When is a hurricane not a hurricane, (but just a very naughty storm)?

Does scientific pedantry get in the way of communicating the impacts of severe weather? John discusses the issues that blight the words of weather.

Millennia ago, when the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean looked out to sea and sensed the arrival of a life-threatening storm, they named it a ‘huricán’ – after the Carib Indian god of evil. This in itself derived from the more ancient Mayan god of wind, storm and fire – ‘huracán’. It remains the Spanish term for hurricane today.

As the ancient Caribbean ancestors fled desperately from this force of nature, survival was all that mattered. I doubt whether any of them were too concerned about whether the tempest was formed over waters greater than 27C, or that the storm was a tropically derived convective circulation of winds with a mean speed exceeding 64 knots.

It was only many centuries later that the science of meteorology effectively hijacked the term ‘hurricane’ and decided that the trademark distinctive violent spiral of rain and wind, with an empty eye in the middle, only occurred as a result of these essential ingredients. But hurricanes can sometimes wander north. As they undergo ‘extra-tropical transition’, so the physical processes within the storm change. By the strict scientific rulebook, they can no longer be called hurricanes.

The public is understandably confused…

Unfortunately, the violent winds they produce do not switch off in such an abrupt way. Indeed recent research suggests that with climate change, such storms are tending to reach their peak further away from the deep tropics – closer to where we live.

And therein lies the problem. What happens when an extra-tropical storm still produces winds, disruption, damage and fatality equivalent to a hurricane (as occurred recently with Storm ‘Ophelia’)? The public is understandably confused when they are told that such a storm is no longer a hurricane. The inference from “ex-hurricane” is that it is no longer as dangerous. With winds of over 100mph and three fatalities, residents of The Republic of Ireland who felt Ophelia’s wrath might take issue.

Across the skyscape, verbal pedantry can get in the way in other, admittedly less extreme, weather scenarios. The Meteorological Glossary explains very deliberately the exact difference between ‘mist’ and ‘fog’; between ‘rain’ and ‘drizzle’; between ‘sleet’ and ‘snow’. (Believe me I could go on). All these distinctions have their essential uses – to the scientists. But let us not forget that each of those terms (just like ‘hurricane’) has a history that far pre-dates the ivory towers of science. The word ‘drizzle’ dates back at least as far as the Anglo Saxons, for example. Similarly, the Ancient Britons knew what a ‘shower’ was. They didn’t need a scientist to tell them whether it was or wasn’t a short scud of rain, or how it was formed.

Ownership of these weather terms is by the people for the people. So perhaps we need to speak the language of the people, rather than the text book, when communicating them.

In the end, perhaps the best approach to this conundrum is a pragmatic one. Why not nimbly use whatever words most effectively relay the weather message to engender an appropriate response to a particular audience? To help in that endeavour, The Met Office now names damaging storms (eg ‘Brian’), regardless of their heredity. This raises the public’s awareness of threat. Others complain that this is yet another symptom of a dumbed down, hyped up, nanny state – all rolled into one.

The debate will continue. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what the ancient Mayan ancestors would think of it all? Perhaps they would say that if it looks, feels and harms like a hurricane, then to all intents and purposes, it is one.