Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/February 1901/The Weather vs the Newspapers
|THE WEATHER VS. THE NEWSPAPERS.|
By HARVEY MAITLAND WATTS.
THE PHILADELPHIA 'PRESS.'
In 1668 the inquisitive Pepys had warrant for his exclusion of weather lore from the domain of reason, but with three centuries gone all things have changed, save the ready disposition of men of a certain literary bent to cry 'mystery' where there is none, and of all the popular phrases in use to-day, when the weather is up for discussion in the newspapers, none is so abused in the over-using as that which points out that science has 'no reasonable explanation' to offer, and this of phenomena explained in school books!
Indeed, though the secular newspaper is not otherwise given to an observance of Biblical philosophy, no saying is more devoutly believed, no maxim more rigidly accepted as the guiding principle of journalism in its treatment of the weather, than that of the famous text: 'The wind bloweth where it listeth and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth.'
The indifference to weather facts is all the more extraordinary, since the weather is not a casual matter, but one of necessitated daily interest to the public, and, consequently, to the newspaper. That the newspaper recognizes this interest, that it caters to it, that it makes a special effort to meet a taste which it, in fact, partly creates, is shown by the extreme industry evinced in the collection, classification and presentation of storm news; in the constant appearance of the 'weather' assignment on the city editor's list, and in a zeal for a weather 'spread,' with a pomp of type and details; unfortunately, however, not according to knowledge, and, so far as the public is concerned, too often making 'confusion worse confounded.'
In view, therefore, of popular interest in the weather, and in view of the great change that has come over the science of the weather in the past twenty-five years, it is as amazing as it is deplorable that such an indictment of the newspaper treatment of the weather can be made, since; although in this matter the newspaper reflects public ignorance and adds to it, in other lines of endeavor the average newspaper is quick to reflect knowledge and expertness. But with the weather it is otherwise. Instead of informing, most newspapers merely confirm popular error. Although for a generation the main facts of weather drift have been settled beyond dispute, they know nothing of it; they are still in the swaddling clothes of belief, and still accept the concepts of their grandfathers, who swore by the 'Shepherd of Banbury's Rules,' and knew a wet moon when they saw it. As under normal circumstances this profound ignorance would give way slowly to the new science, it is regrettable that on the part of journalism there should be so gross a dereliction, and that at this late day, instead of being the harbinger of the new fact, it should still be the handmaiden of the old obscurantism. If, believing the problem of meteorology to be too difficult to understand, the newspaper would let the weather alone, things might improve. But, unfortunately, the weather will not let the newspaper alone, and so, through government forecast and actual incident and accident, the newspaper must keep pegging away at it, editorially and 'reportorially' until the present anomalous state of things is developed, for which there is no excuse in the nature of science or in the intelligence of those who 'get out' the modern newspaper. A daily journal is not a technical publication. One does not expect to see worked out in it problems in the differential calculus. One might forgive a casual error in the statement of the formulæ for hydrocarbon compounds, since organic chemistry is not served up as a daily dish, but the persistent indifference to meteorological explanations, within the capacity of a boy of fifteen, is inexcusable, and, unfortunately, as the comments on the Galveston horror show, there is no sign of a change for the better. A few, a very few, newspapers—exceptions but prove the rule—reflect expertness and evince common-sense accuracy, still at the same time losing nothing in the way of presenting the subject in an interesting and attractive manner; but, for the most part, the average newspaper fails in its duty to the public, so far as the weather is concerned, in the four following particulars:
1. By reason of a misapprehension and misrepresentation of the simplest fundamental facts of atmospheric circulation and weather movement, effects being treated as causes, etc.
2. By reason of a constant confusion of terminology and a generally slipshod use of weather terms and facts.
3. By reason of a persistent refusal to recognize much, if any, difference between the scientist and the charlatan, between the expert and the quack; and, in fact, by a disposition—marked in some quarters—to give undue prominence to bogus weather prophets and
wonder-mongers, at the expense of the equipped and reputable students of the subject.
4. By reason of a hypercritical but uninformed attitude toward the daily forecasts of the United States Weather Bureau, by which the work of the Bureau is hampered and its value to the public materially reduced.
Such is the situation. If the apprehension of the simple fundamental facts of the weather—taking the first count in the indictment into consideration—were difficult, if the problems were beyond the ability of the man in the street, one would excuse the newspaper and quash the indictment, but the practical questions at issue are as clear as crystal and as simple as A, B, C. There is no dispute among observers as to the fundamental facts, and the surface phenomena themselves are as regular as the progress of the sun from tropic to tropic. The abstract and controversial discussion as to final causes which occupies certain meteorologists is not germane, so far as the treatment of the daily weather goes, and it is the newspaper, not the weather men, who cannot tell a meteorological 'hawk from a hand-saw.'
