But no matter how goofy or grave, every forecast discussion adopts the same formal traits. It uses no lower-case letters and it makes frequent and somewhat erratic use of … ellipses. As one writer asked before Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, “Why is the National Weather Service yelling?”
Wait, let me put that in terms they can understand. HELLO NWS … OBSERVE AMPLIFYING QUESTIONS FROM THE ATLANTIC … PLEASE ADDRESS WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS SHOUTING.
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“Most of our products remain in the all-caps format,” says Chris Maier, a meteorologist at National Weather Service headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. (For what it’s worth, he didn’t sound like he was shouting on the phone.)
The all-caps style originated from teletype machines, which were essentially typewriters controlled by telephone lines. For most of the 20th century, “the news wire” came in by teletype. Newspapers and radio stations got their AP stories, weather bulletins, and sports scores live—and loudly, what with all the clacking—via teletype. (Early in his career, Ronald Reagan did radio play-by-plays of Chicago Cubs games without seeing them: The game’s action came in through the wire.)
When the government started requesting forecast discussions, they weren’t for public consumption. Rather, they were an internal communication tool between weather bureaus. Twice a day, along with the standard temperature and wind speed and pressure readings, meteorologists would add their professional annotation of the forecast.
Talking only to each other, and pressed for time, forecasters developed shorthand to send more information over the wires quicker. Some of these abbreviations are intuitive—NW for northwest, SE for southeast—but others require a little explanation. Every model gets its own initials: GFS, ETA, and EURO. SCT means scattered clouds, which cover about three-eighths of the sky; BKN clouds are broken, obscuring about seven-eighths of the sky. Other abbreviations include:
BLO - below
CB - cumulonimbus clouds, or thunderheads
OBS - observation
PCTN - precipitation
POP - probability of precipitation
“These terms are supposed to be spelled out nowadays,” says Maier, because forecast discussions are now written for public consumption. But even that change happened recently. The National Weather Service only began making forecast discussions for the entire country available to the public in 2005 or 2006, Maier said. Before that, some local bureaus released their forecast discussions, but it wasn’t a matter of federal policy. (Forecasters now communicate internally with a chat program.)
Maier’s old bureau, in Salt Lake City, was posting forecast discussions online by 1998, he said. At the time, local emergency managers asked for more expert analysis of weather data. So many different kinds of disasters could beset Utah—floods, wildfires, high winds, lake-effect snow—that they needed to know which predictions to take seriously. Handing them the forecast discussion was the easiest way to do that.