The Age of Hyperbole: How Normal Weather Became 'Extreme'

Said Thomas Jefferson: "The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers." Jefferson’s comment may be expanded to include most of today’s mass media; this is especially true of television. As American linguist Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa said: “In the age of television, image becomes more important than substance.” It is effectively visual lying, dictated by Marshall McLuhan’s observation: “The medium is the message.” For example, TV news programs often illustrate air pollution with a smoke stack emitting water vapor, implying it is pollution when it is anything but.

Distortion and deception are accentuated by hyperbole. Television news and documentaries frequently report normal weather as “extreme weather,” implying it is abnormal and caused by human activity. But while a hurricane, for example, may inflict serious damage to our structures and cause major loss of life, it is a normal event in hurricane-prone regions, where it is foolish to live without preparing for the weather patterns of the area.

The problem is accentuated when supposedly prestigious newspapers like the New York Times present provably false information. “Summer’s Beast is Loose,” published in the Times on July 16, was an obvious attempt to sensationalize warm, but normal, summer temperatures:

Humans have always been used to the normal fluctuations in weather -- including the anomalies that seem to confirm the norm. But now, to the routine, cyclic variations of weather, there has been added a more or less steady, more or less linear change, the result of the way we are altering our climate.

It appears that the Times editorial board didn’t bother to look at the historic climate record -- or hoped none of their readers would. Aside from a slight year-to-year increase in temperature variation, the graph of temperatures for July for New York State shows no meaningful overall trend, warming or cooling, since 1900:

Figure 1. Source NOAA National Climate Data Center


Before expressing their opinion that today’s weather is unusual, you would think that the Times’ editors would have also looked at some basic research, an example being weather expert Dr. David Ludlum’s fascinating works: Early American Tornadoes, 1586-1870 and Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870. The Times clearly knew of Dr. Ludlum, praising him as “the nation's foremost historian of American weather” in his obituary published by the newspaper in 1996.  But they pay no attention to what Dr. Ludlum actually wrote.

Here is a challenge for New York Times editors -- identify the year from which the following statistics are derived:

In the U.S. 254 people died in tornadoes: 30 in Marquette Kansas; 87 in Snyder Oklahoma; 97 in Southwest Oklahoma; and 40 in Montague Texas. In addition, 40 people died in a November storm in Minnesota.

Globally, typhoons struck the Philippines in July, August, and September; a June typhoon in the Marshall Islands with 500 reported deaths; a storm killed 33 in the Republic of Salvador; severe storms and flooding in Ireland.

Record low temperatures occurred as follows: February 13, -33°C at Pond, Arkansas, -40°C at Lebanon, Kansas, and –40°C at Warsaw, Missouri. In Sydney, Australia lowest monthly averages in September and October joined the lowest spring minimums.

Record high temperatures: An estimated 91 people died of a July heat wave in New York City. On July 7th Parker, Arizona recorded 53°C. Rivadivia, Argentina recorded 49°C on 11th December. The heat caused an outbreak of the tropical disease Yellow Fever in New Orleans that spread north to Indiana.

Precipitation: Flooding in Ireland; Taylor Texas, received 2.4 inches in fifteen minutes on April 29th; on July 29th 11 inches of rain in southwest Connecticut resulted in extensive flooding that caused a dam to burst.

Arctic ice retreated dramatically allowing an explorer to be the first to enter waters previously inaccessible.

The year was 1905. Note that 254 people died from tornadoes, when the population density was much less than today.