Because a Dolbear, a Trowbridge and a Lodge may not agree on the ultimate expression for electric energy does not prevent a citizen from distinguishing between arc and incandescent lights, or between a trolley car and a call bell. And so it is with the simple weather facts. The synthesis of American weather, which can be given in two sentences, is within the understanding of any one, for American weather is the resultant of a west to east drift in the general circumpolar circulation of the north temperate zone, which drift is broken up into two great eddies, and only two, the cyclonic and the anti-cyclonic; the former, the cyclonic, the center of general storm phenomena, and the condition and cause of local storm disturbances (tornadoes, squalls, thunderstorms, etc., as local conditions and the seasons determine); the latter, the anti-cyclonic, the center of clear weather phenomena. Into this circumpolar system intrude the tropical anti-cyclone and the tropical cyclone, and play their part in the proper season and region. That is all.
The great circumpolar drift moves in ceaseless round from the Pacific to the Mississippi Valley, from the Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic, from the Atlantic to Europe, to Asia, to the Pacific, and back again. In it appear the two great atmospheric eddies, oftentimes over a thousand miles in diameter, and covering 1,000,000 square miles of the earth's surface. These two type eddies, the cyclonic and the anti-cyclonic, are the real distributers of the weather, as we know it. They can be seen to shift as a whole from west to east, not necessarily along a straight line, however, for they have a way of bellying down, or sidling from the northwest to the southeast, and from the southwest to the northeast, or from all points in the west between north and south to all points in the east between north and south, making all sorts of combinations, accelerating in speed, slowing up, sometimes standing still seemingly, but yet progressing surely, certainly, inevitably to the east.
The anti-cyclone, judging it wholly from its invariable surface effects, which can be seen day after day on the United States Weather Bureau's daily maps, is essentially a down-draught eddy or center of dispersion for the winds; an area where the barometric pressure is above the normal (Chart No. 1). The cyclone, also invariably, so far as the surface levels of the atmosphere go, is an up-draught eddy, a center of wind concentration; an area where the barometric pressure is below the normal (Chart No. 2). When it is remembered that the winds circulate outward from the high pressure center of an anticyclone spirally, from left to right, clockwise, while the winds move into the low pressure of a cyclone spirally, from right to left, counter clockwise, some idea of the simplicity of weather causation is gained. Remembering also that, by reason of the descent of relatively cool, dry air and its dispersion, the polar anti-cyclone is the cause of clear and cool weather phenomena, while by reason of the rushing in of warm, moist air on one side, its expansion and cooling as it rises, and cool, dry air on the other, the cyclone is the seat of storm phenomena, the first primary lesson in American weather is over.
Through a failure to grasp the greater synthesis of the weather, terminology and local storm differentiation have naturally become hopelessly muddled in the newspapers, though here the difficulty of grasping the facts is even less than in the first issue. The cyclone is the center of rhetorical disturbance, and inky clouds of misuse and abuse gather about it, since, as a parent of storms and as a weather-breeder of no mean type, the cyclone plays the dramatic leading rôle in American meteorology. It is not only itself capable of great development of storm energies in the winter, early spring and late autumn, but in its milder summer moments is particularly likely to be the parent of specific local disturbances. With one of these, the tornado, it is identified popularly by the newspapers, which, in spite of all explanation on the part of the Weather Bureau, have not yet seen the absurdity of applying to a secondary phenomenon, insignificant in size compared with-the primary eddy, the name of the general disturbance. The cyclone, sweeping along with warm, moist weather in front, clear and cool weather in its rear, attended by a general rain, and in its sphere of influence covering a dozen States or more, surely may be separated from the local tornadoes, which, though destructive and terrifying, are but mere local incidents in the parent circulation. This is so markedly shown in the weather map of March 27, 1890, that, once seen, it is incomprehensible how error can so hold its own (Chart No. 3). The simplest study of the invariable facts shows that the tornado is a small eddy, superinduced under favorable meteorological and topographical conditions in the outer circulation (southwest to southeast quadrant) of a general low area disturbance (cyclone). It is of extreme intensity, the rotary motion of its winds around the central core (vortex) being inconceivably swift (100 to 500 and perhaps 1,000 miles an hour), but is limited as to duration—it lasts, at the longest, but a few hours; limited as to the width of path, this may vary from fifty to five hundred yards, one of a mile in width being exceptional, and limited as to the length of track, which if it exceeds 100 miles is unusual. Now, a cyclone is continental in magnitude, and may travel for weeks, going two-thirds of the way around the globe. Just as the cyclone's path is determined by interaction of barometric stresses in the general drift of the whole atmosphere, so the path of tornadoes is determined by the interaction of currents in the cyclonic drift. Individual tornadoes do not cross the country intact, as so many weather quacks prophesy, but the parent cyclone that conditions a number of them in the Western States one day, having traveled further east the next day, if local conditions allow, may superinduce similar local outbursts in the Middle States.
