March 3, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making weather personal

Wetterhäuschen_p_15I was idly reading The Observer on Sunday (2 March, 2014), when I happened to glance at an article about the Scottish island of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. I read: “The past few months, too, have shown how vulnerable an island community is when the weather becomes truculent”. Truculent I thought; that’s a new one.

This made me think about other recent personifications of weather, as being ‘on steroids’ for example, and I asked myself: is (extreme) weather becoming personified in new ways? And does some weather even begin to personify climate change? (as Len Rosen asked in 2012: Is Hurricane Sandy Climate Change Personified?)

Or would that be going too far? Would people say that making such a claim would be “utterly the stupidest, most self-centered, appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification in this or any other plane!” (Death berating Dream in The Sandman)?

Weather metaphors

There is nothing new about using weather terms to characterise humans and projecting human characteristics onto weather. Weather and humans shape each other in reality and in the imagination. On the one hand, one can say things like “He has a sunny disposition”, “She is a fair-weather friend”, “His lightning reflexes saved her life”, “He gave her an icy look, “They have a stormy relationship”, and so on…. On the other hand, one can say things like “the sky looks angry’, “the wind howled”, “the frost bites”, “the sun scorches the earth” and so on….  Indeed, literature and culture would be much the poorer without the use of metaphors derived from weather and in particular the use of ‘personification’, that is, the attribution of human qualities (such as emotion) and actions to non-human objects or ideas. To give only one example, a poem by Emily Dickinson which is used to teach children about personification:

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 15.55.20

There is even a special “literary term for the attributing of human emotion and conduct to all aspects within nature”, namely ‘pathetic fallacy’ (see Wikipedia). “It is a kind of personification that is found in poetic writing when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, when dogs laugh, or when rocks seem indifferent”.

Would one be accused of ‘pathetic fallacy’ if one were to say that the recent winter floods in the UK were nature’s revenge for human greed? Probably… and more.

Extreme weather metaphors

Weather and humans mutually shape each other through language, and this has always been the case. This is normal. The question I ask myself is the following: Is there anything different going on at present? Are we seeing weather and our relationship with weather (and climate) in different ways and expressing this through the use of novel metaphors?

There seem to be a few metaphors around that frame recent severe or extreme weather events as, in one sense or another, not quite ‘normal’, as disorderly or ill. These are metaphors like weather being on steroids, being drunk, bipolar and so on. (But are these really new or has extreme weather always attracted special metaphors? Perhaps people within the historical weather extremes project here at the University of Nottingham know more about this…)

The biopolar metaphor was used extensively in the context of recent weather patterns in the United States (accompanied by colourful images), with some states experiencing extremely warm weather and others extremely cold weather. However, this is a metaphor that is also used more commonly to refer to very variable weather (and it is also contested).

In this recent ‘bipolar’ weather context, the ‘Arctic’, or Arctic weather, was called ‘drunk’ and told to ‘go home’. Interestingly, the colour purple was used in this context of misbehaving weather. The same colour had also been used during the Australian heatwave.

In the context of the recent winter floods in the UK the weather has, of course, also been framed metaphorically as hostile and as an enemy, which is perfectly understandable when it ‘invades’ or ‘attacks’ your home. We have always moaned about the weather, but recently the moaning has become perhaps more than idle gossip.

Weather on steroids*

The ‘weather on steroids’ metaphor is probably the most widely used one at present to refer to extreme weather, and was quite prominent during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The ‘steroids’ in question are greenhouse gases. When one puts the phrase into Google, one gets 44,000 results (2 March 2014). There is also a whole website devoted to studying this new phenomenon in the context of the hotly debated topic of weather-climate-change-attribution.

If you want, you can watch a little animated film about this topic, made by AtmosNews. Weather is personified by a baseball player on steroids and climate change is compared to a doping scandal. The question asked implicitly or explicitly is whether ‘weather on steroids’ is becoming ‘the new normal’.

The steroids metaphor seems to be becoming a popular way of trying to explain the link between climate change and extreme weather. In terms of making something unfamiliar familiar it’s doing a good job, especially in a context where (real) weather seems to be making climate more personal anyway. Is extreme weather turning climate change from an un-situated into a situated risk? (Or, some may ask: is extreme weather being used to turn climate change from an un-situated into a situated risk?). We’ll have to see.

In the meantime it might be good to keep an eye on emerging weather metaphors as indicators of changes in public, media and policy perceptions of weather and climate and the way they interact. Are there other weather-climate metaphors and personifications out there? Are there counter-metaphors? I would love to know.

Image: Wetterhäuschen, Wikimedia Commons

This post is also linked to our ESRC project on climate change which tries to study long-term fluctuations in climate change debates

*Added 22 August, 2014: See here for a recent use of this metaphor!








Posted in Climate ChangeMetaphorsScience Communication