OK, the knee is bothering me a little, but it’s not about the weather. Not now and not a few days ago, when we got drenched in freezing rain, nor a few days before that when we were all obsessing about the “polar vortex,” nor a few days before that when we had winter storm Hercules bearing down us.
The knee is about some cartilage that got torn in a pick-up basketball game in 1969 and has been a site of rips and tears ever since. Bone on bone will cause the knee to bother you a bit, and you don’t need the weatherman to know that.
But, apparently, we do need the weatherman — and the billion-dollar weather industry that he represents — to juice up the unrelenting flow of 24/7 news cycles.
As I have written in this space before, there’s only so much weather talk I can take. A 12-inch snowstorm deserves some discussion: Will some of our staff have to leave work early? Will others have to stay home with kids not in school that day? But to sit around the water cooler wringing your hands over a 90-degree summer day or a 20-degree winter day seems unproductive. As one climatologist from the global warming school remarked, when asked by a newscaster about the recent bitter cold temperatures, “we have a term for that — it’s called winter.”
But while I keep the idle chatter about weather to a minimum, the rest of the world blathers on. It’s a huge industry, complete with its own cable television channel and major market weather men and women who are always celebrities and rarely meteorologists. They have colorful nicknames — Fred “Hurricane” Schwartz in Philadelphia, for example. Or colorful real names — Storm Field, the weatherman who inherited the gene from his father, Dr. Frank Field, one of television’s first high-profile weathermen (whose doctorate was in optometry).
The best weathermen are hot commodities. When Good Morning America/ABC television’s Sam Champion left the network last month to become the “managing editor” of the Weather Channel, the move became a weather event of its own. The celebrity websites all cooed over Champion’s salary, $2.5 million; his family life, a hubby in Florida with whom he is planning to adopt a child; and — last and possibly not least — his “ripped” abs, which must be much better than my bum knee at forecasting the weather.
To glamorize the product, the weather people keep coming up with new ways to report their very old product — the forecast itself may or may not be correct, but the way it is presented is chock-full of data and analytics. That recent winter “storm” went by the name Hercules. That’s right, the weather people are now naming winter storms, just as they do hurricanes and tropical storms.
The whole naming system is a sign of how commercial the weather has become. The National Weather Service is not responsible for those names, nor is the American Meteorological Society. The naming system instead is the brainchild of the Weather Channel, which needed a way to aggregate viewer comments via social media hashtags. Without a name for a storm, it was difficult to aggregate comments.
Hence the system, first put into place in 2011, and continuing this year. Hercules has come and gone, but we can look forward to the dramatic entrances of Titan, Vulcan, and Ulysses as winter marches on.
The weather people keep coming up with new ways to measure various aspects of the weather. Just as baseball writers now toss around statistics that never existed when I covered professional games in the late 1960s (walks and hits per inning pitched, or WHIP, and on base percentage plus slugging, or OPS, just to name a few), the weather people have their own specialized data. This winter the Weather Channel — who else? — introduced its new “winter impact index” called STORM:CON — a 1 to 10 scale to gauge the potential impact a winter storm will have on a particular city.
Of course that index means nothing if the forecast doesn’t call for the storm — be it Vulcan or Titan or how about a babe? — to be headed your way. But the weather guy can come up with his forecast, and he can hedge it, but only so much because eventually it no longer sounds like a forecast. But this year some weather announcers are creating some additional drama by putting forth two competing forecasts. One they will attribute to the Global Forecast System, or GFS, from the National Weather Service. The other — drum roll, please — is the Euro model, formally known as the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting model.
So in a weather report analyzing Winter Storm Hercules, for example, you might have discovered that the line of three to six inches of snowfall would give way to six to twelve inches of snow on a line just below Binghamton, N.Y. But that was the GFS model. The Euro was telling us that the higher snowfall might begin 20 miles or so further to the south. Which one to believe? Your friendly weatherman will help you sort out this new element in the looming drama.
Seeing the two forecasting models side by side made me do some meteorological research. I discovered there are six substantial forecasting models, including one based on the work of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory on Route 1 in Princeton.
My online research eventually led me to www.wunderground.com, the folksy website run by Jeff Masters, who in 1991 began the first online weather service with the motto of “weather for everyone.” Then working on his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, Masters named his system the Weather Underground, a reference to the 1960s radical group that also originated at Michigan, which had taken its name from Bob Dylan’s famous lyric, “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”
Here, seemingly flying in the face of all the hyped up weather chatter, was the “people’s weather,” serving a higher purpose, to tell us the unvarnished truth that would help people act responsibly — not hysterically — in the face of truly life threatening events like Hurricane Sandy. I noted that while its weather information was free Weather Underground also had some commercial packages to offer media outlets and businesses. Cool, I thought, weather for the people, and sustainable,
I read on: In 2012 Weather Underground was acquired by — who else? — the Weather Channel.
So there’s only so much weather talk I can take. Maybe if I had been more open to that subject, I could have become a weatherman on TV. My schtick could have been the bum knee. After handicapping the Euro model against the GFS model, I could have signed off with reference to the bum knee — “that’s the official forecast, but the bum knee is telling me it’s going to rain.” I could hobble on and off the set with a cane. My nickname would be “Hopalong.”
But enough about me. I’d tell you about the knee instead but I’m getting so damned tired. Hey, you. What are you . . . doing . . . to . . . my . . . knee?