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Hyped-up forecasts outmatch just reporting the weather
A disease in media reporting of weather events that started in the USA seems to be spreading rapidly to Australia as well as other English-speaking countries.
The symptoms are headlines about forecast weather that are sensational and designed to hook the reader in through fear and relevance (Storms to wash out your Christmas Barbie) dominating media coverage of weather events. Stories about weather that hasn't yet happened begin to outnumber those about newsworthy weather that has.
Take these first three headlines in my carefully curated Google news feed today:
- 100km/h winds set to smash Victoria as Melbourne heats up (Herald Sun)
- Sydney weather: Western Sydney to swelter through 44C heat before cool change is set to drop it to 25C (news.com.au)
- US 'polar vortex' to bring weather 'extremes off the scale' in time for Christmas (news.com.au)
All of them lead to stories based on forecasts.
The headline format is usually: [Prediction of doom] TO [why it's relevant to YOU], so "100km/h winds set" TO "smash Victoria...". The third US headline is a masterpiece of the genre, carefully following the format and crafted with emotive phrases that hype it off the scale. That last phrase, "in time for Christmas" is the master stroke. OMG, you think, how's it going to affect me? Glance down the headlines of the news service of Accuweather, America's largest private weather company, and you'll see what I mean.
Why does this matter? After all, forecasts that affect us are quite valid news and a hyped-up headline is just one of the proficient journalist's tools to catch and keep readers. It matters because while the number of stories about weather that hasn't yet happened are increasing, reports of what actually has happened are becoming harder to find. Perhaps we, the consumers of news media, are the problem. By the time the event takes place the story has become stale and we have moved onto the next big thing, and unless the forecast weather was so sensational as to be the next big thing in its own right, we hear nothing more about it. And, of course, it's much easier for a journalist to sex up a weather forecast from a national provider than it is to research and cross-check an event that is in progress or has occurred.
Fortunately, I consult many information sources, and the Daily Weather Summary will continue to report the weather events that actually happened.
Heat, gusty winds set records across the east
The heatwave that has been slowly tracking east across Australia since last Wednesday brought record high overnight minima and daytime maxima on Monday across northern SA, western NSW and SW QLD.
Temperatures reached 10 to more than 12° above normal in N and W SA, with the mercury reaching 47.1 at Oodnadatta, Moomba and Marree. Oodnadatta's sizzling 47.1 followed a night when the temperature only dropped to 32.1. Record-breaking wind gusts were also recorded with thunderstorms in a trough ahead of a major cold front sweeping into SA from the west. Coober Pedy's anemometer recorded 109km/h, but Neptune Island off the Eyre Peninsula SA saw 122km/h, its highest gust in 13 years of observations.
The hot, dry, gusty winds prompted a catastrophic fire danger in the eastern Eyre Peninsula and extreme or severe dangers across most of SA, however no major fires were reported.
Wild weather sweeps across WA
Two strong cold fronts, more typical of winter than Christmas time, crossed southern WA on Sunday and Monday as a deep, complex (i.e. more than one centre) low moved slowly east under the state's South Coast. This animation shows the unseasonal track of the powerful system.
December is in the southern WA dry season, so widespread rain as far north as the central west surprised many, giving some locations around and south of Perth more than double their December averages. The 33.2mm Perth recorded for the event (December average 10.8) nudged the rainfall worm just above average for the year. At the same time as December records were falling to heat and high wind gusts in the east, they were tumbling to heavy rain, low maximum temperatures and especially to high average daily wind speeds in the west.
On Sunday, many events and sporting fixtures were cancelled while play in the third Ashes Test was abandoned. An even greater sensation occurred at the Ashes Test before play started on Monday when a wind gust lifted off the covers protecting the wicket, stopping play for the rest of the morning while the blowers were put to work at a crucial time in the match. Described by one ABC commentator as "an international incident", it at least showed how seriously Aussies still take their Ashes Tests. [ABC, Andrew Miskelly]