Thunder-storms, as a rule, are familiar enough and definite enough to escape the general muddlement, but even they have not escaped the tendency to 'cyclonize' every weather phenomenon. Hence the old-fashioned thunder-gust, the familiar straight outrush of the thunder squall, sometimes destructive, figures nowadays as a 'cyclone,' a 'tornado,' or mayhap a 'hurricane.' Not only this, but the thunderstorms that occur along the line of change from the warm front of a cyclone to the cooler rear—a cool anti-cyclone following—are accused of causing the anti-cyclone when they are an effect of the advancing anti-cyclone and not its cause, any more than the cow-catcher is the cause of the approach of a train.
Above all, the most extraordinary pother and confusion prevail over another storm type, the hurricane or tropical cyclone. Here the newspapers are seconded in their obscurantism by writers of books on the West Indies or the Philippines, all of whom should know better, or could know better if they only so elected. The hurricane—the typhoon is its Asian congener—though the smallest of cyclones, since its diameter usually ranges from 100 to 500 miles, is easily differentiated from the biggest tornado, since the latter diameter at the greatest barely reaches one mile. As the tornado in its narrow swath kills tens and hundreds, so the hurricane, with vast areas of sea and land swept by the besom of its great winds and washed by its tremendous storm wave, runs the death total up to the hundreds and thousands. The hurricane does not originate in the circumpolar drift, but is a cyclonic whirl developed on the periphery of the great North Atlantic anti-cyclone. It is a tropical intruder, the only general storm disturbance the tropical circulation gives us. It is no new type, but simply one of the two great eddies known to the general atmospheric circulation the world over. As it is a concentrated cyclone, the winds blow in and about its central vortex with a velocity that may easily reach 100 miles an hour, while velocities of sixty and seventy miles an hour are not uncommon at great distances—500 miles or so—from the center. It is the most violent tempest the newspapers are called upon to chronicle, but its characteristics are so invariable, its paths so well known—determined largely by the position of the North Atlantic anticyclone in relation to the continental anti-cyclones—that it is surprising to witness the confusion that marks news and editorial comment when one is at hand. Though every boy has seen a spinning top meandering over the pavement, most newspapers find it difficult to understand the slow forward progressive motion of the whole rotating cyclonic mass on its track. And yet Franklin, over 100 years ago, fathomed the secret of the apparent paradox that the storms that condition our northeast gales actually have their center to the southwest; and Redfield, in 1830-50, taught the American public all about these revolving storms of the Atlantic Ocean, while Piddington, a Briton, in 1848, in his 'Sailor's Horn Book,' made the broad facts plain to the simple-minded, unlearned, every-day navigator, and himself invented the technical term 'cyclone' specifically to describe the rotary storms, then believed to be peculiar to the tropical oceans. (Chart No. 4).
Hand in hand with misunderstanding and misapprehension of weather phenomena has gone the booming of the weather quack. In some ways this is the most discreditable feature of the newspaper treatment of the weather, since ignorance plus the quack represents a recrudescence of medievalism which would seem incredible, were it not a persistent factor in the 'popular 5 weather article that is given prominence by leading newspapers, while the waste of telegraphic tolls in sending broadcast the views of some pseudo-scientific zany, whose star for the moment is in the ascendant, is an extravagance which, if spent in the right direction, might save the news-gathering organization money and give it reputation. It is about time the newspapers learned that there are only two classes of weather quacks and wonder-mongers—those who are greater knaves than fools; those who are greater fools than knaves. . The whole business belongs to the slimy byways of astrology, or represents the fecklessness of those who peddle a quack nostrum composed of one per cent, bogus science to niety-nine per cent, of piety. And yet these creatures are quoted and exploited, their forecasts are printed in a conspicuous manner and they are encouraged to fleece the ignorant by the authority and circulation given them even by metropolitan journalism.
