January 3rd, 2018

How to write attention-getting headlines about the weather

CNN seems to have it down: “Winter ‘bomb cyclone’ threatens East Coast, bringing temps colder than Mars.”

In the following excerpt, I’ve highlighted the most fear-mongering words:

A massive “bombogenesis” — an area of rapidly declining low pressure — will wreak havoc on the Northeast this week, threatening hurricane-force winter wind gusts in a region already crippled by deadly cold.

The bombogenesis will result in what’s known as a “bomb cyclone.” And the bomb cyclone, expected to strike Thursday, will likely dump 6 to 12 inches of snow in New England and hurl 40- to 60-mph gusts.

By the end of this week, parts of the Northeast will be colder than Mars.

At Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire, the temperature will plunge to -35 degrees Friday night into Saturday, weather observer Taylor Regan said. At last check, the high temperature on Mars was -2 degrees Fahrenheit.

I believe that’s what we used to call a “blizzard.”

And 6 to 12 inches is not nothing, but it’s fairly typical of a snowstorm.

Has the cold been “crippling” and “deadly”? Yes, if you’re out in it long enough, dressed inappropriately enough. I try not to do that, and so do most people around here. It’s been cabin-fever inducing, but I’ve gone out nearly every day for at least a little while, suited up in a knee-length down coat, enormously warm mittens, a scarf, and earmuffs. If I know I’m going to be out for long, I get out the big guns: something on the order of this, only a bit more formidable, and colored blue.

I don’t go out in blizzards if I can help it; I sit around hoping the power doesn’t fail. Power outages are what I fear.

Oh, and that Mt. Washington/Mars thing? No fair comparing the low on the mountain to the high on Mars! But Mt. Washington is famous for having the most extreme weather on earth. Yes, you heard that right—on earth:

Hurricane force winds occur an average of 110 days per year. Mount Washington holds the Northern Hemisphere and Western Hemisphere records for directly measured surface wind speed — 231 mph, which was recorded on April 12, 1934…

On January 16, 2004, the summit weather observation registered a temperature of −43.6 °F and sustained winds of 87.5 mph, resulting in a wind chill value of −102.59 °F on the mountain. During a 71-hour stretch from around 3 p.m. on January 13 to around 2 p.m. on January 16, 2004, the wind chill on the summit never went above −50 °F.

I don’t plan to be on Mt. Washington tomorrow, when the storm is expected to begin.

I don’t plan to be here, either, but I thought I’d sneak this in because I like it:

[NOTE: I did a search to find out what happens to the homeless when there’s a cold snap like this or a blizzard. Obviously, being outside for long would be extremely hazardous and even deadly if a person is living on the streets. I couldn’t find too much about it with a New England twist, but ordinarily shelters are filled to capacity and over capacity when the weather turns very cold, and there are outreach teams who try to encourage street people to use them. For example:

As a prolonged, bitter cold front descends across the state, homeless shelters in Portland and Bangor are making an extra effort to get people off the streets so they don’t freeze to death.

City officials and shelter staff in the two cities are trying different ways to keep people indoors, now that there’s greater risk that people will die of exposure. In Bangor, shelters have hauled out extra beds, and Portland shelters have beefed up staffing levels.

Police in Bangor said they are ready to shuttle people from the streets to city shelters — or just a friend’s house — if it means getting people out of the cold.

“The general gist is, when the weather turns cold, or dangerous, we work even more closely with our local shelters,” said Bangor police Sgt. Wade Betters.

In Bangor, the city’s two primary first-come, first-served shelters are nearly always full, but both are adding extra beds this week to accommodate as many people as they can.

…Those who are still sleeping outside in winter have often been barred from shelters, usually for repeatedly endangering other guests. If they have nowhere to go, Bangor officers have allowed people to warm up in the police station lobby.

“We would not turn them away,” Betters said.]

24 Responses to “How to write attention-getting headlines about the weather”

  1. AMartel Says:

    See also, “polar vortex.” That was last years weather eleventy word.

  2. Ray Says:

    We used to take this sort of weather in stride and not start shrieking and screaming in terror. In 1962 I was working in Minneapolis and that winter the temperature never got above -10F. It was so cold it wouldn’t snow. It got down to 40 below zero in downtown Minneapolis. It was a status symbol to have a car that would start in the morning.

