Normal Winter Weather Is Not a Crisis

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CC BY 2.0. Jonathan Potts – CTV reporter in Ottawa, Ontario

Weather forecasters need to stop treating it as such.

Few things irritate me as much as overhyped weather forecasting. I turn on CBC Radio and listen to the Toronto-based reporters lament the frigid temperatures, the bitterly cold wind chill, the heavy snow, as if it's some kind of outrage. Folks, we live in Canada and this is winter. What else do you expect?

Once I got so upset that I called out the CBC on Twitter, asking them to stop bemoaning the cold and praising the warmth, when in fact normal seasonal temperatures are precisely what we want – particularly in the terrifying face of climate change. I never got an answer, but since then I've heard a couple weather reporters reluctantly acknowledge that "some people like these conditions."

This is, however, a very serious issue. Overhyped and sensationalized weather reporting has a real impact on people and businesses, as described by Frederick Reimers in an article for Outside Online.

First, it's misleading. People have become fixated on the wind chill factor, rather than the true temperature. Wind chill can generate numbers that are 20 to 30 degrees colder than the actual temperature, but, as Reimers writes, it is a flawed measurement. "The formula to determine wind chill is based on a single study that measures the effects of a 3.1-mile-per-hour breeze in a wind tunnel on the faces of a small sample size of people."

Nor does it correlate well to human experience. To quote meteorologist Russ Morley,

"Wind chill doesn’t take into account direct sunlight and is typically based on the highest forecasted wind gusts. Most of the time, the wind only achieves its maximum gusts for a few minutes at a time. Plus, wind chill is only capable of estimating the effects of weather on bare skin."

Overhyped forecasts create fear where there should be none. We've become a society of wimps when it comes to facing the Great Outdoors, this despite being better equipped than ever to handle it. We've moved past the time of hand-knitted mittens, canvas coats, and cotton long johns. Now anyone can layer up with fleeces, windbreakers, water-repellent jackets, insulated pants, and boots rated to -40. And yet, people stay inside.

This has a direct impact on businesses such as ski resorts that depend on cold and snow to survive. When weather forecasters use fear-mongering words like "warnings" and "threats" to describe ordinary snow storms and temperatures, it keeps people away.

Reimers describes the efforts of one ski resort owner to get people out on the slopes. Tim Woods of Woods Valley Ski Area, NY, posted a picture of General Washington crossing the icy Delaware to his Facebook page and added:

"Imagine if George Washington watched the local weather and decided the ‘Real Feel’ temp was just too cold to put his men outside and into battle. Come on people! Stop believing the weather hype and dress for the weather outside. And take a minute to tell your local news station, and your Governor to start educating people and stop with the cheap scare tactics. Please give us a weather report – don’t try to entertain us."

This is such a significant issue that the Vermont Area Ski Association has begun hosting summits to educate meteorologists on better, more inclusive vocabulary to use on air, as well as offer seminars on dressing properly for the conditions.

This baseless fear even affects children's education. In the past two months, my kids' school has had 11 snow days when school buses are canceled. (If there's more than 13 they assess whether or not to extend the school year.) Usually the schools remain open with significantly reduced class sizes, which means the kids who do attend essentially get to play and watch movies all day. Twice, however, the schools have closed due to "inclement weather". Yesterday was one such day and, despite being very gusty, was fine enough for a lovely walk in partial sunshine with my kids mid-afternoon, so I'm not sure what was so inclement about it.

As Reimers writes, the last thing we should be doing is discouraging anyone from going outside – but that's precisely what's going to happen when "normal winter weather is treated like a crisis."

It is not fair if a relatively small group of individuals gets to determine the language used to describe conditions that many of us love and value. (Under other social circumstances, that would be unacceptable.) It's time to speak out, to defend winter as it's meant to be, to promote its many benefits and its great beauty.