Science & Environment
10:55 am
Wed January 22, 2014

Has the Media Gone Ballistic on Winter Storms? Four Experts Weigh In


With mythological names and terms like bombogenesis and polar vortex flying as fast as snowflakes, it can be hard to know what's hype and what's not.

So I asked a handful of the weather experts I trust most for their thoughts on how winter storms are being treated by the mass media, and by social media.

Frank O'Laughlin, retired meteorologist and forecaster for Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee, on the term bombogenesis:

Bombogenesis is actually an old [shorthand]. It refers to rapidly deepening low pressure between two strong air masses. Using this term for this storm seems a bit much, especially when compared to other historical events.

Dr. Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground, on the popularity of bombastic sounding weather phenomena:

Polar vortex, bombogenesis, I've been using those terms for decades. And now people get to see meteorologists using those. There's more access to what experts are thinking. So the media has latched onto some of these more technical terms that have been out there forever, and they're making their way into the media.

Chris Vaccaro, director of public affairs for the National Weather Service, on the power of extreme weather to raise awareness and interest:

Back in the 1980's ad 90's, El nino wasn't very well known. But after a series of very wet storms brought a lot of flooding and mudslides in California, then that severe season introduced El nino into everyone's vocabulary. Or back in June 2012, ... the word derecho was introduced into everyone's vocabulary. And so now we also have polar vortex. Typically, you would need to experience the event to then become familiar with the term. And this happens in other professions. Let's say you're in the medical profession. I'm sure most people never hear of angioplasty until they need one.

Andrew Freedman, senior science writer for Climate Central, on the role of social media:

I think that social media has greatly affected weather coverage, for good and bad. On the one hand, hyping weather has become much easier - just look at The Weather Channel's storm naming system as an example of that. On the other hand, scientific concepts get a broader public airing, such as the polar vortex and bombogenesis, which are neat meteorology terms the public had not been exposed to before. Personally, I don't think the hype machine is at a much higher gear now than it used to be, it's just that people are using different tools to democratize information and participate in the weather conversation.

Bombastic media hype? Or savvy science communication? What's your take?