Playing whac-a-mole with click-bait

Over the weekend, a story went viral calling for a change in hurricane categories to include a Category 6. Meteorologists recognized it for the click-bait it was, but many non-meteorologists did not and shared it – much to our chagrin.  The story was written by a politician and published on a website that appeals to preppers and conspiracy theorists, which should be an automatic red flag to any reader with critical thinking skills. I’m not going to name the story, the website, or the writer here because I don’t want to encourage anyone to waste their time reading it.

Trying to squash stories full of misinformation and unlikely worst-case scenarios is meteorologists’ version of the game whac-a-mole. It’s frustrating, and I doubt we’ll ever truly win.

The reason this particular story was so off-base and unhelpful was simply that it was written by someone who (I can only assume) didn’t even do basic research on what a Category 5 storm is on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. I will even admit that I had to refresh my own memory this morning after seeing red when realizing how viral that post had become.

Irma map

Hurricane Irma is a Category 5 storm as of this morning, September 5, 2017.

The description of Category 5 storm winds includes the wording “157 mph or higher,” which means there is no reason to change the scale. If we do see winds higher than ever seen before, it will still be called a Category 5. If meteorologists decide to change the scale at some point in the future, they will likely shift the scale’s wind speeds similarly to the way the tornado categories changed by going from the Fujita Scale to the Enhanced-Fujita Scale. If that decision is ever made, it will be made by the expert scientists, not politicians.

Part of the reason Category 5 storms don’t usually strike the continental US while sustaining that strength is they typically hit slightly cooler waters and more wind shear after crossing the Gulf Stream and other warm ocean currents, which weakens them. Moving over land such as the islands in the Caribbean also weakens storms. Still, strong storms such as Camille and Gilbert do occasionally make landfall while maintaining status as a Category 5. It happens, but it’s rare.

Category 5 storms in general aren’t as unusual as one might think, though. One of the problems with being human is we tend to have short memories about things like storm strength.  If you look at the National Hurricane Center’s “Hurricanes in History” page, and just do a search of the term “category 5,” you’ll see just how many of those storms summarized on that page actually reached that status and then weakened before hitting the continental U.S. (7) versus how many made landfall while sustaining Category 5 status (3).

One of the false points made in the click-bait article was that Irma strengthened faster than meteorologists expected. This was untrue. Several of the models showed Irma bombing out as soon as she reached warm waters and ideal conditions. Again, this happens. We wouldn’t already have the phrase “bombing out” if it didn’t. A storm is said to “bomb out” when it strengthens rapidly, showing a large, fast drop in barometric pressure.

Another point that article claimed is that a storm of Irma’s potential strength would wipe cities off the map. The potential for that kind of devastation should go without saying for any major hurricane. Residents of North Carolina in the 1990s will tell you about the eastern N.C. town of Princeville, which was literally destroyed by Hurricane Floyd’s flooding. By the way, Floyd peaked at Category 4.

If you follow other meteorologists on social media, I’m sure you’ve seen many of them trying to squelch false weather stories, outlandish claims, worst-case doctored forecast maps, etc. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we’re frustrated with the rampant sharing of dis- and misinformation about the weather.

Before you share a story that seems too good or too bad to be true or is from a source that seems suspect, please take a moment to think critically about it, even research it if you have time. If you aren’t sure of its validity, just don’t share it. Don’t be part of the problem, please!