COLUMN: Geoff Oldfather: Understanding hurricane jargon can make your stomach churn

Jul 8, 2008

Treasure-Coast Palm--July 7, 2008

By Geoff Oldfather

The weather babblers are positively gleeful now that they have a hurricane to get all breathless about.

With Hurricane Bertha — the first hurricane of the ’08 season — on its way, let’s review some phrases we only hear this time of year.

Words like “churn” and “churning” and “Bermuda High,” which is not the same as Jamaican Red, for all you transplants from Loma Linda.

For some strange reason, once hurricanes form, they start to “churn,” a word with roots in Old English for a container used to make butter.

“Hurricane Bertha is now churning in the open Atlantic,” the Weather Channel burbler said this morning.

Forecasters will use “churning” to describe what the hurricane is doing until they know where it’s headed and then “churn” will be dropped.

“Hurricane Bertha is taking aim for Bermuda,” the forecasters will say.

Hurricanes don’t churn once they pick a target. Churning apparently denotes harmless activity far out in the open Atlantic but once a hurricane crosses that line and actually heads toward landfall it’s no longer churning, it’s “bearing down.”

In a couple of days look for the forecasters to say Hurricane Bertha is “bearing down” on Bermuda (or Stuart or Sebastian or Jacksonville).

Once a hurricane is “bearing down” on you, fuggetaboudit, as my father-in-law Big Joe Kowalski likes to say.

He’s a retired New York City police detective and he says things like “fuggetaboudit” all the time. He’s never said “churn.”

The “Bermuda High” can keep hurricanes from “bearing down” on us.

It’s a mysterious high-pressure system controlled by UFOs that bounce around in the general area of Bermuda.

If the Bermuda High moves north, hurricanes curve north, churning away unless they start “bearing down” on Bermuda.

If the Bermuda High pushes south, hurricanes tend to move west, churning away until they get close to the Lesser Antilles or the Bahamas at which time they’ll start “bearing down” again.

That’s when the weather anchors start burping over the phrase “cone of probability,” or the interchangeable “zone of probability.”

The boundaries of this mysterious cone or zone can change depending on the Bermuda High or other things like “shear.”

If they tell us we’re in the “cone” or “zone” and a hurricane is “bearing down,” we’ll start hearing the phrase “hunker down.”

That means it’s time to stock up on adult beverages.

If all of this doesn’t help you understand what we’re up against now that we have our first hurricane, just remember the only phrase that makes any sense this time of year, courtesy of Big Joe Kowalski.