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10 FAQs about global and local Tropical Storm news coverage

(This story was originally published on Monday) — With two major storms impacting a number of nations in recent days a lot of you have asked several questions relating to coverage and why some events get more news than others. We’ve tried to break it down as simply as possible to make sense of why there isn’t even coverage of every tropical storm locally and globally.

1) What is the difference between a Typhoon, a Cyclone and a Hurricane? None – other than where they are born and are currently active. Like how we say human-beings that are born or living in New Zealand are “New Zealanders” or those born in China are “Chinese”, yet we’re still all human-beings. Well these are all tropical storms but a “Cyclone” is simply one that is in the Southern Hemisphere, a “Hurricane” is a northern hemisphere tropical storm that forms in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean (east of the International Date Line) and “Typhoons” are what we name a northern hemisphere tropical storm that is active in eastern Asia and must be in the Pacific Ocean west of the International Date Line.

2) There were several tropical storms last week why did most media choose to focus on only two of them?
If we decided to cover every tropical storm you’d be inundated with days and days of news stories all year round about wild storms that won’t impact people and remain entirely out at sea. In fact the majority of tropical storms remain out at sea and do not affect land in any serious ways. Ships go around them. So to avoid ‘crying wolf’ most serious forecasters examine each and every tropical storm on the planet and tend to only cover if really a serious threat to land or people – or an offshore storm if it’s a near threat following a recent storm that recently made a direct hit. 

3) Why do American storms get so much more coverage here? 
There is a genuine reason for this and also a frustrating reason. The genuine reason is quite simply that the USA leads the world in creating open weather data (Something you’ll often hear us complaining about a lack of in NZ, as NZ is the only country in the western world to not have open rain radar/weather observations etc). ‘Open data’ means there is a wealth of data and products freely available for forecasters and news outlets to educate and prepare the people for storms – from making graphics that instantly make sense of it all and grab your attention to live images showing you what is happening right now (And MOST of this we cannot do in NZ during a storm as we get legal threats from NIWA and MetService lawyers, simply for trying to share data we have all collectively paid for as taxpayers). Things like live weather observations and freely open rain radar data. Many non-english speaking countries have no open data and so storms are harder to track in real time.

4) Why do typhoons get less coverage in the media?
Actually, globally, they shouldn’t do as most news outlets in Asia were heavily covering Typhoon Mangkhut and less likely to be covering American storms…we just don’t see that in New Zealand so easily. News outlets will often deliver what their audience is demanding and many mainstream NZ news outlets have deals to share content directly from US, Australian and UK news outlets. Also, we know from our own experience a US hurricane has stronger interest from New Zealand than a typhoon hitting eastern Asia. But in saying that, that doesn’t mean it’s right or that this pattern of behaviour should remain. is now actively working to expand coverage of *ALL* major global storms that are impacting land anywhere on the planet, especially as New Zealand’s own population becomes far more diverse. We had a lot of interest in Mangkhut late last week due to people saying they were frustrated at lack of access to coverage of it here.

5) How do you prioritise two storms hitting two different parts of the world, news coverage-wise?
Last week both Hurricane Florence was approaching the US while Typhoon Mangkhut was approaching the northern Philippines. Both were major storms and for a while they were both very powerful. Florence took the lead in news stories mostly because it was a much more certain storm… all models said it would hit the eastern USA. When it came to Mangkhut, while a Super Typhoon for a time, initially there was some uncertainty about if a direct hit with the Philippines would happen, or just a near brush. So it took a few days to lock that in before headlining it (again, always making sure the ‘crying wolf’ syndrome is managed). Once it was clear Mangkhut was looking worse and Florence was weakening we shifted our priorities to more heavily cover Typhoon Mangkhut – at least with the limited data we had access to.

