part, but that doesn’t explain the day-to-day emphasis given to weather. No, weather took over because it drives ratings: The worse it is, the more we watch. News organizations poured money into technology and personnel, and they do their level best to make it sound as though something awful is always about to happen. Then they take as long as possible to say exactly what to expect. If current conditions are pleasantly dull, the presenter finishes with, “But a change is coming,” in a tone that makes you want to flee to the cellar to check the canned goods and sump pump.

    Technology enables weather broadcasts to report across increasingly large areas, so the chances are better than ever that something fear-inspiring can be found somewhere in Your Region. The Philadelphia market used to be the city and surrounding counties. Now its a third of Pennsylvania, half of New Jersey, and all of Delaware.

    If the weather professionals can’t find something terrifying in that broad swath, they look elsewhere. And if it is a slow news day, the top of the broadcast is sure to feature something burning, flooding, shaking, blowing or collapsing — such as a twister ripping through small towns in Iowa, torrential rain washing houses off California hillsides, or wildfires rampaging through Alabama. Frequently the location of the horrific event isn’t mentioned, so we peer at the television, trying to pick out an intersection, to see if that’s Aunt Margaret being evacuated in the canoe or Bob the dachshund floating by. The important thing is we stay tuned, and sign up for mobile weather alerts, so we’ll be first to know of impending doom.

    Cheer up; it might never happen

    Granted, the forecast is important and people should be informed. Long-term weather trends, and the impact of climactic change are worth understanding. But the weather should not merit top billing every day. It’s irresponsible to serve up every temperature fluctuation with a side of hysteria. Certain forecasters — you know who they are — make even nice conditions sound ominous, and practically tremble with ecstasy when a big snowfall is on the way. Predicting severe weather with undisguised joy is incredibly annoying to those of us who have to shovel driveways and bail out basements, no matter how many times the words “possibly” or “potentially” are inserted.

    Leading-edge equipment and analytics only feed this tendency. Prognosticators discuss storms for days before they arrive, whipping the public into a frenzy of bread and milk runs. Or wearing them into a state of weather fatigue so great that they pay no attention whatsoever.

    There are other reasons I avoid the weather.

    The names for one, as in, “This is Aurora Borealis with the seven-day forecast.” The outfits, for another. Take our mythical, completely plausible, weathercaster Aurora: She will dress one of two ways. If she is low in the ranks, she will be sent outdoors looking like a Lands’ End model, in sub-zero parka standing in a snow bank, in fly-fishing pants fording a rushing underpass, or on the roof of the broadcast center, holding an umbrella big enough for a meeting of the Professional Golf Association. If Aurora survives long enough to become Chief Meteorologist, she will stay inside and discuss low pressure systems in ensembles better suited to draping herself across a piano and singing torch songs.

    The best reason for ignoring the weather, however, is the information, which is so detailed that it is useless. When Jim O’Brien drew a smiley face, we understood. Now, by the time I hear about the rain over the Admiral Wilson Boulevard that won’t hit the ground, the chop at Cape Henlopen, expected gusts of 25 miles-an-hour between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. along I-95, persistent ground fog in Harrisburg, the potential for tidal flooding in Cape May, and whatever misery index — wind chill, heat, or pollen — is in season, I have no idea what is happening in my neighborhood.

    Listen up, Chicken Littles: We get it. The weather excites you, and you have the gizmos to tell us all about it. You want to utilize the satellite photos and computer models and roving vans and overpopulated weather teams, but sometimes a sunny day is just a sunny day. Could we enjoy it before you have us diving for cover?

    Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant in Philadelphia.

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