OPINION COLUMNS

What’s in a name? The weather-person’s self-esteem

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, January 18, 2014

In almost six decades on the planet, I’ve been cold.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

No, I can’t match stories with someone from Alaska – where Mother Nature basically tries to kill you for half of each year – but I have experienced low temperatures. I’ve camped in waist-deep snow, gone airborne on a snowmobile, four-wheeled on a frozen lake, built a snowman the size of a house, skied in a blizzard, felt ice in my mustache, lost feeling in my feet.

Nevertheless, last week was the first time I ever heard of a “Polar Vortex.”

They used to call them “artic cold fronts,” and that was terrifying enough. Not anymore.

Glacial Blast? Yawn. Canadian Express? Eh. Tell someone, “There’s nothing between Amarillo and the North Pole but a barbed-wire fence!” and he won’t even look up from Angry Birds.

“Colder than a wet-willy in a Polar Bear’s ear” makes kids giggle the first time, but after that they just roll their eyes. And don’t even mention a well-digger. No one knows what that is.

To get someone’s attention these days, you have to come up with something big and scary and, as Stephen Colbert said, sciency-sounding – like “Polar Vortex.”

The problem is, no one takes cold seriously anymore. “Ice Age” and “Frozen” are warm and fuzzy animated movies. The Coca-Cola polar bears are not huge, vicious predators, but cute, cuddly caffiene addicts. When you order a cold beer, guys climb up glaciers with ice axes and hand it to the bartender through the cooler.

I’m not sure anyone has truly feared cold since Jack Nicholson froze to death in that maze in “The Shining.”

Movies have made us jaded. We’ve dived into black holes, fought intergalactic battles, whipped wizards underwater and climbed into Mount Doom. You want to impress us, you’d better have something more than the mere threat of bad weather.

“Polar Vortex” sounds like if you step outside, a howling monster from the Great White North will suck you up into the jetstream, flash-freeze you like a Dippin’ Dot and set you down at the North Pole – and not in Santa’s workshop. You’ll wake up as you thaw out in a lab a few centuries from now, white-coated scientists all around, and the first thing you’ll hear is, “From the clothes, looks like early 21st century – probably got caught in that Polar Vortex of aught-14…”

So who’s behind it all? The TV weather forecasters.

Those well-groomed professionals exude confidence as they stand in front of a blue screen and point to highs and lows, wind chills and fronts and high-pressure domes – but beneath that cool exterior, they’re deeply insecure.

Their colleagues get to tell us about wars, wrecks, stabbings, shootings, convictions – things that have already happened. The sports people give us scores, highlights and witty banter.

The weather people are the only newscasters who must foretell the future (picking a Cowboys loss in December doesn’t count).

It’s a no-win job. If they predict a freeze and it doesn’t, they get laughed at. If they call for rain and it stays dry, the hate is palpable.

If they stand there all summer and say “continued hot and dry,” it’s accurate, but boring. If they downplay rain chances and we end up with flash floods, they can find themselves on local-access cable TV in Iowa, making predictions about the turnip crop.

So when these brave weatherfolk – who paid their dues doing hurricane standups in Wal-Mart parking lots – get a sure thing, they go all-out. They reach deep into their bag of apocalyptic verbiage and come up with something we can tell our grandkids about as we rock on the porch.

The Johnstown Flood. The Dust Bowl. Superstorm Sandy. The Ice-pocalypse. And yes, the Polar Vortex.

If you’re a weather-guy, you get maybe one or two of these in a career. You have to make the most of it.

I’m thinking of starting a side business naming weather events and auctioning them online to the highest bidder. I’ve already copyrighted Droughtmaggedon, Hailkrieg and Windnami.

Dan, Pete – call me!

Bob Buckel is editorial director for the Messenger.

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