A few weeks ago I was rushing on foot through Winslow to catch the Seattle ferry. The late afternoon weather had turned ugly, a kind of semi-frozen slurry was coming down, both drenching and freezing at once.
Coming the other way was a scurrying figure, swaddled in rain gear and hunched against the storm. As we passed, I realized it was Northwest weather guru Cliff Mass who'd just arrived on Bainbridge Island. He recognized me (we're both on KUOW and have books on the regional bestseller list) and, without stopping, he shouted, "What are you doing here?" My reply was something unenlightening like "Rushing to the ferry," but neither of us was going to stop and chat in that mess.
I actually did have a question of my own, not uttered: Cliff, what do you call this stuff? Snow-rain mix didn't seem to do it justice. Sleet? Frozen rain? Proof of an angry God?
Mass' book, The Weather of the Pacific Northwest, is terrific, with great explanations of the many phenomena that impact our region, and with clear charts, graphics and excellent photos to match. He also has a great blog that answers important questions like, "Is Sequim Really Sunnier?" But even so, no one can clear up all the apparent confusion about weather in this tricky region. Like, why are weather reports here so unhelpful?
One reason isn't the unpredictability of the weather or the disappearance of Andy Wappler and his Double Doppler from local TV. It's partly that few of us understand the basics. Cliff and the weather pundits are talking over our heads. That's highlighted in an Associated Press story about a recent study at the University of Washington that reveals many presumably bright college students don't have a clue what people like Cliff are talking about, and I mean the basic terminology. (And that's before the massive budget cuts!)
According to the story:
Researchers at the University of Washington say only about half the people know what a weather forecast means when it predicts a 20 percent chance of rain.
A psychologist, Susan Joslyn, and colleagues tested more than 450 college students and found may were confused. Some think it will rain over 20 percent of an area, others that it will rain 20 percent of the time.
It actually means it will rain on 20 percent of the days with those same atmospheric conditions.
A couple of years ago while reporting for Crosscut, I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what was meant by the term, "100-year storm," because so many of those had occurred in a single year. If that was true, it seemed to either mean we were on the brink of an apocalypse, or the media was over-hyping the seriousness of our weather.
It turned out the term "100-year storm" is tied to specific locations, so a single weather event could create 100-year storms in multiple places. However, in the media, it's come to mean something more like "the perfect storm," or the "Mother of all Storms." It adds drama and gives policy makers a way to dodge responsibility for poor drainage systems and weak dikes. "Of course there was a flood, it was a 100-year storm!" It's pretty meaningless term for the rest of us because all of the footnotes and caveats get left out when it's trumpeted on TV.
Another problem is that the weather that's relevant to you is more localized than the weather reports on the broadcast media. In other words, a threat of snow in the Puget Sound lowlands is hyped to get all us Pugetopolitans to tune in, but in fact when listening to the fine print, you discover that there's only a minor chance of chilly precip on Hood Canal. The rest of us, the 90 percent of us who don't give a flying F what happens on Hood Canal on any given day, are nervous about snow or wind or frozen glop that will never come. Or you come to discover that you only need to worry if you live on top of Tiger Mountain, the high ground during the last Ice Age.
So the predicting is tricky, the basic terminology is confusing and mis-used, and the hype used to generate ratings, not inform the few who truly need to know if the Hammer of Thor is about to fall on their heads. On any given day, you have an 85 percent chance of being confused by the utterly irrelevant.
Which is why you need not rely an anything more than the old folk wisdom that says, if you can't see Mt. Rainier, it's raining. If you can see Mt. Rainier, it's going to rain.
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