The National Weather Services Abandons All-Caps Forecasts


A thunderstorm signals the arrival of spring in Washington, D.C., in March 2012. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

On the evening of October 29, 2014, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service named Doug Cramer took stock of the day’s conditions. It had been a beautiful autumn day in Missouri, where he lived and worked—crisp and cool—and now temperatures were dropping into the evening.

The weather mattered. At 8 p.m. in Kansas City, the Royals would play the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. So as Cramer composed his forecast discussion for that night, he smuggled a message into it. Though he noted that “GREAT WEATHER FOR OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES WAS OBSERVED ACROSS MOST OF MISSOURI” and that a “COLD FRONT [WAS] QUICKLY APPROACHING FROM THE WEST,” he also made sure to write each line such that it began with a specific letter.

His forecast discussion has since entered the annals of famed National Weather Service forecast discussion—which, yes, is really a thing that exists. You can go read it online now. Because, while it looks like an ephemeral discussion of the day’s weather, it’s really an acrostic poem, spelling: GO ROYALS, WIN THE WORLD SERIES.

Cramer is not the only meteorologist to have fun with a forecast discussion. The year before, someone spoofed DJ Jazzy Jeff to salute the first day of summertime. For Independence Day last year, another forecaster “held this weather to be self evident.”  There was also “the afternoon before Christmas” Or the report that Tropical Storm Kirk would not likely “live long and prosper.” Or the one that, four days into the 2013 government shutdown, begged acrostically: “PLEASE PAY US.”

All these meteorologists could play with their work like this because the forecast discussion has some odd formal traits. As I noted in a story about them earlier this year, every forecast discussion is (famously) in all-caps and only uses ellipses as punctuation. This is because, though they’re typed today on a computer, forecast discussions connect to an older infrastructure that first worked with teletype machines. And teletype machines could only transmit all-caps letters.

When I’ve asked meteorologists about this in the past, they laughed about the odd style of discussions. “I can write like a normal human being,” Paul Kocin, a winter-weather expert, told me. “I have no reason why [they’re like that]. I’m just sort of like, okay, if that’s how we write them, then I’ll write that way too!”

But now, at least one part of that era is coming to an end. On Monday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that forecast discussions would no longer follow the teletype-mandated style—or, as they put it, “NOAA’S NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE FORECASTS WILL STOP YELLING AT YOU.” A victim of the switch to a new computer system, the all-caps forecasts will end on May 11.

“People are accustomed to reading forecasts in upper case letters and seeing mixed-case use might seem strange at first,” said Art Thomas, a government meteorologist, in a statement. “It seemed strange to me until I got used to it over the course of testing the new system, but now it seems so normal.”

I should’ve known. When I talked in January to Chris Maier, another meteorologist at the National Weather Service, he said the transition to mixed-case discussions could take place as early as this year.

But the mixed-case format also signals a far more substantive change in who forecast discussions are written for and why. As recently as 1998, most forecast discussions were written for other forecasters. They were a way to share notes and insights into the observations that day. In the past two decades, discussions have gone online and been found (and consumed) by an increasingly weather-savvy public. My family and friends seek out the forecast discussion before any major storm or weather event. So where forecast discussions were once passed notes between professionals, they’re now another public-facing product from a government agency. Let’s hope that, as more people find them in their new mixed-case form, they retain their occasionally irreverent sensibility.