Watching the ‘fearcasts’

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Maybe it’s because it’s easy news, and cheap, too, because it comes right to you and you don’t have to do anything but report on conditions.

Maybe it’s because it’s got foreshadowing and dread that turning the weather into the news has become just good business. Drag the viewers and listeners in with the potential doomsday forecasts — and an already winter-battered public is always ready to go out and share the bad news with the rest of the population.

“Did you hear what they said we’re going to get? The wind-snow-rain is a veritable end of days — especially after what we’ve already had to put up with.”

The weather’s become so newsy that it’s trotted out four, five or even six times in a single newscast — and the weather news is always the worst-case scenario. And not the worst-case scenario for tomorrow, either; in the midst of Monday’s snow, we were already being prepped for the snowtastrophe of Wednesday night — just one of the snowtastrophes this winter that hasn’t lived up to the advanced billing.

Up to 30, 40, 50 centimetres … “up to” is the magic pair of words — always accurate, because it really could happen, and because it encompasses any lesser amount that actually happens to fall. Imminent weather gets pumped up out of all proportion on radio, too, and you sometimes feel the hosts are disappointed when the planned crisis fails to appear.

Meanwhile, the old standby that, pre-Internet, used to have some of the busiest telephone answering machines in the nation, Environment Canada plods along with baseline forecasts that, more often than not, lowball the multiple-forecast scenarios of our broadcasters — and, more often than not, provide a forecast that’s more accurate than the broadcasters’, as well. Environment Canada, steadily reporting only a few days in advance, was bang-on for Wednesday’s storm.

Unfazed by a series of long-range, changeable forecasts and different models, Environment Canada simply focused on the next day and said what was expected — not the ranges of what was the worst case possible when looking at far-away weather through the forecast telescope.

You can understand why it happens: weather news is popular, and once you’ve said what’s going to happen in the morning, you’re a little bit stuck. You almost have to start delving into theoretical weather — what might happen well down the pike, in a hugely variable exercise that is almost guaranteed to miss the mark until you’re closer to the actual weather system.

I’m not saying weather isn’t news — it certainly is. And sometimes, it’s the very heart of what news should be.

The effects of snow? That’s real news. Reporting on snowclearing, on roads that are closed, on routes you shouldn’t take, on sidewalk clearing (what’s that?) are necessary and valuable — especially when that information is crucial to safety. When, like on Wednesday, the RCMP warned motorists that snowplows have been pulled from stretches of road, the faster drivers get that information, the better.

But the weather prequels? It’s a kind of weatherporn.

It’s turned the simple forecast into a sort of weather Olympics — everything has to be faster, stronger, higher.

I’m not arguing, by the way, that Wednesday night’s storm wasn’t spectacular or record-breaking in some parts of the province. It was — just look at the numbers from Wreckhouse, where gusts of 185 kilometres an hour were the highest ever recorded.

But for St. John’s, the dreaded “double weather bomb” turned into a pretty average March storm. But we have had much more snow on this side of the province — and later, too. My memory’s not perfect, but in the year of the big snow, 2001, I remember a snowfall of 40-odd centimetres well into the first week of April.

Long-range weather forecasting is about as accurate as casting bones to divine the skies a week away — who in this province has not watched a five-day forecast of summer sun turn into five days of fog by the very next morning?

And it gets far too much airtime, and far too much credence.

I worry a bit about the fatigue involved in always reporting the worst-case scenario, and whether we’re not heading towards the weather forecast that cried wolf. Because if storms never live up to their advance billing, when a big one really does barrel into us, we’ll be shrugging our shoulders, saying “It’s never as bad as they say it is,” and heading out the highway.

Just the facts.

Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Environment Canada, RCMP

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