On Wednesday, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker listed only two blog posts—one by Andrew Revkin at The New York Times and one by John Cox at Discovery News—that took at a crack at explaining the winter weather. They pointed to the Arctic Oscillation, a pattern of atmospheric pressure that has two phases, positive and negative. According to Cox’s post:
The pressure pattern drives a ring of winds that blows counter-clockwise at about 55 degrees north, over places like Moscow and Belfast and Ketchikan, Alaska.
When the pattern is positive, the winds are strong, and the power of the vortex holds the storms in its embrace. When the pattern is negative, the winds are weak, winter storms slide farther south and their sub-freezing temperatures grip much deeper into the Northern Hemisphere. As Andrew Revkin at the New York Times has pointed out recently, the Arctic Oscillation is more deeply negative this year than it has been since the 1980s.
In fact, Revkin not only did that, he had Ignatius Rigor, a senior mathematician at the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, generate a graph for his blog showing changes in the Arctic Oscillation since 1950. The graph by itself doesn’t say much, of course, but more reporters should be seeking out such exclusive, “value-added” components for their stories.
The Associated Press, for instance, ran a story on Wednesday, under the headline, “Experts: Cold snap doesn’t disprove global warming,” that delivered a helpful, but somewhat vague explanation of the current state of the Arctic Oscillation (“large rivers of air” that usually run west to east and have “become bent into a pronounced zigzag pattern, meandering north and south”) and did not actually refer to it by name.
So Williams seems to be right—useful stories explaining the current cold-weather patterns are “missing in action.” Whether that exacerbates, or is exacerbated by, some of the problems that Homans cited in his cover story about climate skepticism television weather forecasters is difficult to tell. It’s probably a little of both. But journalists and weathermen alike would be well advised to read Williams’s entire post. He lists a number of good questions that anybody seeking to cover the current cold patterns would want to ask, as well as a number of resources from places like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the American Meteorological Society.