The reportage surrounding the latest meteorological event to threaten
Atlantis New Orleans is typical of the media’s deep, deep problems with science stories. Weather systems, as you should know, are at the cutting edge of chaos theory – the mathematics of non-linear systems. You can throw the Biggest Computer In The World at weather prediction and the best it will do is get the weather approximately right for up to about 48 hours. Beyond five days, you can forget about it, which is why I’ve always found it killingly ironic that the French weather service, Meteo.fr used to try to charge you for weather forecasts beyond two days ahead.
But this isn’t really about mathematics. It’s simply about understanding the basics of weather and using the correct terminology.
The Beaufort wind scale goes from 0 to 12. Gale force winds are between 7 and 10 on the scale, with wind speeds from 50 to 102kph. By its very definition, a hurricane like Gustrav has wind speeds over 118kph which makes it a, you know, hurricane, and not a, you know, gale.
Now, Hurricanes have their own scale, The Saffir-Simpson, which goes from 1 to 5. When Gustav hit Cuba a couple of days ago, it was a Category 4. As it approaches the coast of the United States, it has been downgraded to Category 2. Hurricanes always lose energy over colder water, and over land.
Needless to say, this information is easily accessible for any journalist wishing to check facts.
But the bad reporting goes beyond scales. The radio reports from Cuba the other day were focused – by the reporter in the field – on where the eye of the hurricane was located. “The eye hasn’t reached Havana yet, but if it does…” was the essence of the reporting, with the implication that the eye is the most dangerous part. Except of course, the eye of the hurricane is the calm bit in the middle where nothing is happening. It’s referred to on the National Hurricane Centre web site as a way of locating the centre of the storm, but it’s the high-speed winds around the edges that cause all the damage – that and the storm surge, which is basically a very high tide with a lot of extra water.
The media has descended on
Atlantis New Orleans like vultures circling a corpse, waiting for a killer blow to break the levées and sink the city for good. You can almost sense the disappointment as the storm loses energy.
Meanwhile, the Caribbean is being threatened by the next storm in the chain, Hurricane Hanna, which is a Category 1. Even on the BBC weather site, you can see Hanna squatting over the Caribbean islands as we speak*, but the headline on the page is all about
Atlantis New Orleans.
Meanwhile meanwhile, over a million people have been made homeless and half a million are stranded in India by monsoon flooding. But all the news bulletins lead with New Orleans. Why do you think that is?
Answers in the comments!
*UPDATE: Hanna is now getting a mention on the BBC extreme weather site, as the depression previously known as “NINE” (destined to have a name beginning with the ninth letter in the alphabet) has been christened Tropical Storm Ike.