A Storm of Ex-Hurricane Communication

MODIS_20171016.jpg

MODIS imagery of Ophelia at landfall on Monday October 16, 2017.

It can’t have escaped the attention of many members of the general public that a storm by the name of Ophelia smashed into Ireland on Monday killing three. Met Eireann issued a RED warning 48 hours in advance of Ophelia’s arrival, which is unprecedented forewarning.

However, this post is not about the drool-worthy atmospheric dynamics that drove the storm nor its predictability, or its impact (or the bizarre yet stunning effect of advecting Iberian wildfire smoke and Saharan dust over the UK, resulting in orange skies).

I’m talking about communicating the threat.

Now, communicating weather isn’t easy. Meteorologists have to work out what they know first, then work out what the public need to know, what they understand, and then how this might be interpreted. This is then complicated nowadays by the world of social media, where meteorologists may tweet technical information which might get mis-represented by those less in the know.

Ophelia really brought storm communication to the forefront of my mind.

The term used by the NOAA National Hurricane Center to describe a storm of tropical origin that has undergone mid-latitude extratropical transition is ‘post-tropical’ (a term they picked up off the Canadian Hurricane Center, it should be said!). It’s a great phrase for meteorologists, I love it and advocated its use before NHC started using it operationally. Before I critique the communication any further, I should say I think NHC did a wonderful job with Ophelia, and I don’t think they could have done much better. I mean, they even had to change their graphics layouts because of Ophelia’s extreme north-eastern location!

My problem lies with the desire that BBC News, BBC Weather and to an extent, the Met Office, had with trying to emphasise that Ophelia wasn’t a hurricane, simply because it was no longer technically fitting that description. The phrases “ex-hurricane”, “tail-end”, “remnants” were used. The storm was “downgraded”. None of these phrases are suitable for communicating the severe threat, and some give the wrong impression entirely. Indeed, BBC News ran an article which said “The hurricane will be a storm when it arrives” which doesn’t really make any sense, other than perhaps suggesting it would be at Beaufort Force 10…storm force…which isn’t correct either.

There was even some egg-on-Twitter-faces when the Met Office tweeted that Ophelia was “now an ex-hurricane”. Simultaneously, NHC issued an advisory with the headline “OPHELIA STILL A HURRICANE”…which, given they’re the Atlantic’s official hurricane forecasting centre, means it was. The contradiction, in my eyes, is unacceptable and there were many tweets to the UKMO pointing this out.

Ophelia, with a likely sting jet, was capable of the same kind of damage as a landfalling tropical cyclone. It was in no way a ‘remnant’, and since it was still producing hurricane-force sustained winds, it was still Beaufort Force 12…i.e. a hurricane! I’m sure the people of Ireland will refer to it as ‘Hurricane Ophelia’. I don’t pretend to have the answers to this sort of situation, and certainly Ophelia was an unprecedented situation. But I think there should be consistency, and if a storm is severe enough, that shouldn’t be underplayed based on some sort of meteorological technicality. Do the public care about the difference between a symmetric warm-core cyclone versus an asymmetric warm-core cyclone when the impacts are similar?

Perhaps Post-Tropical Hurricane would work. Perhaps we should have some form of intensity scale for our named storms? Whatever happens, I think there can be improvement. These are the most severe weather events that these islands receive…why underplay them?

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