I have heard the warnings associated with fog in Winnipeg nearly every year that I have lived in the city. Over that more than twenty year period, the normal weather is usually reported fairly accurately. The weather here in the centre of the continent is relatively stable, four days of sun followed by four days of cloud and one day of precipitation, so it’s not much of a challenge to foretell. A farmer with a weather eye to the sky could do it by watching the birds, although fog is an exception to the rule about accurate reporting.
Perhaps because Winnipeg is so far from the coast that the locals have never experienced real fog, they become hysterical when the normally crystal clarity of their skies is threatened. I have driven in fog so dense in eastern Canada that I had to navigate by the fuzzy yellow line outside the driver’s door window. I could see nothing ahead of me at all, and only a metre to one side, so I only hoped that creeping along at ten or fifteen kilometres per hour, I wouldn’t run afoul of someone driving too fast in the opposite direction.
When we have a fog day in Winnipeg, they describe the visibility in terms of distance. Today, for instance, CBC weather claimed that our visibility is reduced to less than a kilometre. Having grown up in foggy conditions where such a measurement would be made in metres, I went immediately to wondering how far into the distance was necessary for most of our daily functions. I can understand that even a light fog might affect the airport, but how could it have anything to do with driving? In many cities in the country—and this is even more true in other parts of the world—buildings and landforms prevent a view of any more than thirty or forty metres, let alone a hundred metres. What could be happening a kilometre away that would so disconcert a Winnipeg driver that they might be more prone to having an accident? Even if their stopping power were greatly reduced, a kilometre is a long time to apply poor brakes on a slippery road.
If our driving test included such measures for the prospective driver’s eyesight, they would need to reject thousands, for not everyone can see that clearly thirty metres away let alone a hundred. There simply is nothing that far away for even a speeding Winnipeg driver to run into if they are paying attention, therefore the system doesn’t concern itself with such minor vision problems. If so, they would need to pay much more attention to lighting the city at night, for certainly visibility is below a kilometre then. Imagine the weather report: “It’s getting dark out there, and night is coming. Be careful, for visibility will be reduced to—for dark objects—less than a metre.” Mercifully, the weather report is not interested in telling that particular story, which makes the discerning viewer wonder if they care about visibility or if there was something more at play than a legitimate concern about how far Winnipeg drivers can see the accident they are hurtling toward.
I think there are three reasons: unfamiliarity with fog, a failure in logic, and the urge to boost ratings or click-throughs. The anchorpeople making such proclamations have likely never experienced nearly daily heavy fog, such as we see in the coastal cities in Canada, and therefore such an instance here is unusual enough they feel a need to report on it. They are not quite sure what elements are terrifying, so they pick the only thing that fog can affect, visibility, and make that the basis of their report. Likely they have never tried to follow through on the logic of their statement, such as imagining what could happen if a driver’s visibility were suddenly lowered to less than a kilometre away. the mayhem they evoke by their warnings, are not borne out due partly to their lack of understanding of fog, and partly because even if they drove to work, they didn’t notice that such visibility is negligible unless you are flying a plane.
The last concern is one that we see nearly every week in weather reports right across the country. Perhaps this is a result of a twenty-four hour news cycle for the weather channel, but weather now has to compete with programming which is much easier to vary, such as situation comedies and reality television. The only option left for the weather channels in order to widen their readership beyond the older men who are as drawn to their proclamations as a ghoul to a tomb, is to make every storm the end of days, and use wild weather from other parts of the world to plump up the rather boring local forecast. They have branched out into video sent in by viewers of moose in the yard, earthquakes and volcanos, but generally they are circumscribed by weather-related events. If there is local flooding we can count on their coverage as well as the increasingly common “Storm of the Century” warnings. Every rain storm is a downpour, a light dusting of snow proclaimed to be a blizzard with whiteout conditions, a sunny day will burn us with ultraviolet, cold with freeze our extremities, and even a distant mist came become horror-movie terrifying.
The weather channel needs this fearmongering to keep up their viewership, and we seemingly need the frisson of fear in order to take their forecasts seriously, but it is worth wondering about their representation of fog and how little they care about our poor visibility at night. To make up for their glaring omission, I would like to proclaim, “It’s going to be dark tonight, and every other night following. Be careful out there.”