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Column: Some word pictures cloud your thinking

Herald on Sunday column by Philip Duncan — As forecasters it’s our job to be as accurate as possible with both the forecast and the terminology. I’ve learned to better communicate messages and that a flippant comment can inadvertently become a headline.

During one cold blast I said to a reporter: “If you placed the SkyTower twice on itself it would be snowing at the top.” Within a few hours social media sites were mocking me. “If you put SkyTower in Antarctica it would be cold”; “If you put SkyTower 20 times on itself it would be in outer space.”

Both forecasters and reporters have certain terminology they like to use.

My most hated term is “batten down the hatches”. Unless you own a big boat it’s very dated.

Augie Auer used “blue dome day”. I actually like that description as you can see it in your head. But another of his sayings, “ditto-day”, annoyed people.

Bob McDavitt once used the term “weather bomb” and it has since been much misused. It is a correct term, but next time you hear it, check – if we’re not using it then it isn’t a weather bomb.

After the polar blast last August, Breakfast interviewed MetService spokesman Dan Corbett. Petra Bagust asked him to explain polar outbreaks and this was his reply.

“Think of it like having a layer of treacle that sits at the top of the poles and somebody just gives it a bit of a nudge and it just starts to ooze but in this case instead of oozing it’s just gone brrr [hand gesture] straight across much of New Zealand and with it as well we’re getting these little surges of moisture that are coming through and they’re the surges of moisture almost like spokes on a bicycle wheel …”

Follow that one?

Forecasters are forever trying to find new words and phrases that stick.

The best weather analogy I’ve heard came from Chad Myers at CNN. I met him in 2009, told him I was a big fan, and asked if I could use one of his his analogies in my Herald videos. It was on the lines of: “When you’re thinking of a hurricane or cyclone think of them like an ice skater spinning – as they pull their arms in they spin faster – a tropical storm does the same thing, as the isobars get pulled in closer, the low spins faster, the winds get stronger”.

That’s my favourite as I can see it clearly in my head. So we have to draw a picture in your mind that makes you say, “Oh, now I get it.”.

– Homepage image / File, Special Moments Photography

*Philip writes a weekly column for the Herald on Sunday – follow him on Twitter here


Andrew on 23/05/2012 7:27am

The best analogy of all is the one you don’t use. All the weather terms are there to describe the weather, it’s just that modern reporting requires sensationalism.
If they can’t figure out what ‘strong’, ‘heavy’ or ‘occasional’ is, they are really beyond hope.

Melissa on 23/05/2012 4:51am

I can’t believe you hate the saying “batten down the hatches”, I love it, mostly because it’s a term my grandfather use to say alot, so maybe that is why it is special for me!
A good saying if it was going to get windy is “peg your knickers on the line tight!”, especially if they’re not cute skinnny minny one’s! Not a good look stuck on your neighbour’s t.v antenna doing a windsock impersonation.
What about the saying “The weather is going to turn to custard, or it’s a bit of a dogs breakfast”

Zelda Wynn on 22/05/2012 10:53pm

Another enjoyable article. I think the worse part of vague explanations from some forecasters just makes me turn away from their forecasts.
Great site WW has for local forecasts, mostly great terminology!

WW Forecast Team on 22/05/2012 11:05pm

Hi Zelda – thanks for your support!  Communication is key – and is the reason why so many media outlets now trust us to provide weather forecasts and interviews.  We still have room to improve – always trying to better ourselves.

– Phil

sw on 22/05/2012 7:11pm

Skytower would need 20,000 on itself to reach “outer” space.

Dean on 22/05/2012 10:43pm

I heard one forecaster describe the isobars and the resultant wind like the tide moving through the entrance to a harbour. If the harbour entrance is wide (bars far apart) it’s sluggish moving, if the entrance is narrow (bars close together) it’s moving through at high speed.

WW Forecast Team on 22/05/2012 11:07pm

That’s a nice analogy – and quite accurate too.  Once you hear a good term like that you tend to not forget it and it sticks – then it makes many other forecasts you hear from then on a little more accurate once you have a better understanding as to how it all works.

Cheers Dean!


P.S – sw, funny! 

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