The term “heat dome” is only the latest in a newly adopted lexicon of apocalyptic weather terminology, along with polar vortex and arctic death spiral.
While these words are meteorologically-accurate and describe real weather phenomena, they are being used for fear mongering–both by organizations like The Weather Channel who benefit from the publicity of cataclysmic events, but also by environmental activists who hope to spur action by putting climate events on the public’s radar.
A “heat dome” is an actual weather phenomenon—a high pressure, mid-atmospheric bubble that warms a region by pushing warm air downwards and trapping it.
Tom Moore, digital meteorologist for The Weather Company (TWC), told The Daily Beast that the so-called dome “just kinda squelches the air” and makes it harder for it to cool. “It’s a big bulge of hot air” that has come in from the jet stream, said Moore. “It’s a very large ridge, a very expansive one, stretching North from Canada, West from the western U.S., and east from the Great Lakes and Ohio valley.”
So there you have it: There is a wave of hot weather headed toward the Southeast that will cause the heat index to rise to triple digits for over 20 states. It is notable for its size. But heat waves are normal for July; this “heat dome” does deserve weather advisories and reminders to stay inside and hydrated, but so do other heat waves during the dog days of summer.
As Michael D. Lemonick, opinion editor at Scientific American, told The Daily Beast, “These are genuine terms but they are used in the popular media with a kind of breathlessness that implies there is something unusual and catastrophic going on, that we need to be terrified.”
According to Lemonick, it may be that changes in “climate and weather are making heat waves longer and more intense,” but introducing new terminology has the specific purpose of “implying something new…that we should be afraid of.”
It’s not just the ominous, impending heat dome of doom that uses what Lemonick described to The Daily Beast as a “very common tactic” in environmental communications. Take the term “arctic death spiral”—a common climate cycle whereby heated air melts ice, leading to increased water temperatures and more melted ice isn’t inherently disastrous. It certainly isn’t anything new. But by including the term “death spiral,” environmentalists have gotten your attention. “They use terms like this to get you as riled up as possible,” says Lemonick. “Their goal is to get you to take action. They’re not so worried about being accurate or giving you caveats.”
Heat “bubble” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
These portentous terms often come from marketing or communications experts at companies like The Weather Channel, working to popularize attention-grabbing terminology—rather than from meteorologists or climate specialists themselves. Gary England, a weatherman for KWTV in Oklahoma City, told The New York Times that he finds the term “heat dome” “a little bit misleading.”
Apparently dome is a misnomer: “It’s not shaped like that,” said England, “I usually say ‘a large zone of hot air.’” Moore told The Daily Beast a similar story: “The term goes back a long time, but there’s no real scientific connection with it. A heat bubble would probably be a better term.”
Part of the reason weather companies are able to use these terms in such a widespread fashion is because they catch on (pardon the pun) like wildfire.
The Weather Company only started naming winter storms back in October of 2012, but now it’s de rigueur. Melissa Medori, PR manager for TWC, told The Daily Beast that “it was all about sharing information, making communication easier, and getting that communication into the hands of people who need it more quickly, and we’ve seen that.” While the first year TWC meteorologists and weathermen came up with the names themselves, now they “work with a high school Latin class from Bozeman, Montana.”
The drive to “continue to drive social media conversations on weather” as a TWC press release from 2013 describes it, is obviously succeeding. Hashtags #theheatdome and #heatdome are being widely used on Twitter to share photos and warnings, which one can only assume will increase once the heat dome is fully upon us.
But why are extreme weather scare tactics so successful? According to Daniel Sigman, it’s because of our limited attention spans and “short memory with regard to weather.”
Sigman, the Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton University, told The Daily Beast that the weather channels “have people’s attention about weather because it’s summer in North America.” It’s that simple. We care about a heat dome because we’re hot and don’t want it to get any hotter; the weather channels have our attention because they’re talking about something big that’s happening in the here and now.
The bending of the jet stream toward the northern United States, which is causing the ridge and buildup of hot air, is the “typical setup for hot weather in summer,” Tom Knutson, a research meteorologist from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) in Princeton, New Jersey, told The Daily Beast. While Knutson and colleagues at the GFDL have found that human activity does contribute to global warming and “increasing summer heat,” the “ridging” we’re seeing in the jet stream is common.
That’s right, you heard it from the experts: Hot weather in July is common.
Despite the fear that the use of terms like “heat dome” causes on social media, most weather channels assert that they’re not trying to frighten their viewers, just help them. Michelle Hawkins, from the Climate Services Division of the NOAA National Weather Service (NWS), told The Daily Beast that meteorologists and weather services “use these terms to help people visualize what’s happening in the atmosphere.”
Hawkins acknowledges that “heat dome” is a “more colloquial term,” rather than a scientific one, but believes that using these terms “helps communicate in a way that is comprehensible to more people,” and hopefully helps them more accurately assess their risk. “We work collaboratively with social scientists to develop products that are more useful,” she said. Using these terms, according to Hawkins, urges “more people to take preventative action.”
Unfortunately, other studies have shown that fear mongering is not the best way to get people to take preventative action. “There are plenty of communications experts who argue that if you scare people too much it could be counterproductive,” Lemonick told The Daily Beast.
It remains to be seen if using the term “heat dome” will actually encourage people to stay in the shade, drink more water, and take it easy. Guess we’ll just have to wait until the dome of hell descends.