The spectacle is stultifying, and yet, in the face of this, in the face of the fact that Weather Bureau stations in the great centers of population have been compelled to phrase their forecasts in primer English, because 'cyclone' and 'anti-cyclone' puzzled the newspapers and frightened the people, whose idea had been formed on newspaper interpretation of the forecasts; because 'highs' and 'lows' were deemed too mysterious for comprehension; in face of all this humiliating confusion, the forecasts, if they err, are criticized in a way that not only brings out all the old, but a new ignorance that is as invincible as it is hypercritical, and raises a popular prejudice against the Weather Bureau wholly unwarranted by the facts. Making no quack claims, the Bureau officials are discredited as to short-range or long-range forecasts, while the Wigginses and Devoes take the tripod and scatter storms, floods and dooms, as the irresponsible bad boy splashes water, and are acclaimed therefor. The essential fundamental difficulty of the question of forecasts is—aside from the blank misunderstanding of forecasts that are verified by results—that those who criticize forecasting not only exaggerate the percentage of error, but are wholly oblivious to the fact that forecasting is an art rather than a science. The art is based on science, and as the science improves so will the art; but being an art, the personal equation—knowledge of facts being equal—plays a very important part in results. If criticism were directed to any real shortcomings in the Bureau's organization, the Bureau's interests would be promoted; but here, as in other features of weather discussion, the real issues not being apprehended, the discussion is usually pointless and without result. Equipped as the average first-class American newspaper is in plant and staff, alert, keenly anxious to be up to date, impatient of humbug, a unique opportunity is given it by the first year of the new century—always a season of repentance—for that about-face in its treatment of the weather that its past lapses in this respect and the pressing importance of the subject demand.
Chart No. 4.—This chart gives the track of four destructive tropical cyclones, known colloquially as 'hurricanes.' The hurricane differs from the continental cyclones of the North Temperate Zone in its surface effects in nothing but its intensity. The wind circulation is true to the cyclonic type (the term 'cyclone' was invented to describe the movement of the winds in the tropical tempest), but reaches great velocities, and, whereas the barometer in an intense continental cyclone may only fall to 29 inches in the tropical cyclone, its vortex may record 28 inches, and, in certain cases, the barometer has fallen to 27. In consequence of this, the vortical velocity of the wind is very great, reaching in gusts a rate of 80, 90, 100 and 125 miles an hour. As one of these tropical eddies advances from the West Indies and moves up the Atlantic Coast, it gives all localities north of its center, successively, gales from the northeast. These August-September, northeast gales, erroneously called 'equinoctials,' are but a part of the hurricane's whirl, but with the heavy rain and high tides are its most familiar attribute to the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Seaboard peoples.
The violence of these northeast gales and of all the hurricane winds that blow about the vortex has nothing to do with the storm's progressive motion, which is often less than 10 miles an hour, since this is controlled by the general circulation; the westward drift of the tropics, until it gets north of the parallel of 30°, and later by the eastward-moving currents of the North Temperate Zone. When the tropical cyclone gets into this more northerly system it behaves exactly as a regular continental cyclone, and has to take its chances in the action and interaction of the polar cyclones and anti-cyclones that cover the continent. Hence the variations in its path, a few of which are given here.
Track No. 1 is that of the cyclone that caused the disaster on the Sea Islands near Savannah and Charleston, in September, 1893, causing a loss of over 400 lives (some claim 1,000 in all), leaving 30,000 homeless and destitute. It also proved destructive as far north as Long Island. Track No. 2 is that of the Porto Rican cyclone of August 8, 1899, that caused a loss of 2,900 lives with 500,000 people more or less affected by its devastating effects. Track No. 4 is that of the storm that caused a loss of nearly 2,000 lives along the coast and in the bayou district of Louisiana, in October, 1893.In the case of the great Galveston cyclone (track No. 3), an anti-cyclone lying over the Middle States held it up as it was moving in toward Florida, and its path was deflected westward. It moved about 10 miles an hour along its track from September 6 to September 9, while the vortical winds were blowing toward and about the center at a rate of from 50 to 100 miles an hour, as Galveston learned on the 8th, the severest blow coming from the southeast after the center had passed Galveston. From the 9th to the 11th it decreased in intensity, and, when central over Oklahoma, on the 10th, had all the appearance of an ordinary rainy 'low area.' In jumping from Des Moines on the 11th to near Montreal on the 12th, it increased in energy; the rate of progression was about 50 miles an hour, at the same time its vortical winds over the Lakes reached a velocity of 72 miles. On the 13th it was over Newfoundland, and caused great damage to shipping on the 'Banks,' and reached Iceland on the 20th, traveling from September 1, when it originated south of Porto Rico, to September 20, over 7,000 miles, and at times covering, in diameter, regions 1,000 miles across.
- 'The Sailor's Horn Book for the Law of Storms,' by Henry Piddington, London, 1848, page 8.