Is there a hurricane developing off the African coast, or is the ensuing hype nothing more than fabricated weather drama? Weather forecasters in the United States will not really know until it is halfway across the Atlantic Ocean and gathering strength, but that does not stop them from trying to make news out of a slight dip in pressure just east of West Africa.
A hurricane is a tropical cyclone that forms in the Atlantic Ocean basin. Tropical cyclones are the largest, most violent storms found on earth. Hurricanes form over warm ocean waters near the equator. The low pressure of the warm moist air acts like an engine driving the storm. As the low pressure air rises the higher pressure air around it tries to push into the vacuum underneath. That air is then heated by the warm ocean waters and begins to rise. The air high above the hurricane cools, sinks and becomes the high pressure air pushing in under the eye. Soon the system is “organized.” Regular convection currents circulate the air and begin to spin around the center. The walls around the eye of the hurricane are strong winds and rain caused by the differences in pressure between the low pressure center and the high pressure bands circling the “engine.”
Why do hurricanes form off the coast of Africa? Hurricanes begin over the Sahara Desert. The Sahara is the hottest desert on earth with temperatures reaching above 122 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. The extremely hot air rises and moves east with the global winds. As it moves from land to water it dips down. When able to pick up warm moist air from the oceans a tropical depression can form. Teacher and weather writer Rachelle Oblack states, “The flow of the ocean and the spin of the earth combined with the dry winds of the desert and the warm moist air off the Atlantic horse latitudes make this desert child grow.” There is almost constantly a chance of a hurricane forming off the coast of Africa because that is the natural summer weather pattern. So why does The Weather Channel make it a headline story from June to October?
The Weather Channel provides an essential service for people. Americans no longer live their lives with weather in mind. Therefore, they need to know what is coming and prepare for it. If they live in a floodplain they watch for heavy rains and clear out basements or move equipment if flooding is predicted. In tornado prone areas it is important to stay close to shelter during a tornado watch. Over the winter people need to stay aware of snow and ice storms to modify travel plans. During the summer and fall Americans with homes up and down the east coast turn a worried eye toward the ocean and the dreaded hurricanes that can do millions of dollars of damage.
Weather services feed people’s appetite for predicting the weather. Americans want to know exactly what weather will hit and exactly when. They want to know it will rain from 11:45 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. and then stop. People get upset when weather does not follow the forecast despite the fact that weather is notoriously hard to foretell.
Today The Weather Channel is looking at a slight depression off the African coast that may form a hurricane that could strike the United States in two weeks; except that there is almost no possibility of development due to relatively dry air over the mid-Atlantic. So why mention the possibility at all? The meteorologists are also tracking Invest 34L. Invest is short for investigative area which refers to an area of disturbance that begins to organize. Even though Invest 34L has been given a zero percent chance of developing into a stronger system it is still news according to The Weather Channel.
Why do The Weather Channel and other news services sensationalize the weather to such an extent? Do their doom and gloom headlines feed a need of Americans to live their lives in crisis? Or do they name and dramatize storms to generate advertising revenue? The answer is a mixture of both. People get caught up in the news of impending storms. The more dangerous and important the meteorologists can make the weather sound the more people will tune in to the reports and follow the path of the storm. The forecasters get paid because they create mass hysteria based on impending disaster. People literally clear store shelves of water and bread when storms are predicted.
Much of the actual weather data is collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. NOAA runs the National Weather Service which, “is the sole official voice of the U.S. government for issuing warnings during life-threatening weather situations.” The NWS tends to give matter of fact weather reports without the drama. The Weather Channel claims it saves lives by preparing people for emergency weather situations, but viewers can get more accurate data from the government agency.
For all its hype about the weather that may affect the United States, The Weather Channel also makes Americans more insular by not reporting global weather and climate. It reports on the polar vortex hitting the U.S. while ignoring the concurrent drought and record heat in the southern hemisphere. It tracks possible hurricanes across the Atlantic without addressing the huge problems of increasing global temperature and desertification causes for Africans. The millions of people living in the Sahel, the shrinking area at the edge of the desert, are constantly on the brink of peril due to lack of rain.
Is a hurricane really developing off the African Coast or is it just a lot of weather drama? A hurricane is almost always developing off the coast of Africa during the summer months as the sun heats both the ocean and the desert. As global temperatures continue to rise, the hurricane season will lengthen and the probability and strength of the storms will grow, but reporting on every tropical disturbance and tropical wave serves no purpose but to profit from American’s insatiable need for drama in their weather without addressing underlying global issues.
Opinion by: Rebecca Savastio