  3. NewYorkCentral Says:

    It’s interesting how terminology that was once the realm of meteorologists – bomb cyclone, polar vortex, derecho – have been seeping into more general use over the past 20 years. It definitely seems to be driven by the “24 hour weather news cycle” and the need to sensationalize and exaggerate everything.

    While they keep comparing it to hurricane Sandy from 2012, a more apt comparison would be the 1993 Nor’easter (aka “the storm of the century” or “the great blizzard of 1993”) that had similarly low barometric pressures (960mb), spawned a tornado outbreak, dropped snow from Alabama to Maine, created a storm surge that drowned people in Florida, and lashed out with hurricane-force winds from the Carolinas to Massachusetts. It’s not like we’ve never had a big, bad winter storm before. I remember it well – I was driving to Florida for spring break during it!

    On a side note, from a meteorological standpoint, a blizzard is a snow storm with winds exceeding 35 mph, with blowing snow that reduces visibility to less than 400 yds, lasting 3 or more hours.

  4. parker Says:

    It has been cold and snowy in my area; lows in the negative twenties and highs below zero until today’s balmy 7. Wind chill has dropped to the minus 30s on several nights. We got 7 inches of snow in 10 hours with high winds closing country roads with 3 to 4 foot drifts. Was this ‘scary’ weather covered by CNN or not covered because flyover country? 😉

    Videos of Mount Washington winds are incredible. It is only a bit over 6,000 and not that far north compared to far higher mountains much farther north. I think I need to research what makes weather on Mount Washington so extreme.

  5. Gary D. G. Says:

    Good ski underwear, “silks”, is delightful in the cold climes

  6. AesopFan Says:

    Our family got some of those fleece balaclavas back in the late eighties when the boys were out at Scout winter camp between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The weather dropped seriously below the usual one year (the boys could never qualify for the BSA’s “Polar Bear” camping award for below zero temps, so we had our own “Polar Alligator” for anything under 32).
    I still have a couple of them but haven’t pulled them out yet in Denver — so far we have had enough hot (not just warm) days that my spring bulbs started coming up just before Christmas.
    Power outages are the most serious danger: very few people have back-ups. We can go to several options, but all have disadvantages.
    If you want to get some perspective, read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series for what they did in the 19th-century winters to keep alive (“warm” was not much of an option).

  7. Cornflour Says:

    I’m happy to live past the edge of flyover country. We’re so far beneath the notice of CNN that nobody even flies over to look down at the snow. But if you drive along the highway, you’ll see a big painted “snow stick” that measures up to 390 inches. (https://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/654)

    Around here, there’s lots of winter vocabulary, but not the kind that CNN would print.

  8. kevino Says:

    I agree. I don’t understand where this panic comes from. It’s January in New England. It’s cold. It’s going to snow. OK. 8″ of snow is a minor inconvenience. The lcoal TV stations act as though it’s the End Times.

    If the Maker of All Things wanted the world to be perfectly comfortable for men and women, he’d have made it more like Disneyland.

    RE: The homeless
    Most cities I know have emergency shelters, but the hard part is getting some of the mentally ill into shelters before they freeze to death. They don’t want to come in, and very little can be done to convince them.

    Years ago, Boston had an informal agreement: they arrested some of the homeless, held them overnight, and released them. This is, of course, not exactly legal. I was told by those in the know around the courts that lawyers were told, “Look, you can make an argument and get your client released immediately. That may not be in their best interest: your client may freeze to death out there.” (I don’t like it, but I do understand it.)

  9. Philip Says:

    Mt. Washington is quite something – the only mountaintop I’ve ever been on. It was October, in leaf-peeping season. The ice crystals at the summit were really amazing. Unfortunately, I lost all my pictures; obviously I’ll just have to go back and see them again.

    Tomorrow should be exciting. My greater problem with all this is that this season is starting to shape up to be like back in 2003 or so, when there were big snowstorms on the holidays specifically (and really only then, as I remember). So far this year, we have Christmas and apparently a looming one for Epiphany. The pattern is suggestive.

  10. John Guilfoyle Says:

    “In the bleak mid-winter, a stable place sufficed
    The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ”

    The photos are one thing…the music…sublime.

  11. I R A Darth Aggie Says:

    Back when I was a meteorologist, we never used “bomb” as a descriptor. The proper terminology was explosive cyclogenesis, defined to be a rapid decrease in central pressure. As I recall, that was defined to be a fall of 24 mb/24 hours.

