Reg Henry: Weather generates a torrent of talk

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Because the citation is disputed, Mark Twain may or may not have said that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. But clearly this clever saying has to be updated: Everybody who talks about the weather does something about the way it is talked about.

The people who most visibly talk about the weather are on TV. This winter has provided a lot of weather for them to talk about.

One of the great gifts to meteorological conversation lately has been the polar vortex. The term polar vortex is not new. A quick search of the trusty Post-Gazette electronic library, steam-driven for user comfort and convenience, found five references to the polar vortex from 1990 to the end of 2013. That compares with 36 mentions just since the New Year.

It's been a shy one that polar vortex, lurking up there in the Arctic, hidden from everybody's attention except for occasional cameo appearances. But being a vortex is essentially public work and its icy aversion to notoriety was never going to last. Not with the nation's weather persons seeking to jazz up their weather reports.

You have probably never given it much thought, but consider a job where you have to describe the same basic themes -- rain, snow, sun, cloud -- in the same basic vocabulary every day. That's a prediction for boredom.

Eskimos reportedly have a hundred words for snow. Those Eskimo weather forecasters must have it easy. I suppose the polar vortex is old (fur-lined) hat to them.

In the lower 48, it's not so easy. The challenge of making interesting broadcasts is heightened by the challenge of critics complaining about forecasts often being wrong. "They'd be better off looking at the entrails of goats," you hear the critics say. That's not fair. It's hard to get fresh entrails these days and the frozen ones from the supermarket are no good for predicting the future.

As one who has made many absurd predictions in editorials and columns over the years and has developed a frisky style to cover these lapses, I have some sympathy for the meteorologists.

Indeed, my early journalistic teeth were cut on weather stories. Where I lived in sub-tropical northern Australia, it never snowed and the weather came mostly in two varieties: Hot and wet or hot and dry, but always good weather for drinking beer.

But sometimes storms would bring hail and we cadet reporters would struggle to describe how big the hailstones were. Of course, the hail was as big as golf balls but that became hackneyed fast.

Then one day a colleague wrote: "The hail was as big as a pullet's egg." Pullets are young hens and there is a question whether a pullet is still a pullet once it becomes old enough to lay eggs. That quibble aside, the phrase struck me as genius, not the least for assuming that our readers had a thorough knowledge of poultry raising.

Enter now the polar vortex, which strikes me as pullet of another feather in its attempt to engage the audience. What a chance to inject new life into the weather conversation!

For one thing, it sounds like something alien out of "The Thing," the 1982 sci-fi horror film that had an extraterrestrial arriving in Antarctica and terrorizing a research station. The Thing had a shape-shifting ability, which made some viewers suspect it was a politician from outer space.

I believe we may miss the polar vortex once it has gone -- not the miserable cold it brings but its chilling name. But you can depend on America's TV weather persons to find new words for standard phenomenon as surely as spring follows winter.

In fact, this column was inspired by a reader from Mt. Lebanon, who looked at local TV weather forecasters and made note of what she heard: "a fetch of moisture," "dirty warm-up," "overspread," "a weather front that overproduced," "a pop-up storm," "a nickel and dime storm," "a kitchen sink storm" and "a moisture-starved cold front."

As for snow, forecasters described "a swath," "spits and dribbles," "popcorn snow" and "broom or shovel snow." These descriptions took me back to when I worked in Monterey, Calif., and the local forecasters began referring to the "marine layer." The rest of us knew it as fog.

There has not been any mention of pullets so far this winter, but I live in hope. As it is, we are stuck in a vortex of colorful expressions, enough to envelop the mind in a marine layer.


Reg Henry: rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.

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