31 January 2019

Note to the Media: Getting Science/Weather Stories Right Matters Just As Much As Any Other

Posted by Dan Satterfield

This headline is Incorrect. The Polar Vortex is not in the Midwest.

The cold hard scientific truth is that the polar vortex is 6 (plus) kilometers high and located south of Hudson Bay tonight. It never reached the American Midwest, and every story you’ve seen or read about it (except perhaps one or two notable exceptions) have been wrong. Indeed, the Washington Post is not the only one to post “polar vortex” headlines that were dead wrong this week. It’s turned into an epidemic of lazy journalism.

This chart (Ctsy. Tropical Tidbits) shows the 500mb heights over North America and the lowest heights associated with one piece of the polar vortex can be seen south of Hudson Bay in Canada.

The coldest air near the ground, however, is in a different place. It’s in the U.S. Midwest because that’s where the center of a very cold Arctic air mass is located. Oh, and there is no vortex there, instead, there is a very strong HIGH-PRESSURE center- the direct opposite of a low pressure vortex!

Temperatures at the 850 mb pressure level. This is the bottom layer of the troposphere and shows the location of the very cold Arctic airmass. Temperatures at this level coordinate very well with surface temps. Image from weathermodels.com

Here is the surface mean sea level pressure chart showing the large Arctic high over the Midwest.

That’s right, no vortex. JUST THE OPPOSITE.

Now you know that the following headlines are wrong:

Actually, this might hold if you are in Siberia.


Gheesh, even the BBC, the gold standard of broadcast journalism! This does not quite reach Michael Fish level in getting the forecast wrong but it rates. (That’s a joke for my UK friends and trust me they are laughing. Google it).

Sorry NYT. I have to be fair, but please keep the pension check coming. I have to pay for my new Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 lens.

I could grab a bunch more and link to some video reports from CBS (No, you did not escape), but you get the idea.

Some of my gentle nose twisting tweets have gotten some notice over the last few days:

hat tip to the Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post for getting the story right.

Give CBS News some credit. Meteorologist Jeff Bernadelli put some good info together and grabbed some real experts, Judah Cohen and Micahel Mann. Kudos Jeff!

The TRUTH About The Polar Vortex.

In late December, an event that’s not well understood happened high above the Arctic. Temperatures in the stratosphere suddenly warmed up. This is called- wait for it- A Sudden Stratospheric Warming Event or an SSW (Beat that NASA). This is known to slowly work its way down into the troposphere and as often happens it broke apart the strong polar vortex high in the troposphere over the Arctic. It actually broke it into several different vortices, one of which is now south of Hudson Bay.

The polar vortex usually acts to hold all of the extreme cold in the Arctic, so when it breaks up after an SSW, we often see outbreaks of extreme cold. The first outbreak hit Europe in early January. The next outbreak hit the NE third of the U.S. and eastern areas of North America. Another surge has moved into the UK, and snow today caused havoc with long delays at Manchester Airport. It is currently -8C in Edinburgh as well.

My Point Here

In any newsroom, if they got the name of a suspect wrong, or said someone was stabbed to death when they were boiled in oil, a correction would be mandatory. Facts matter, and correct attribution matters. Every journalist and every broadcast meteorologist like myself has made errors and we correct them. I get this feeling that there’s an attitude among journalists that complicated stories about science or extreme weather are exempted from the normal rules of journalism.

They Are Not.

Just because the answer is complex, does not mean dumbing it down to the point that it is incorrect. Your job, our job, is to make it as simple as possible while still being correct. In this case, you could have written a headline that said Rare Polar Vortex Split Shoves Frigid Polar Air South. Another way is to just state the facts: Bitter Cold Arctic Airmass Invades Midwest. Ok, I am a lousy headline writer, but you get my point.

On a brighter note, I also expected that we would hear the familiar “What happened to the global warming” comments this week and I (and many others) would point out that the planet’s temperature is not taken during a cold snap in Chicago in late January. I’d also point out that Anchorage broke a record high overnight low this week while a brutal heat wave is underway in New Zealand and Australia right now. Oh, an there is growing evidence that the warming Arctic may be causing these polar vortex splits to happen more often (See Jeff’s piece in the link above).

I even anticipated it with the tweet below:

I am told we do indeed have a winner 😉
In the meantime here is the temperature anomaly tonight for the entire planet:

One Last Science Tidbit

If you heard someone say “the wind chill right now makes it feel like…”

It does not. The wind chill measures the rate of heat loss caused by wind. It also makes a lot of assumptions that do not apply to pets, children etc. That said the wind chill is very valuable because you can estimate how quickly hypothermia or frostbite will set in. The rate your body cools depends a lot on the ratio of your surface area to internal volume. My little Yorkie gets very cold, very quickly because of that fact. Do not judge how cold your child or pet feels based on how cold you feel. It can be much different.

I’ve tried to use this polar outbreak to educate my readers and viewers on the real science here. Explaining the polar vortex in detail requires understanding some complex topics, but it can be simplified without giving people the wrong idea. I know that newsrooms are rightly sensitive to being labeled Fake News by those who cannot accept facts that conflict with their worldview, but CNN, BBC, NY Times, and many others, you did not help yourself this week.

Do better.