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Real forecasts lost in social media flurry

Thursday - 7/24/2014, 7:04am  ET

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July's weather caused a storm on social media. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

WASHINGTON -- Social media has changed the way people get weather information, for better and for worse.

Savvy social media users know that bad information can spread just as fast as useful or actionable content -- and weather information is not exempt from the trend.

The term "polar vortex" resurfaced in July when a cool airmass oozed southward from Canada. Through social media, the catchy classification again spread like a common cold.

Experts weighed in. The Mid-Atlantic's bout with cool weather was merely a look-a- like. It was not a violent, whirling maelstrom of mayhem but instead, a welcome reprieve from the summer heat.

The next time a weather forecast that highlights an eye-catching moniker appears on a news feed, think twice before buying into the hype.

Recently, some online weather forecasts have been conflated with scientific lingo. As these terms course through social networks, the essence of the forecast is lost.

More recently, a new strain of "cyber weather flu" has been making the rounds on social media. Over the last week, Twitter users began seeing posts about a large-scale weather pattern known to meteorologists as a "rex block."

A rex block is a high altitude weather pattern that forces weather systems to zigzag between large high and low pressure areas, effectively gumming up the works in the polar jet stream, the main weather highway across North America.

The posts were based on medium to long-range forecasts generated by computer weather models.

"The upper level pattern looked rex-blockish two days ago but is looking more progressive now," says Alex Liggitt, executive producer of weather at ABC7 News.

Liggitt says the takeaway should be the cool weather that is forecast to arrive by early next week, with the complexities of the forecast as an aside.

"High temperatures may only be around 80 degrees to end the month... 8 degrees below average."

Mentions of the polar vortex and rex block have since waned. But their hashtags lie latently in the dark corners of cyberspace.

Cyber weather flu is transmitted through the veins of social media, conflating the jargon and the users' expectations.

"With social media, it gets retweeted and retweeted, [whether] it's the polar vortex or the derecho, and nobody knows what they're retweeting or comprehending what they're reading," says ABC7 meteorologist Lauryn Ricketts.

The good news is that there's a cure for cyber weather flu.

"Know what sources you're looking at. Is it a broadcast meteorologist? Is it a government-based entity? Not everything that's pushed out on the internet is accurate," says Ricketts.

Andrew Woodcock has seen weather patterns of all shapes and sizes over his decades-long career as an operational forecaster with the National Weather Service.

"Sociologically, we seem to have moved into an era where we need to name everything," he says.

Woodcock remains pragmatic despite recent trends.

"The atmosphere is essentially a bunch of air masses of differing densities, and these are ever changing. But sometimes a high or low will become semi-permanent, and this will likely continue... for the next 10,000 years."

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