Weather Talk

A dual tropical storm/hurricane system that is currently disrupting people’s lives in Hawaii, a rare event for those islands. I am fascinated by such sublime weather events. I will stare at approaching Midwestern thunderstorms as if they were the latest zombie apocalypse movie. I grew up on the southeast Massachusetts coast. So, the huge hurricanes and Nor’easter blizzards of my youth are as real to me today as they were then. I still track these storms with enthusiasm (and apps!), even though they rarely reach Chicago. City folk love to talk about the weather at least as much as country folk. What makes weather such a compelling topic is the danger and disruption of extreme events. This is how our shared histories are composed. Even today’s ‘ordinary’ weather is fodder for elevator conversations among strangers.

Hawaii’s plight put me in mind of other islands and other weathers. I’ve recently discovered the British fascination with the channel and seas weather forecast known as the Shipping Forecast, broadcast four times daily on BBC radio. This two minute long report covers the thirty-one areas that describe the seas and channels surrounding the British Isles, the European Coast and Iceland (see map). In the forecast, each one (or group) is described in terms of the wind speed, visibility, and sometimes barometric pressure. So a typical report might read: “Rockall, Malin, Hebrides. Southwest gale 8 to storm 10, veering west, severe gale 9 to violent storm 11. Rain, then squally showers. Poor, becoming moderate.” Growing up with these forecasts, Brits incorporate this information as part of their common knowledge as “islanders,” even though very few will ever sail these waters. Hundreds of thousands of them listen to the forecast every day. References to the shipping forecast can easily be found in British popular song lyrics, radio and television productions, and novels. In the 2012 opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games, the shipping forecast was recited over the Nimrod section of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. You could actually engage fellow elevator riders in a building in the heart of London about the day’s shipping forecast and someone in the car would know where the trouble spots will be!


What’s the appeal? According to one BBC producer, “It scans poetically. It’s got a rhythm of its own. It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English. It’s slightly mysterious because nobody really knows where these places are. It takes you into a faraway place that you can’t really comprehend unless you’re one of these people bobbing up and down in the Channel.” A frequent reader of the forecast describes the appeal this way,”To the non-nautical, it is a nightly litany of the sea. It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past. Whilst the listener is safely tucked-up in their bed, they can imagine small fishing-boats bobbing about at Plymouth or 170ft waves crashing against Rockall.

Weather talk is always local, even when it really doesn’t have anything to do with the local weather. The shipping forecast is local even though the weather it describes is several hundred miles away. It’s just like my fascination with hurricanes and Nor’easters.

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