Crying ‘wolf’ on weather

Maine residents for generations have relied on the National Weather Service for regular and timely daily and long-range forecasts and for special safety warnings when unusual events, such as stream and coastal flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, heavy rain or high winds, are expected. These valuable communications help protect life and property and are an important public service.

A series of new “special” warnings this summer, however, has left many Mainers scratching their heads and wondering if weather personnel and the higher-ups who establish public policy have nothing better to do. The bulletins from the weather service office in Caribou concern “Hazard Warnings” for beaches regarding, not sharks, not dangerous undertow, not stinging jellyfish, but rather cold ocean water temperatures. Locally, the bulletins note, they cover the entire coast from Acadia National Park to the Canadian border. Separate hazard warnings also have been issued for Maine’s Midcoast by the weather service office in Gray.

The breathless announcements that “remain in effect until 8 p.m. in the evening” state that air temperatures above 70 degrees “may cause people to underestimate the dangers of cold water.”

In honesty, any true Mainer or visitor who has so much as dipped a toe in the ocean in June and July knows the water is frigid. Most know it isn’t really going to warm up until late August anyway, so ending the alert at nightfall seems especially specious. What’s next – weather service reminders to adults to look both ways before crossing the street?

Frankly, these pseudo alerts are akin to the neighborhood scold reminding children to wear their galoshes, apply sunscreen or put on a warm coat in winter.

When alerts are issued for items that can be more appropriately categorized as regular and routine, they cease to be special. That dilutes the impact of major warnings the public might need to heed involving true emergencies.

Admonishing people to wear life jackets and proper clothing for cold water is not a bad thing to do. But rather than broadcast a special alert saying that, why not incorporate the actual water temperatures into the coastal zone forecasts and share safety advice there, such as the importance of paying attention to the tides and wearing a personal flotation device?

When shared as breaking news on social media and on other online sites, these “Beach Hazard” warnings only perpetuate the public’s impression that it’s all about hype, not about legitimate news.

In the end, that can contribute to more and more people ignoring all warnings with potentially serious repercussions when major emergencies loom.

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