A few nights ago, I turned on Channel 4 to watch the 6 p.m. weather forecast. Or rather, I turned on Channel 4 to watch meteorologist Bob Ryan. It was a deeply satisfying six minutes. Bob’s brow was furrowed; his jaw was tense. A cold front, he warned, had “gathered strength in the Canadian Rockies” and “cut a swath across the Midwest.” It was now “bearing down on Washington [D.C.], threatening to wallop the Washington area with 6 to 8 inches of snow.” Then his mouth relaxed slightly. He said that a high-pressure system was “building in the Southeast” and would shoot a “blast of warm air” up the Atlantic coast. Would it reach us in time to fend off the snow? Bob was hopeful.
American weather forecasters like to say that the United States has the most exciting weather in the world. It’s biblical–from hurricanes to blizzards, droughts to floods, and the occasional plague of locusts for good measure. I don’t know if the United States does have the most exciting weather, but it certainly has the most exciting weather forecasts. They, too, are biblical. The ancient Greeks ascribed lightning to Zeus; we haven’t made much progress. The weather forecast is still an epic, a story of God’s war with man. Hot and cold air masses “clash,” storms “strike,” and sweeping “fronts” ravage the nation. The forecast is a tale of heroes (the noble high-pressure system), savage villains (Hurricane Andrew), and omnipotent, inexplicable deities (El Niño, the Jet Stream). I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels a frisson when a forecaster announces that a cold front is “descending” from Canada–as if some malevolent Arctic god were coming to exact revenge for the sins of Washington.
Weather, in short, is a crackling good story, infused with enough drama to sustain local news broadcasts, millions of water-cooler conversations, and an entire cable channel. So imagine my excitement when I stumbled upon the Web weather industry. Here was a world of weather–24-hours-a-day weather, personalized weather, global weather, fishing weather, flying weather, farming weather, e-mail weather, graphics weather, text weather. Its breadth boggles the mind. CNN forecasts day and night on its snazzy weather site. So do USA Today, MSNBC, and The Weather Channel (which has claimed the best weather address on the Web). Other Web forecasters include weatherOnline, INTELLICAST, WeatherNet, TVWeather, AccuWeather, Geocities, Canada’s The Weather Network, BBC Weather, and the National Weather Service–to name only the mainstream sites.
T here is, of course, something obviously ironic about all this Web weather: The Web doesn’t have any weather (unless you count the hot air that envelops most newsgroups). In fact, you could argue that the entire point of cyberspace is to have no weather, to liberate us from the mundane and inconvenient physical world. But the Web will have weather, weather or not.
Indeed, Web weather technology is as sophisticated as it gets. The sites make television’s Weather Channel look amateurish (or rather, even more amateurish than it already looks). All the sites are constantly updated. You never have to wait for a forecast. The sites are both easy to navigate and comprehensive. On most, a few mouse clicks will retrieve the five-day forecast for any ZIP code, any city, any state, any nation–complete with smiling sun/frowning raindrop animations. You like satellite photos? The Web lets you download current satellite images of any corner of the earth. (On several sites, you can string together the last few hours of satellite photos into a cloud movie.) Are you big on ground radar? Most sites offer pictures from more than 100 Dopplers. Many will let you monitor earthquake activity, ozone levels, humidity, and flood threats.
All the sites rely on essentially the same package of NWS data, satellite photos, and Doppler images, so they do have a certain laundry-detergent quality: same powder, different box. (This monotony is reminiscent of sports Web sites, which also draw from a single well of data.) So sites strive desperately to build brand identity. Some make four-day forecasts instead of five-day forecasts. Some dispense with jaunty graphics, delivering temperatures in sober gray text. Some niche-market to pilots, sailors, or farmers. CNN and the Weather Channel supply a weather newswire (“Light snow dusts the Dakotas, West is dry”). An illustrated weather encyclopedia accompanies USA Today’s site. And weatherOnline reviews weather media and will soon launch The Adventures of Weatherboy, a cartoon based on the exploits (such as they are) of a real-life teen weather forecaster. The grand prize for gimmickry goes to AccuWeather.com. It devotes an entire Web page to the most important weather in the world: mine. When the password works (which is rarely), I can view “David Plotz’s Personal AccuWeatherTM.” This page has my five-day forecast (well, Washington, D.C.’s), a chart of my current weather conditions (actually National Airport’s); and a radar map centered over my house (Sterling, Va., but who’s counting). It’s exactly the same information available on all the other Web weather sites, but it’s got my name on it.
At this point, I am supposed to pause to pay homage to the miraculous Internet. Web weather, I should say, displays all the medium’s virtues: Efficiency! Convenience! Personalized service! A rich supply–no, a surfeit–of useful information! How extremely useful it is!
T oo useful, actually. Even the best Web weather sites–USA Today, INTELLICAST, The Weather Channel–manage to do what I thought was impossible: They make weather boring. Following weather on the Web is like following baseball by reading scorecards. The weather forecast is more than “rain.” You must also hear the story of the rain. Where is it coming from? Whose fault is it? Canada’s? The Great Lakes’? The Bermuda High’s? What kind of rain is it? When it will arrive? Will the Jet Stream protect us from it? Is it “much-needed” or “unwelcome”? You do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
But the Web dispenses with all that. The cyberforecast is purely mechanical and purely boring. Even the Web’s supposed innovation–individualized forecasts–is depressing. We no longer make common cause against the weather god. Now I have my weather–David Plotz’s Personal AccuWeatherTM–and you have yours.
Fortunately, not all Web weather is such a drag. Commercial sites comprise only a fraction of online meteorology. Just as it has for New Jersey Nets fans and Whitewater conspiracists and foot fetishists, the Web has also given birth to a community of weather fanatics. Granted, theirs is a most peculiar kingdom. It feels almost exactly like a normal place–you can shop, travel, talk, learn, watch movies–except there is only one subject: weather.
Amateur meteorologists, for example, make chitchat at two Usenet newsgroups devoted to general weather (sci.geo.meteorology and uk.sci.weather). True devotees talk shop at even more specialized groups, such as one on Northeastern weather (ne.weather), whose recent conversation topics included the great blizzard of 1978 and the freak snowstorm of May 1977. Weather obsessives shop on the Web. Three–count ‘em–online weather stores, including the WeatherStore, hawk meteorological gizmos. (Favorite gizmo: the weather radio, which is tuned permanently to National Weather Service broadcasts.) You can plan a weather holiday on the Web: At least two outfits, including Cloud 9 Tours, sell “storm-chasing tours” online. (Designed for folks who’ve watched Twister too many times, these “vacations” consist of spending two weeks driving a van around the bleakest parts of the Midwest hunting for tornadoes.) Weather voyeurs can sneak a glance at more than 100 weather cameras filming the skies in other cities. Weather games, weather videos, weather prizes–they have all found their way to the Web. There is even weather identity politics: “Women in Weather” profiles female meteorologists and hosts discussions about topics female and meteorological (“We’re both meteorologists … how will we both get jobs in the same place?”).
It may be the disaster sites that best capture the spirit of the weather Web. Dozens and dozens of sites, such as Eye on the World, celebrate tsunamis, typhoons, hurricanes, droughts, and–of course–tornadoes. Most are illustrated with brutal photos of beached ships, downed trees, and shattered houses. These sites are, I think, the meteorological equivalent of snuff films. They prove that even when all you care about is weather, the Web still has plenty of dirty pictures to show you.