6) Why is there such big build up before a storm hits but little coverage after?
A very good question and actually quite easy to explain, at least from the weather forecasting side of things. As forecasters we ultimately are tracking current storms. Once a major tropical storm makes landfall it gets ripped apart and what was once a major storm that stood out on the planet can very quickly return to a ‘normal’ event. We track the big storms, then when they die out we move on and let ‘news only’ websites (not the weather forecasting ones) to cover in more detail things like ongoing flooding, death tolls, power cut numbers etc.

7) Why is there less news about typhoon damage in the Philippines than there is about hurricane damage in the USA?
The US has many large news media outlets and they were the first in the world to lead with 24/7 news channels in the 1980s so it’s not surprising they have more general coverage in 2018. They also have much stronger and bigger infrastructure to be able to get around damaged areas (airports, helicopters, electricity, military, mobile phone coverage, many airlines to fly with, rental car companies, cell phone providers etc). In the Northern Philippines after a major storm like Mangkhut it will take many days before the picture of damage is even seen, let alone understood. From the initial reports expect a greater death toll in the Philippines from Mangkhut in the coming days.  Governments in some countries also dictate to the media, or limit, a lot of what they may be able to report or get access to. We’ve even seen that recently in Puerto Rico, so it even happens in US Territories. Governments do sometimes try to manage a crisis by restricting information we can report on, or even know about. This can give the impression there is less interest when really it’s equal interest in both events.

8) Should US media have stood down when Hurricane Florence clearly weakened?
Yes and no. The yes portion is that we thought the coverage of Florence was a bit over the top considering it had weakened a lot well before landfall. But where do you draw the line? The eastern US death toll is already at 14 and perhaps would’ve been much greater had it not been for the full understanding of the storm (which was coincidentally also lead by the news media). Our feeling is that a better use of forecasters in studios with graphics and data and less use of news anchors live and outside in dangerous storms would be a positive step forward in covering the severity of tropical storms.

9) Where do I find the rain radar on your website/app for NZ storms?
The NZ Government (via MBIE) recently conducted an independent official review on NZ’s lack of open weather data and the report clearly concluded New Zealand makes it basically impossible for outlets like WeatherWatch to openly use weather data even if that data was paid for entirely by the NZ taxpayers. Minister Megan Woods has been looking in to this issue for nearly a full year now yet nothing has changed. Minister Woods is wanting to discuss with WeatherWatch in the next month or so. If you have concerns about New Zealand’s lack of open weather data then we encourage you to please email Minister Megan Woods directly. This independent tax funded MBIE review was released in April 2017 but Minister Woods only made it public in January this year following public pressure from both WeatherWatch and the Otago Daily Times last December.

10) What is the official body for tropical storms in the South Pacific? 
Across all of North, Central and South America the US Government provides all tropical storm information. Clean and simple. In our part of the world it is clunky and broken into three pieces, Fiji, NZ and Australia. We find this far too inconsistent so to keep with international standards WeatherWatch tends to use the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) based in Hawaii for ALL tropical storms in the Pacific Ocean, then sometimes tack on to that any local Government forecast advice if we think it’s accurate and timely and consistent. The JTWC is the US Government and is the foundation for nearly all other nations to build tropical storm forecasts from… so makes sense for WeatherWatch to use them directly for consistency when tracking Cyclones in the South Pacific and NZ area, especially when local Government bodies are slow or out of date. US Ambassador to New Zealand, Scott Brown, recently told us a possible meeting between WeatherWatch and tropical storm authorities at the JTWC in Hawaii may happen. We look forward to locking in a date with the US Embassy in the future so WeatherWatch can continue to help better improve tropical storm forecasting for New Zealanders. (Neither MetService nor NIWA (both NZ Govt agencies) will work with WeatherWatch during tropical storms due to their own commercial priorities).


**This story was originally published on Monday September 17th**



Derek on 17/09/2018 1:09am

Excellent work here Phil and WW team, very interesting and informative information and I for one am glad you do what you do and use the excellent agencies available for all of your data.

The sooner the government get it sorted the better but I do not hold my breath as for some reason the seem to be dragging the feet. Underlying scenarios in my opinion.

Great article. Thank you

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