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America: Winter Wuss

America: Winter Wuss

Features
By John Fry
posted: 11/15/2001

Up here where I live in the hilly, water-rich reservoir country just north of the world's media capital, the terrifying warnings of an approaching snowfall begin early. Solemn forecasters often commence their chant of impending doom two, three, sometimes four days ahead of time. WINTER STORM ADVISORY! SNOW ACCUMULATIONS OF 4 TO 8 INCHES!

As the apocalypse nears the city, radio and TV weathermen, whose annual bonuses are tied to audience size, issue dire warnings designed to send Nielsen ratings soaring. Forecasters furrow their brows and speak ominously of dangerous wind-chill factors. Children and older folks should not venture outside. Viewers should stock up on tinned food, water, flashlight batteries.

As a few flakes begin to drift lazily down on my home, schools frantically announce closings. Car owners¿some of whom have bought four-wheel, front-wheel and slip-differential drives for such an occasion¿are advised to stay off the roads. Town trucks attack snow that lies an inch deep on the asphalt, spreading salt on roads that wind through ecologically vulnerable watershed.

Within a few hours, a modest 4 inches of beautiful, sparkling snow covers the ground. Tree branches bend gracefully under their white burden. The blanket of snow muffles sounds. But not for long. The trucks continue to plow our little trafficked dead-end lane, despite the excellent traction that snow offers tires. More corrosive salt is spread. Radio and TV broadcasters recruit on-air physicians to warn us of the danger of heart attack from shoveling, while they search for the deepest drift to compute snowfall depth.

The most famous recent major storm where I live was one that didn't arrive. One weekend last March, weather forecasters predicted a snow tempest so monstrous that schools and businesses, in anticipation of its Monday arrival, shut down in the New York metropolitan area. Hundreds of flights¿domestic and international¿were canceled. When the storm didn't happen, journalists blamed errant meteorologists for tens of millions of dollars in financial losses.

We've become a nation of winter wusses. School snow-closings have become so frequent that children in America have been educated to think of winter as a threat to their personal safety and to the nation's welfare. Fewer parents bundle their children so they can go outdoors to play red-cheeked in the cold. More parents¿urbanized in thought, increasingly alienated from nature¿keep Johnny indoors lest he suffer frostbite in temperatures that would have caused the Arctic explorer Nansen to strip to the waist.

Parents once reasoned that children like myself should learn to ski. My mother, who had an intuitive knowledge of what was good for my health, believed it to be so. She could be overheard announcing to her friends, "Isn't it wonderful that John is outside so much in winter?" as she gazed proudly at cheeks whipped to a ruby color by wind and temperatures described as a minus 40 degree wind chill by frantic forecasters. They don't make mothers like mine anymore. The modern mom is the flickering light of the tube, on whose surface we observe TV anchors engaged in entertainment rather than the accurate provision of facts.

Here, clearly, is a trend that bothers the hell out of those of us who care about the future of skiing. If children are raised to believe that every picayune snowstorm is a reason to bring social and business intercourse to a halt, when are they ever to learn the joy of skimming through a pristine forest heavy with new snow? To enjoy air so crisp and cold that the snow squeaks underfoot?

Ski racing, by the way, does the sport a disservice by making an enemy of snow. No major race is held today until all the snow has been scraped off the course and, if there's too much snow that can't be cleared in time, the race is canceled. Excuse me, but isn't racing supposed to be a test of how well the skier can negotiate on somethiing called" snow"?

Tournament golfers and football players rarely cancel games because of weather. Sailors don't retreat from swelling seas. But modern World Cup racers will go on strike at the starting gate if a flake of snow tarnishes the hockey-rink surface for which they've prepared their skis! No wonder ski journalists have so little to write about, since every giant slalom and super G appears the same.

Snow used to be something we welcomed in profusion in the mountains. But matters have reached such a sorry state that when broadcasters advertise the likelihood of a heavy fall of snow in California's Sierra, tens of thousands of er, um, I hesitate to call them skiers, stay at home in L.A. and San Francisco.

But there's a glimmer of hope. Beginning this winter, announcers may have less reason to scare us with wind-chill factors. Wind chill is an index claiming to measure discomfort by taking into account the temperature of the air and its velocity. For the past half-century, it has been based on a formula devised in Antarctica by scientists, who in 1945 hung a can of water on a pole and measured how long it took to chill. The Weather Service has finally dropped this archaic formula. For example, when your thermometer shows it's 10 degrees outside and the wind is blowing at 20 mph, the old index said you were going to feel like it was a bitterly cold minus 24 degrees. Now it's only minus 5.

Still, no way in hell most people are going to head outdoors at minus 5, right? Wrong. As any alpine or cross-country skier knows, if you descend into a glade or a tree-sheltered trail, guess what? It feels like it's only 10 degrees because there's no wind! This is a fairly simple proposition of nature that doesn't get through to the mechanistic meteorologists inside the windowless walls of TV stations.

There's more hope. In Television Weathercasting, Robert Henson cites a finding that only half of viewers retained any memory of the next day's forecast. If that trend continues, viewers will one day recall nothing. On that morning, I am happy to believe, the family will all pile into the car and go skiing.

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