    Hurricane Katrina underwent such cyclogenesis, as did have many a nor’easter.

  12. Stephen Ippolito Says:

    Well-spotted on the inflation of language to make it more exciting to consumers.

    It is a real pet-peeve of mine because it appears to be not a recent thing and not just a mere trend or marketing gimmick – but a long-standing practice going far beyond the field of weather reports or even the general news and threatens serious ramifications for the amenity of western societies.

    In the long run, this growing practice of debasing the language by watering down the meaning of words endangers us all because it threatens to undercut both our capacity to formulate ideas clearly in our own minds and then to communicate them with precision to each other.

    Words only have value and purpose in so far as they remain tools allowing us to turn over and fashion comprehensible ideas in our own minds and then to make them known to our fellows, no? Words can only serve to communicate ideas and concepts so long as their unique individual meanings are commonly understood and agreed between us all as a society, surely. It’s like the rules of the road: if they are not universally understood then they cannot be obeyed by all and chaos ensues.

    Linguists and artists often voice the idea that to learn a new language is in a way to enter into the soul of a new culture. (I’m currently teaching myself Italian and know that to be true).

    It was also meaningful, I think, that when the various states of the Italian peninsula finally unified politically late in the nineteenth century they chose as their official national language the dialect of Dante’s region – the dialect in which their greatest poets had traditionally written.

    The english language is a particularly sharp tool because we have so many similar words that carry so many subtle gradations in meaning. I’ve read studies reporting that the english vocabulary far outnumbers that of all other languages. What a treasure is our mother tongue. And yet we are so cavalier with it.

    The greatest wordsmith in english, Shakespeare, reportedly possessed a personal vocabulary twice that of even a highly literate modern day writer. Bringing such a powerful resource to bear on his lived experiences meant that he was able to collate and fashion his thoughts with such precision in his own mind and then express them so clearly that this is surely why his ideas live still.

    I don’t think I’m being alarmist when I say we risk everything when we water down our words so that every occupation is now a “profession”; every ingenue who once got her face into one scene in one episode of a tv serial is now a “star”; every single model whose face ever appeared just once in an ad is now a “supermodel”; every hard-working boffin is now a “genius”; every difficulty or inconvenience is now a “disaster” , Trump is for many “Hitler”, traditionalists are “haters” and a political gang that brooks no expression of ideas with which it disagrees is now referred to by the media as “antifascist”, and so on.

    If I am an alarmist, I ask: with the inflation of our words, what terms are left to us to describe real stars, real supermodels, real evil, and so on?

  13. Yancey Ward Says:

    The hyperbole about this cold snap is hilarious. It is almost as if there is no one left living who experienced the cold snaps of January 1982, January 1983, January 1985, December 1988, January 1994, or even January of freaking 2015! All of those cold snaps were much more severe and dangerous, and penetrated much more deeply below the Ohio River. This cold snap, while bad, doesn’t come close to rivaling any of those I listed above.

  14. MollyNH Says:

    @Parker, I believe Mt Washington lies directly in the path where 2 very nasty wind patterns occur.
    They must be generated at the north pole and must merge right there as a double whammy. Crazies, usually NY college students , attempt a winter trek to get to the top or spend a night there. They most recent in memory recalls one boy persuading the other, they reluctant one paid with his life. Of interest to animal lovers they scientists there keep.a pet cat, the local paper occasionally has a pic of them relaxing feline.A long haired black mountain dweller.

  15. MollyNH Says:

    Excuse all these spell check errors hard to correct by phone.

  16. Richard Saunders Says:

    John Guilfoyle — Nice sentiment, but Jesus was born during the Roman warm period. It can get cold in Israel, but not that cold.

  17. AesopFan Says:

    Stephen Ippolito Says:
    January 3rd, 2018 at 7:46 pm

    “If I am an alarmist, I ask: with the inflation of our words, what terms are left to us to describe real stars, real supermodels, real evil, and so on?”
    * *
    Applause for your (as always) excellent essay.
    The debasement of language is deliberate, of course.
    When all variants and synonyms mean exactly the same thing, to the point that most are no longer used, then there is no nuance to conversation.

    Not even if you are a Democrat.


