That storm Friday — 100 kph wind? or 36 kph?

On Thursday morning, Environment Canada issued a wind warning for six counties in eastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. The only wind speed mentioned in the warning is “Northerly winds up to 100 kph,”  which would be a serious windstorm, except that it is actually the “maximum wind gust” expected.

So sometime Friday, somewhere in the forecast area, a gust could approach “up to” 100 kph. A prudent resident of the red zone might wonder what actual sustained winds forecasters expect? The alert doesn’t say.

For the answer, we can turn to Norway’s excellent weather app (Android, iTunes, web browser) and learn that sustained wind speeds at Baddeck will peak at 36 kph Friday morning, and stay near that level most of the day.

A 36 kph wind is breezy, but nothing out of the ordinary in Cape Breton — certainly nothing warranting a shrill alert on a fiery red map. “Expect a windy day Friday,” would have sufficed.

This is one of the many ways Environment Canada exaggerates expected weather: by substituting “up to” maximum wind gusts for expected sustained winds (along with wind chill and humidex in place of real temperatures).

In the case of Friday’s storm, the headline number is three times the actual wind expected. That goes beyond exaggeration into outright misrepresentation.

Environment Canada does this routinely. It issues an array of escalating alerts, advisories, watches, warnings, and special weather statements about 23 distinct weather threats: arctic outflows, blizzards, blowing snow, dust storms, extreme cold, flash freeze, fog, freezing drizzle, freezing rain, frost, heat, hurricanes, rainfall, severe thunderstorms, snowfall, snow squalls, storm surges, tornadoes, tropical storms, tsunamis, weather, wind, and winter storms.

Some of these phenomena — hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis — obviously merit warnings. But fog, rainfall, freezing drizzle, snowfall? That’s what normal forecasts are for. No need to gin up a scary red alert. When you warn about everything, you may as well warn about nothing. EC forces discerning consumers to parse its dire warnings, and try to figure out whether they’re real or not. Either that, or they can skip Environment Canada altogether and go directly to NO.YR.

Environment Canada’s chronic exaggeration of ordinary weather dates from its failure to forecast Hurricane Juan, which devastated Nova Scotia in 2003 with little warning. Its misbegotten alerts are the first step in the chain of over-cautious decision making that has led to Nova Scotia’s dispiriting record of closing schools and government offices at the first hint of less-than-perfect weather. It’s a weather disservice that warps the public’s perception of risk, teaches schoolchildren defeatism, and costs the economy tens of millions every year.

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