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What’s the problem with meteorology?

Barometer

Why is it that some people have difficulty in saying certain words? My grandmother could never pronounce ‘helicopter’ (it always came out as ‘helicotter’) and a friend’s wife could never manage ‘linoleum’ (‘liloleum’). I’ve found an extraordinary number of people have problems with ‘meteorology’. Even my adult-education students invariably had difficulty. Tell them to think of ‘meteor’ and add ‘-ology’? No, that didn’t work. Most successful was getting them to remember Winnie-the-Pooh: ‘Meet-Eeyore-ology’. (Speeded up it was not perfect, but reasonable.)

Of course all scientific fields have specialized words, many very arcane to outsiders. But just because a word is unfamiliar, that is no reason for saying that the whole field is ‘too difficult’. You either skip it – like all those terrible bits with complex mathematical equations – or you look it up, if you are ‘dictionary minded’.

Scientists are human after all

Meteorology itself has its fair share of specialized words. There were years of debate over which was more accurate: ‘baroclinic’ or ‘barotropic’ forecasting. Then there are those things called ‘aerological diagrams’ that look horrendously complicated to non-meteorologists, and which come in three varieties: tephigrams (T-φ grams – that’s the Greek letter ‘phi’), emagrams, and Stüve diagrams. Don’t give them a second thought.

But scientists are human, and they sometimes like to let their hair down with fanciful words and names. What should we call snow that is colonized by the single-celled, and pink-coloured alga Chlamydomonas nivalis? (Yes, yes, I have difficulty with ‘Chlamydomonas’ too.) How about ‘watermelon snow’? And what about the plume of humid air that crosses Hawaii and brings heavy rain to the Pacific Northwest of North America? Why, pineapples come from Hawaii, so it became the ‘Pineapple Express’.

Labelling lightning: from jellyfish to trolls

One particular set of words that always attracts me concerns various forms of atmospheric electricity. There’s ‘lightning’ of course, and most people think of ‘forked lightning’ (now you see the stroke), and ‘sheet lightning’ (now you don’t), as well as ‘heat lightning’ (there’s no such thing). Then there is ‘spider lightning’ that hugs the underside of clouds, and the ‘anvil crawlers’ of the storm chasers, which are higher up. But it is all the other forms that are fascinating. Back in 1989 someone finally managed to prove that strange flashes reported anecdotally by pilots and similar people for years did actually exist. They turned out to be luminous blood-red ‘jellyfish’ or ‘carrots’, high in the atmosphere, with tendrils reaching down towards the tops of the clouds. They didn’t last long (10 to 100 milliseconds) so came to be called ‘sprites’. (There are now features known as ‘sprite haloes’, too.)

But then someone noticed something else: faint red rings that last about one millisecond and expand faster than the speed of light. (Don’t worry: it’s quite possible.) They seemed to be associated with sprites, so how about a related name? So they became ‘elves’. Of course, there are a few lightning-associated phenomena that, unfortunately, have been given prosaic names, such as ‘blue starters’ and ‘blue jets’, which shoot upwards from cloud-tops. The whole group of phenomena has come to be covered by a ‘proper’ scientific term: Transient Luminous Event’ (TLE). However, the latest addition to the group has shown an interesting dimension to the naming process. There are things that resemble blue jets, but are red, and shoot upwards after particularly strong sprites. We needed a name for those. To fit with the mythical nature of the others, how about ‘troll’? So trolls they became. But this has gone a bit too far, folks. ‘Troll’ must mean something. It must be an acronym of something. One imagines feverish thought as to what it could be, before someone finally came up with the answer. So now everything is clear: trolls are actually Transient Red Optical Luminous Lineaments’. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

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