Our ongoing quest to personify the weather.
As I write this, the ominously named Winter Storm Thor is bringing his hammer down on the tristate area. Thor is pelting. Thor is dumping. Thor is lashing, coating, and causing havoc. He has an image problem, as all storms do, these days. Led by the heedless call of the Weather Channel, the media has depicted Thor—like Juno, Neptune, and others before him—as a creature of blind wrath, fueled by an amoral, motiveless lust for destruction. If you believe in the banality of evil, then Winter Storm Thor belongs with Eichmann and Iago in your rogues’ gallery.
The Weather Channel has named winter storms since 2012, as part of a dumb and widely impugned media strategy that sensationalizes the weather in a shameless bid for more clicks. “The previous model was: How does weather affect you?” Neil Katz, who runs Weather.com, told The New Republic last year. “Now we’re really asking: How does weather affect everything in the world?” By becoming the very embodiment of vengeance, is one answer.
People have always personified the weather—the North Wind has been blowing with all his might since the days of Aesop’s fables. But lately our meteorological authorities have been keener than anyone to humanize the skies, and to more cynical ends. The National Weather Service kicked off this trend in 1953, when it began to name hurricanes. Naming things is, historically, an excellent way to tell them apart, and no one would want the NWS confusing their storms, so I don’t begrudge them that. But I wonder by what superstition they opted for the names of people—is a hurricane any less deadly, any more knowable, when you call it Earl? It’s an unsettling instance of cultural pareidolia. When we look at the clouds we can’t help but see faces in them.
To their credit, the National Weather Service has refused to acknowledge the Weather Channel’s winter-storm names. In fact, the NWS’s official storm warnings offer an effective antidote to media melodrama. With their telegraphic style and their strange praxis, NWS reports make for strangely engrossing reading; they’re part of a dying art of wire-service writing. Here’s yesterday’s storm warning, for example:
Note the block capitals; the Courier-style typeface; the long header of numbers and institutional cant, impenetrable to outsiders; the reliance on ellipses, almost exclusively, as punctuation. It’s hard to get more elemental than “Flashlight … Food.” The report is also defiantly not time sensitive: Can you imagine your local TV news personality using language as vague as “winter weather conditions are expected or occurring”? A far cry from pelting and dumping.
Unlike the Weather Channel’s pandering exclamations, disseminations from the NWS are scrubbed of their human content. They hardly seem to have authors at all. Reading them, you can picture some intrepid, anonymous meteorologists speaking slowly and with great strain across vast reaches of space. Behold. The weathermen, from on high, have vouchsafed this grave warning.
You can, in fact, hear these reports aloud on a regular basis, if you tune into NOAA Weather Radio, where things get especially spooky. Because even here, on the radio, there are no people. Since 1997, NWS dispatches have been read aloud by a computer with a phonetic synthesizer. The voice, a male baritone, was for a while known as “NOAA’s Perfect Paul.” You can listen to him warn against a tornado here:
These transmissions seem to emanate from some remote corner of the earth where creaky, precisely calibrated instruments continue to function without human interference. It’s chilling to hear a synthetic voice say things like “This is an extremely dangerous situation. Seek shelter now.” But it’s also, maybe, the most effective way to convey bad news. The human voice carries a lot of emotional baggage. Imagine how affecting it might be to hear, over the airwaves, an unreachable, disembodied person, a living authority, informing you that you’re in danger—someone who’s real but who barely impinges on your reality, someone who can do almost nothing to help you. If you’re about to die, or merely about to sustain thousands of dollars in property damage, isn’t it less complicated to hear it from a machine?
Weather-radio devotees—and they are a thriving subculture—mocked Perfect Paul for his flat, often bungled command of phonemes, but I find his indifference comforting. Paul has no skin in the game. He has no skin, period. He spits a digitized harrumph in the face of all who personify. In recent years, though, the Weather Service has retired him; after a long search in which listeners could vote for their favorites, they’ve settled on two new voices, Tom and Donna. Both sound more convincingly human, though they remain, thankfully, far from true verisimilitude.
Still, the day will come when they’re impossible to differentiate from real people. And what then? Even when every storm and Weather Service robot has a name, when everything within the ambit of meteorology has a human face, we’ll never know for sure if the sky will fall tomorrow, or even if it will rain.
Weather forecasting is an earnest attempt to assert control over nature: by codifying it, anticipating it. This is why, it seems to me, so many of the elderly attend with almost sacred focus to fluctuations in the weather, to raw meteorological data. It offers a sense of containment, the reassurance that someone, somewhere, knows what’s coming. But such is not the case. Though you’ll never hear it from Weather.com, Edward Lorenz, the mathematician who developed chaos theory, got the idea when he was working as a meteorologist.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.