June 23, 2020

You're Reading About The "Monster" Dust Storm Everywhere Because The Weather Is Boring Right Now


The day-to-day life of someone who works in weather isn't as thrilling as it appears on television. Hardly any of the weather you cover will consist of EF-5 tornadoes and monstrous hurricane churning into the coast. Most days are sunny, temperate...boring. Finding something to write about can be a struggle if you're tasked with writing general interest stories that have to appeal to potential readers in both Savannah and Walla Walla.

Anyone who follows the news has probably heard about the dust storm dubbed "monster" and "Godzilla" in headlines bouncing all over social media the last few days.

A large plume of Saharan dust making its way across the Atlantic Ocean finally arrived in the Caribbean and eastern United States this week. These dust storms usually lose their potency as they traverse the Atlantic Ocean, but this one is strong enough to bring unusually low air quality readings to some Caribbean islands that are famed for their clear skies and reliable weather.

It's a common sight during the warmer months to see Saharan dust storms extend far over the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes reaching the Caribbean and North America where they can degrade air quality and lead to stunning sunrises and sunsets. The layer of dry, dusty air can also inhibit tropical formation, a factor that's often made tropical cyclone forecasting tricky during recent hurricane seasons.

That said, the coverage of this particular Saharan dust event is so disproportionate to the impact of the event that many folks are on the verge of sounding like they just found out about Saharan dust themselves and they're excited to tell someone about it.

Saturation coverage of the Saharan dust is the confluence of two events that are innocuous alone but powerful combined.

The first is that the weather is pretty darn boring right now. Much of the eastern United States is covered by classic summertime thunderstorms that pop up and rage for half an hour before dissipating. It's hot in California's Central Valley. There's a measly tropical storm south of Nova Scotia that's hanging on by an updraft and a prayer. There's a train of depressions about to form in the eastern Pacific and American audiences infamously don't care about weather beyond their own front yards. There's just not much to talk about that'll bring in the big clicks.

That leads us into an unwritten rule of how online weather—really, most online coverage—works. I had never covered the weather on a day-to-day basis back in 2014 when Gawker brought me on to run The Vane. I asked the editor how I would write several posts a day when the weather is boring most days. He told me "when there is no news, you make the news."

So that's what I did. I wrote explainers on supercells and tornadoes and sleet and why hurricanes recurve and how the weather helped BeyoncĂ© serenade most of San Francisco. I wrote about conspiracy theories and I criticized The Weather Channel and I annotated full-disk satellite images to show that even the most mundane patterns had something interesting to spot. Even if it didn't draw many eyes, the posts hopefully reached a few people and making them interested in the weather.

When there is no news, you make the news. When one meteorologist writes about the Saharan dust because there's nothing else click-worthy going on, a few more will invariably follow suit. Others see those posts flying around social media and decide to get in on the action. Soon enough, everyone's rushing to get up a post on the Saharan dust to cash in on some pageviews before the event wanes and everyone loses interest. Each new post has to use stronger, more vivid language to top its competitors for views and ad impressions.

That kind of saturation coverage that tries to top one another can generate interest, sure, but it also creates the impression that something is more urgent than it really is. We've certainly seen that happen here. I've seen just as many posts about how a monster, Godzilla-like dust storm is another harbinger of the 2020 apocalypse as I've seen from meteorologists completely baffled at the outsized attention this plume of dust has gotten compared to other events that are magnitudes more impactful. 

It's great that people are learning how events are interconnected and dust from thousands of miles away can help you snag a great photo out your window. It's also important for people to be able to tell what's urgent and what's interesting, as the two aren't always the same. Reining in the hyperbole and breathless coverage over relatively mundane events is a welcome skill in these days of never-ending bad news and declining reader trust.

[Satellite Image: NOAA]

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

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