Tabloid Climatology

When did the online weather report become so rococo and alarmist? It was not until the ornate graphics reached critical mass that I started paying attention to the content’s mission creep. Garish and over-elaborate, has swollen into the Gospel of Extreme Weather.

The weekend began with Extreme Weather Events Will Be ‘Beyond Comprehension’ in Decades. READ THE STORY. Saturday’s forecast for my zip code huddled in the lower left corner of a blazing header that screamed: 20% of Bangladesh Could Be Lost to the Sea. READ MORE. Sunday brought this: Retired Brigadier General Stephen Cheney: 70% of the Worlds’ Militaries Are Preparing for Climate Change. READ MORE. (Islamist brigades and Soldiers of the Caliphate must be gleeful. But I promise not to digress.)

Anonymous etching. Storm on Lake Como, Italy (19th C.). Photo: Album/Art Resource NY
Anonymous etching. Storm on Lake Como, Italy (19th C.). Photo: Album/Art Resource NY

 All I want when I dial up the Weather Channel is to find out if I need to take an umbrella with me. Will I need a sweater later, or will a long-sleeved shirt be enough? Should I wear into the city my old Arche heels, the pair I save for rain, or can I risk the new ones? Or—worst case—am I going to regret not having bought those cute Kate Spade rubber boots? has outgrown all that. Old time weathercasting has buckled to tabloid climatology. Useful daily data survives largely as a come-on for a more thrilling agenda: Apocalypse watch. You are just looking for the day’s temperature? Armageddon presses its nose to your screen and bangs on the glass with prophecies of ecological end times.

Tex Antoine (d. 1983) with Uncle Wethbee, a staple of NYC weathercasting for nearly three decades.
Tex Antoine (d. 1983) with Uncle Wethbee, a staple of NYC weathercasting for nearly three decades.

It is 72° in Weekawken as I write this but that is beside the point. Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation, has the real news: Every Decade We Wait is a Thousand Years of Pain. On the same web page, a smiling woman in a sunny yellow blouse chirps about the onset of Near Record Wind Shear. Day before yesterday typhoon Chan Han was a Fourth of July threat. (It’s Strengthening & We’re Worried About its Path). Now we learn that the unprecedented wind shear reduced Chan Han to a mere tropical storm. But eco-porn addicts need not lose hope. As wind shear ebbs, Chan Han will Strengthen Into a Typhoon again on Sunday or Monday.

Alarms roll in, inexorable as the tide. Here come storm, flood, and earthquake alerts; the multi-state threats; the all-time heat records here, all-time lows there. More Records Broken. Do not forget the hurricanes. They are rare in July but, these days, anything goes. Besides, shark attacks are on the rise. And you know what that means. So stay on your toes: Are You Ready For the Next Storm?


Anonymous. Waterspout (c. 1910). Photo: Adoc-photo.
Anonymous. Waterspout (c. 1910). Photo: Adoc-photo.

By the time you’ve scrolled all way down, you need a little relief. Something to celebrate, maybe. Here is an item for you: Upcoming Anniversary of the Devastating 2005 Season. Then there is Heat Drives Man to Song. You can raise a glass to that.

How did naturally occurring weather events and virtually imperceptible, century-scale temperature changes become both so personal and so tied to global political interests? Why has weathercasting become a revival tent for the next Great Awakening?

Francesco Casanova, Storm Scene (18th C.). Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, FR.
Francesco Casanova, Storm Scene (18th C.). Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, FR.

Meteorologist Anthony Watts can explain. He is the amperage behind Watts Up With That? a prominent website in the climate debate. Retired after twenty five years in TV broadcasting, Watts continues to work in the field of weather technology, skilled in the measurement, processing, and presentation of weather data. No, he is not an accredited climate scientist. But as he reminds his audience, neither is Al Gore.

You can read his C.V. on his website. What matters here is his clear, technologically informed description of the theater business that weather reportage has become. His essay “Extreme Weather and Global Warming,” appears in Climate Change: The Facts, published this year by the Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne.

He provides NASA data to illustrate the flaws in global warming claims that derive from the smallest of variances from a baseline period (1950-80) that was the coolest period of global temperature in the twentieth century. For nearly two decades now, there has been a hiatus in temperature rise altogether. Thus, terminology changed from global warming to climate change, then to global climate disruption. a term invented whole cloth by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.


dinosaurs weather

Popular belief that extreme weather is happening more frequently, despite data to the contrary, is media-induced. Live broadcasting is invested in emotional appeal, not the dry matter of factual content. Sensationalism sells and is easy to come by:

Weather appears more extreme today, not because it is, but because we hear about it nearly instantly, and such reports saturate the electronic media within minutes of occurrence . . .

The speed of weather tracking and the communications technology curve aids in our “common perception” of extreme weather events, but the reality [of them] is actually quite different. While we may see more extreme weather on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, that happens only because there are millions more eyes, ears, cameras and networks than ever before.

Extreme weather was always there, but up until recently in human history there was no way to record it and share it quickly . . . within minutes of occurrence.

A 2012 Nature editorial disclaims evidence of a causal relation between between extreme weather and climate:

Better models are needed before exceptional events can be reliably linked to global warming . . . . To make this emerging science of ‘climate attribution’ fit to inform legal and societal decisions will require enormous research effort.

In other words, no matter what you call it—global warming, climate change, or climate disruption—it is, in Watts’ summation, “a dead issue with true science at the moment, and the value of such wild claims trying to link extreme weather with climate exists only as a recruitment tool for climate activists and zealots.”

Watts’ essay makes no mention of the latest encyclical. Still, it raises the specter of a Pontifical Academy of Sciences preferring TV-grade para-science to its mission to honor pure science and ensure its freedom.