Don't Fall for Weather Hoaxes and Hype as We Head Into Tornado Season
The wealth of information available online puts the world at our fingertips—literally! You can click a link and look at a picture taken from space just a few minutes ago. This treasure trove of data is great, but it takes smart consumption to grow smarter about the world around us. Not all sources of weather information are equal, and we need to learn what sources are worth listening to, and which ones are peddling a load of sleet.
The internet is a loud place, and it takes a strong voice for people to hear your words above the noise. Some of us have had lucky breaks that afford us the opportunity to communicate with a huge audience on a pretty sizable soapbox, but most people in the weather community have to compete for eyes on the vast expanses of social media.
The incredible amount of weather information on the internet—surface observations, radar and satellite images, weather model data—allows just about anyone with a passing knowledge of high school earth science to act like a meteorologist, building a pretty decent following on Twitter and Facebook by posting weather information, whether it's accurate or not. Some of these pages grow into traffic juggernauts, emboldening their less-than-informed owners to use their reach to advance their own popularity or ad revenues with false or misleading weather information.
One of the growing problems in the weather world over the past couple of years has been the rapid uptick in the number of "social mediarologists," to use a term popularized by The Weather Channel's Sunday afternoon talk show, WXGeeks. Almost every weather geek fell in love with the weather when they were young, and most of us grew up on limited amounts of information. I was fortunate enough to grow up during meteorology's internet boom—the tools were there to let me watch storms thousands of miles away race across the landscape in real-time, but I couldn't really do anything about it. You could just watch and learn, absorbing knowledge and gaining early experience without the possibility of getting in above your head and doing harm.
Today, not only can middle and high schoolers look at in-depth weather data, but they can build themselves a sizeable audience by spreading information about the weather, the nuances of which they know little about. Some of these folks are derisively called "weather weenies"—the worst offenders among them spread false or misleading weather information either out of ignorance or malicious intent. They look at the models one or two weeks out, see a huge snowstorm that would never happen in the real world, and tout it on their Facebook page as a huge blizzard that's about to paralyze the area. They can take a model forecast five days in advance, see huge amounts of instability and rotation in the atmosphere, and take to Facebook urging people to LIKE and SHARE to warn others about "the next great tornado outbreak," ignoring any of the conditions that would likely inhibit such an event.
We have to deal with hoaxes and false alarms every season. Last summer, there was an ugly hurricane hoax that spread across the internet like wildfire, scaring coastal residents into thinking they were going to get hit by a storm that didn't exist. Every winter we deal with people circulating outlandish model forecasts that show feet upon feet of snow dumping on some major metro area, when the real weather turns out to be 45 sunny degrees. It's not so much an issue of people spreading incorrect forecasts as it is people spreading false information to beef up their own popularity.
As we head deeper into tornado season, you're going to start seeing one ugly theme crop up from less reputable sources: April 27. Comparing severe weather outbreaks to April 27 is like a politician invoking September 11 whenever they need to drum up support for their platform. If you're not familiar with the date, the largest tornado outbreak in recorded history unfolded across the southern and eastern United States on April 27, 2011, spawning 211 tornadoes that killed 313 people. It was a traumatic event for many people who lived through it, and to this day local meteorologists have to calm people down by assuring them that an upcoming round of severe thunderstorms won't be like April 27.
Now, you can imagine the viral power a blog post or Facebook status could have—especially in the southeastern United States—if one were to compare a potential tornado outbreak to April 27, and some people with larger followings are capitalizing on this unsavory trend. The prospect of getting thousands of likes, shares, comments, and clicks is too compelling for some folks to come to grips with the fact that they're preying on people's fears and trust, thereby eroding overall trust in actual meteorologists who are more interested in getting it right than stroking their egos.
It's not just weenies who run into this—some meteorologists and news stations are guilty of overhyping severe weather events, too. It's kind of like CNN's overuse of "breaking news": if everything is breaking news, is anything really breaking news anymore? Hyping severe weather breeds complacency. No longer is saying "dangerous thunderstorms are possible tomorrow" sufficient—we need to add scary adjectives and use terms like "catastrophic damage expected" to grab people's attention. The National Weather Service is in the process of experimenting with stronger wording than "tornado warning," because warning people that there's a tornado down the street isn't enough to force them to seek shelter anymore.
We already have to deal with hoaxes created by bad "satire" websites and the usual troublemakers, so if you're a weather enthusiast with a large following, please don't stir people up by claiming that a potential tornado outbreak could be the next April 27. Keep some perspective and stick to the facts, not what you want to see happen. One of the fundamental principles that guides doctors should also guide people who communicate weather information to the public: first, do no harm. If you're purposely hyping, misrepresenting, or flat-out lying about a major weather event, you're doing more harm than good, even if you don't think so.
It's impossible to police bad behavior on the internet, of course, so it ultimately lands at the readers' feet to figure out what's worthy of one's attention. You should always get your weather information from a trusted source, whether it's the National Weather Service, a well-respected weather company, local news meteorologists, or even your favorite weather blog like The Vane (cough) or the ones run by meteorologists like Cliff Mass or David Epstein.
You should always be suspicious of weather information you see on sites like Facebook or Twitter, especially if the information sounds too good or scary to be true. A weather forecast could save your life one day, so it's important to know what you're consuming in order to make informed decisions. It all comes down to trust but verify.
[Top Image: Timothy Vogel via Flickr | Map by the author]