On the first weekend of March, having been starved for low drama by a resolutely unstormy winter, local broadcasters began calling for midweek snow with all the urgency of a pagan prayer to the elements. By the end of the week, though, the snow gods had seen fit to provide Philadelphia with only a fifth of an inch. "Where is the snow?" NBC10 meteorologist Sheena Parveen asked late on the afternoon of March 6, well after it was supposed to have been piling up. "That's the million-dollar question at this point."
According to Pennsylvania Horticultural Society president Drew Becher's calculations, Parveen was off by about a million. The society's annual Philadelphia Flower Show, which took place that week, lost $1.2 million, which was more than $2 million off its usual mark. Becher blames the pseudo-meteorological hype of local television and radio stations. "It was a snow drumbeat, and it was relentless," he told The Inquirer's Virginia A. Smith.
Becher undoubtedly feels pressure to explain the Flower Show's poor showing, its worst in more than a decade. But his point about the local media's snow dance is more than mere scapegoating. Induced weather hysteria is a modern epidemic with repercussions that go well beyond the Horticultural Society's crippled budget.
Endless hype of ultimately underwhelming weather threatens to desensitize the public, making us less likely to take warnings seriously when we should. Overexposure to ratings-oriented weather histrionics could lead more people to disregard the next forecast of a deadly Northeastern hurricane or Midwestern tornado.
As for the Flower Show, its last big bust, in 2001, also coincided with a phantom storm. And the correlation with that year's erroneous forecasts was clear enough to support a $900,000 payout from the society's insurer.
This year's show suffered a 17 percent decline from the prior year's attendance, despite brisk ticket sales before the forecasts and a one-day extension of the show. The loss could force the Horticultural Society to cut some of its programs promoting urban gardening, tree-planting, and more.
While March snow was predicted by the National Weather Service, and that forecast was reported widely, including by The Inquirer, broadcasters' tendency toward repetition and shorthand can make meteorologists' best guesses start to sound inevitable. The weather service's Greg Heavener told The Inquirer that while his federal agency "botched" the forecast, the media amplify such mistakes "for ratings and viewership, and all meteorologists kind of take the blame."
Apparently to facilitate more breathless weather reporting, the Comcast-owned Weather Channel began defying international conventions to name winter storms this season. The March storm that largely missed the region, in fact, was named "Saturn." Here in Philadelphia, however, it will be better known by another name: hype.