Sunday, January 17, 2016

Newspaper journalists and the Met Office

It's been a relatively mild winter in Britain this year, and this has deprived newspaper journalists of their normal opportunity for hysterical exaggeration and over-reaction to wintry weather. However, temperatures have fallen this weekend, and, taking a cue from the Met Office's ludicrously patronising weather-warning system, the hyperbole has been flowing:

"Snow and ice sweep across Britain," yells The Guardian, claiming that "A 100-mile wide corridor of snow stretched from north-west Scotland to south-east England overnight." 

"Treacherous driving conditions as snow and ice alert covers more of Britain," shouts The Telegraph headline, "Drivers warned of hazardous conditions after mercury falls to -10C amid 100-mile snow corridor."

The Telegraph article, however, begins to equivocate its message after no more than a couple of sentences, alluding to "many Britons waking up to frosty conditions on Sunday."

Frosty conditions, eh? There's quite a difference between waking up to snowy conditions and waking up to frosty conditions. For a start, whilst people sometimes have to dig their car out of a snow-drift, it's somewhat rarer to dig your car out of a frost-drift.

Scanning further down the page, we find that the Met Office had previously said 'snow had been "expected to fall along a relatively narrow corridor, perhaps only 100 miles wide" and forecaster Sophie Yeomans said "that band of sleet and snow is staying over the country, but it is dying out".'

This reveals that the newspaper journalists have misunderstood the dimensions of the purported 'snow corridor'. The Met Office are using 100 miles as a diminutive term, not as an expansive term. 100 miles is quite a short distance in meteorological terms. The purported 'corridor of snow' is "only 100 miles wide." What's more, it is the width of the corridor which spans 100 miles, not its length.

If we actually scrutinise the shape of the snow corridor in the graphic supplied by the Met Office (below), we can see that its length is much greater than its width. It is much longer than 100 miles. If the journalists were seeking an impressive-sounding length scale to exaggerate the severity of the wintry conditions, they should have quoted its length, not its width. But that would have required additional effort. The Met Office have quoted 100 miles, and it's a nice round number, so that's the length-scale the newspapers are going to quote.

But just look at the length of that snow corridor. That's a lot of snow isn't it? We can tell it's a region of snowfall because there's a snowflake icon, and a sliding-car icon adjoined to the top of the yellow band.

Oh, but hold on, there's also a legend down below which tells us what the yellow shading actually means. It turns out that yellow means 'Be Aware'. Which is a useful piece of advice. Thanks for that. But what exactly does 'Be Aware' mean in this context?

Following the links on the Met Office website to their Weather Warning page, we discover the following definition:

Yellow: Be aware. Severe weather is possible over the next few days and could affect you. Yellow means that you should plan ahead thinking about possible travel delays, or the disruption of your day to day activities. The Met Office is monitoring the developing weather situation and Yellow means keep an eye on the latest forecast and be aware that the weather may change or worsen, leading to disruption of your plans in the next few days. 

So that's not a corridor of predicted snowfall; that's merely a corridor in which the Met Office recommend people should "plan ahead" and "keep an eye on the latest forecast."

In effect, then, The Met Office is saying the following: 'Things are possible, and they may affect you! Don't treat us as an occasional source of information; be dependent upon us; raise your anxiety levels when we tell you to. We are monitoring the developing situation; you need us.'

Hence, whilst The Telegraph article reports that "Parts of the North West were hit by snow overnight, ranging from a light dusting in Manchester to heavier snowfalls on the Pennines and rural Cheshire and Cumbria," we're subsequently informed "that band of sleet and snow is staying over the country, but it is dying out...There is a lot of rain in that but in parts of London there will be sleet falling as well."

So in other words, the story should really be:

'A band of precipitation will cause localised snowfall in the North-West, with sleet turning to rain in other regions.' 

But remember, keep watching and reading those weather forecasts!

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