The Snow Shovel Index
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
It’s that time of year when news reporters run to the hardware store to interview the manager about the number of snow shovels he’s sold. Snow shovels are a measurement of severe weather and when the hardware store is sold out, that means it’s a blizzard.
Describing weather is not easy. You have to be accurate, truthful and interesting, three things that don’t always go together. It’s been very cold for the past few days and reporters all over America are struggling to find the superlatives to describe it.
From what I hear and read in the news, it seems that the indicator on the thermometer never merely drops or goes down, but rather “the mercury plummets”, like the first big drop on a roller coaster. When the mercury plummets, you can be certain we’re “headed into the single digits”. The single digits, if you have never been there, reside just below the “teens”.
When the temperature hits 30 below, “deadly” is on the tip of every reporter’s tongue, although few Americans are going to stand in the cold until they freeze to death. But describing the temperature as “deadly” makes it sound, well, deadly. People do die in bad weather, but I’m always suspicious of “weather related” deaths. If a man dies of a heart attack shoveling snow in winter, it’s a weather related death. If that same man were to have a heart attack working his garden in April, it’s a paid obituary.
When it’s not “deadly cold”, it’s “dangerously cold”. This is a level of cold just below deadly that could give you frostbite on your nose walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago. For heartier souls, let’s say farmers in North Dakota, that kind of weather is merely “brutal”.
Weather is always “record breaking” or “shattering”. It may not be record breaking where you are, but somewhere in America the temperature, snow depth, or rainfall has broken a record for being, high, low, lengthy, early, or late.
Another assumption in weather reporting is that no matter what time of year it occurs, the weather is usually “unseasonable”. It’s either too cold for summer or too hot for winter. This year, it’s too cold for winter, which is surely a record.
If you think I’m making this up, Reuters news service published the line, “A deadly blast of arctic air shattered decades-old temperature records.”
I neglected to mention that reporters use the word “decade” to make ten years sound longer than ten years. Major storms always come “packing winds”, as if they will unpack a suitcase of wind on arrival. “Sandy is packing record-breaking winds in an unseasonable hurricane.”
One difficult thing to wrestle with in weather reporting is the wind chill factor. This is the phenomenon in which wind makes cold air feel even colder as it passes over the skin. If the temperature is zero and the wind is blowing 15 mph, it feels minus 19, and your skin can freeze faster. But a glass of water in zero degree air does not drop below zero even if the wind is blowing 30 mph. So skip all that, just say “It’s 30 below with the wind chill.” New clichés are hard to coin.
We’ve been lucky this year because someone at the National Weather Service introduced the term “Polar Vortex”. The Polar Vortex is a spinning top of freezing air that usually stays over the North Pole, but this week veered down through Canada and engulfed the television anchor desks in New York.
Reporters have seized upon “Polar Vortex” with the delight they had when Mike McCurry said he was not going to “parse” President Clinton’s words. Within minutes “parse” was the word of Washington. “Polar Vortex” is just so much better than that. It takes the weather to a whole level above brutal, dangerous, and deadly, putting it up there on a par with a disaster movie. “Can the world survive? Scharzenegger, Van Damme, Diesel, Yeoh, Stallone. This Friday, ‘Polar Vortex’”.
“Polar Vortex” will surely enter the dictionary of reportorial exaggeration along with “firestorm”. The next time it drops below 40 in Los Angeles, it’s going to be described on the local news as a Polar Vortex.
It’s difficult to find new ways to look at the weather because we’ve already seen and described just about every kind. But maybe just once I’d like to see a reporter do a story about what happened to all the snow shovels sold last year. Does everyone just throw them away and buy new the next time it snows?