  18. AesopFan Says:

    I picked this up for the Iran thread, but it also works well here, I think. (observation by John Ringo)


  19. AesopFan Says:

    Richard Saunders Says:
    January 3rd, 2018 at 9:05 pm
    John Guilfoyle — Nice sentiment, but Jesus was born during the Roman warm period. It can get cold in Israel, but not that cold.
    * *
    Many people also believe Jesus was born in the spring, as shepherds were more likely to be outside then, and that’s when lambs are born, etc. The winter solstice, according to some views, was co-opted by Pope Gregory to transform the pagan festival into a Christian one.
    However, there are alternative versions, and YMMV.

    Lots more detail here:


    “There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.”

  20. Gordon Says:

    MollyNH has it. Mount Washington is just the crossroads of two weather patterns, both created by geography. We learned this in Air Force weather school; on a boring overnight shift in the base weather station somewhere, we might query the computer and see how bad things were at KMWN. Sometimes the data for wind speed were missing; the anemometer could freeze up with ice, or it could blow away.

  21. Julie near Chicago Says:

    “In Boston, we would say the storm had missed us.”

    –“Spenser,” in one of Robert B. Parker’s thrillers


    Stephen Ippolito: Very, very good comment. Clear, concise, correct!


    There’s a general attitude that verbal “correctness” is a chimera, so why bother to write carefully and coherently.

    [Thus, Why bother to think carefully and coherently? !]

    Part of that I think is normal human psychology: The meanings that we attach to words inside our own heads are a part of us, and it’s easy to take a correction or suggested correction of verbal expression as an attack on our self, on the legitimacy of our thoughts and therefore on our personal value (“worthwhileness”). This is not a rational thing, but a common emotional reaction.

    It doesn’t help that there are plenty of people who do criticize others in various ways as a way of dealing with their own psychological problems.

    And that, of course, quite a few “corrections” are incorrect. (This is, as they say, disturbing to the well-ordered mind, because in such a case the incorrect critic has to eat humble pie.)


    Of course, in the “News,” “If it bleeds it leads.” :>((

    And we tend to adopt usages that we hear frequently, even when we are consciously aware that they are inapt; let alone when we’re not on guard against the debasement of words and phrases.

    And it’s so much nicer to be part of the “In Crowd,” in Political and Verbal Fashion as in all things.

    And there’s intra-“journalistic” one-upmanship, and Measuring, and so on. Who wins today’s prize for being most laudably outrageous?

    But it is certainly a conscious policy of some with a political agenda purposely to distort the meanings of words. Cf. NewSpeak, up is down, freedom is slavery, temps of 50˚ are signs of global warming, i.e. CAGWarming, as are both droughts and heavy rainfalls.

    Umberto Eco in a NYT piece, “Ur-Fascism,” wrote an excellent short explanation of how the distortion of word-meanings can occur:


    And some years back, Bill Whittle did a short video in which he showed by example how words and phrases can be stretched so far that the resulting statements are completely unmoored from reality. (I’m pretty sure it was a PJTV segment, but I’ve been completely unable to find it. IMO, it was one of his very best.)

    Anyhow, very good comments all. I can remember more than a few proper northern-Illinois winters, with temps under 0˚ for days, and being snowed in literally on the farm. And also a few severe winter storms in and Near Chicago and in northern Ill. generally. The winter the Young Miss turned One, we had snow so heavy that people were up on the roofs shoveling it off lest the ceilings collapse. In certain shaded spots, the remains of the snow piles thus formed lasted through the end of the following June!

    And, wasn’t it the winter of ’68 when the Outer Drive in Chicago became a parking lot with people snowed into their cars for eight hours or more?

  22. Julie near Chicago Says:

    Sigh. Always something. Correction:

    “…temps of -50˚ are signs of global warming….”


    Snowbound Lake Shore Drive, Chicago: Nope, I guess it must have been January of 1967. Per CBS, Chicago’s 3 worst snowstorms:


  23. steve walsh Says:

    Seems to me all the breathless hyperbole about the coming storm is provided by weather people and the media (often one & the same) in an effort to attract attention. Everyone I know – regular folks – takes the forecast under advisement, adjusts their plans accordingly, and goes on with their lives.

    The folks that annoy me most are those that liken a snow storm to some sort of natural disaster. Twelve inches of snow and high winds delivered over a 10-12 hour period is not the same as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or wild fire. As someone above says, eight or 12 inches of snow is a bit of an imposition and an inconvenience.

  24. Stephen Ippolito Says:

    Julie near Chicago.
    Thanks, I like your work, too.

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