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The Top 10 Weather And Climate Misconceptions – 2021 Edition

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 1, 2021

Every few years, I reflect on things that bother me as a meteorologist and climate scientist. For the most part, it is all in fun, but there is also an opportunity to increase weather-climate literacy. On this lazy Sunday morning, here is my list of top 10 weather and climate misconceptions that bug me the most right now.

1. Thunder happens without lightning. This week my mother texted me while watching the Olympics. She said the announcer mentioned that is was thundering but not lightning and that competition would be stopped if lightning started. She ended with, “I thought about what you always say.” She is referring to my constant reminder that thunder is caused by lightning. I have been increasingly concerned about this as I see pictures on social media of baseball stadiums and golfing facilities with cloud-to-ground lightning strikes likely within 8 miles.

2. “It came without warning.” This is another pet peeve. After a tornado or significant storm event, it is common to hear a media outlet, policymaker, or person utter this statement. To be fair, this one is about perspective. If a person was not following the forecast or didn’t receive a warning, then from their perspective, it truly did come without warning. However, the bigger picture is different. Modern weather forecasting is at a level of effectiveness that rarely is their going to be a potentially severe weather day with out some time outlook, watch or warning posted. The message here is to be weather-aware, have the proper severe weather alerts, and check the forecast before you go to sleep.

3. Tornadoes or hurricanes are the weather events that kill more people each each year. Actually, it is extreme temperature. A recent study found that 9.4% of global deaths annually were related to extreme heat or cold exposure. The study also found that cold-related deaths were greater over the 2000 to 2019 period, but climate change is shifting the ledger towards heat-related deaths going. National Weather Service statistics suggest that heat and flooding have been the most deadly weather events, on average, in the United States over the past 30 years.

4. Wind is the deadliest aspect of a hurricane. Nah, it is the water. Studies have continually shown that water-related hazards (storm surge and inland freshwater flooding) are the most deadly aspects of hurricanes. Yet, people still see coverage of reporters being blown around on windy beaches or constantly given information on the hurricane rating from the Saffir-Simpson wind scale, which was designed for wind hazards rather than the full suite of hurricane impacts. Occasionally, I have argued for warning metrics or indices that capture the full suite of risks.

5. Only major hurricanes cause problems. Every hurricane season I see professionals and enthusiasts alike focusing on (even obsessing about) the category of the storm. Heck, it happened already this year with Hurricane Elsa. As the storm approached the U.S., there was discussion about whether it would be a Category 1 hurricane or a strong Tropical Storm. From an impact standpoint, it was probably going to be the same story either way. It is also worth a reminder that Sandy (2012), Harvey (2017), and Florence (2018) were high-impact storms at levels below Category 3. Yes, Harvey was a Category 4 storm at landfall but also caused significant flooding after being downgraded. The graphic below shows the costliest U.S. storms and several of them never reached major status.

6. If there was wind damage, a tornado probably caused it. This is a strange one. Often times, severe weather causes wind damage in communities, but the public often defaults to, “I think a tornado came through my area.” Many of these instances turn out to be straight-line winds, microbursts, or other non-tornadic winds. In fact, the criteria for a severe thunderstorm is “a thunderstorm that produces one inch hail or larger in diameter and/or winds equal or exceed 58 miles an hour,” according to NOAA. I have often wondered why people go right to the “tornado” explanation.

7. Weather forecasting is art, magic, or guesswork. Just recently, I pushed back on a Tweet that suggested weather forecasting was different than other science challenges because aspects of it are “art” rather than hard, quantitative science. As someone with three degrees in meteorology, my transcripts are packed with classes in differential equations, thermodynamics, dynamics, physics, and so forth. Modern weather forecasting is primarily based on sophisticated numerical weather prediction models. Such models predict the behavior and changes of the atmospheric fluid over a rotating, quasi-spherical reference frame in four dimensions. It is a daunting task steeped in complex, quantitative science. While there is certainly some nuance, pattern recognition, and experience involved, weather forecasting is very rigorous and scientific. Unfortunately, the public does not see all of the scientific “sausage making.” They just get the forecast, see the model output, or the little icon on their App. By the way, click this link for my dismissal of the “weather forecasts are always wrong” myth.

8. 20% chance of rain means it is not going to rain. Last week, I was watching the local broadcasters for the Major League Baseball team in my city. As it started to rain during the game, one of them lamented that he checked the forecast and didn’t think it was going to rain. In fact, on that particular day, there was somewhere in the range of a 20 to 30 percent chance of rain. As I see with misinformation about COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness (yes, some people will test positive even if vaccinated), the public struggles with probability literacy, particularly percent chance of rain (explained in a previous Forbes article).

9. Climate scientists didn’t overlook basic stuff. The world of Wikipedia University, Google State, Blog Institute and Twitter Tech has given us some interesting scholarship and interpretations on topics like climate change. I watched on Twitter last week as a noted climate scientist reminded a person that climate scientists and modelers are aware of the effect of clouds on the climate system. It is bizarre that someone would even think they did. However, I get similar questions or comments too. The most common ones are, “You know the climate changes naturally? or “We’ve always had extreme weather events.” Yep, I promise that I learned all of that in graduate school. Psssst, we know about urban heat islands too.

10. Lightning that comes from a thunderstorm is not spelled with an “e.”


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