The Abstract Truth

Smoke City

Posted by rbpasker on August 9, 2007

In Fog gets in your eyes, Roger Shuy writes:

Fog, 83 degrees, winds west at 13 mph, humidity 16%.

Fog? When I looked outside, for the life of me I couldn’t see any fog. That black stuff in the air is smoke from the huge forest fires about 30 miles from here, dangerously close to Language Logger Sally Thomason’s summer cabin home… The reporter’s choice of “fog” to report “smoke” made me wonder about the inventor of weather reporting terms.

The reporting terms for weather are highly stylized and transmitted in a cryptic meteorological report called a METAR
These are METAR visibility definitions

b. Fog. A visible aggregate of minute water particles (droplets) which are based at the Earth’s surface and reduces horizontal visibility to less than 5/8 statute mile and, unlike drizzle, it does not fall to the ground.

c. Smoke. A suspension in the air of small particles produced by combustion. A transition to haze may occur when smoke particles have traveled great distances (25 to 100 miles or more) and when the larger particles have settled out and the remaining particles have become widely scattered through the atmosphere.

If the weather observation was made by an unmanned station, then the station may not have had the ability to differentiate between smoke and fog. Or the observation was made by a person, who was trying to communicate to the reader that the visibility was “less than 5/8 of a mile,” a condition is particularly important to pilots. Smoke , on the other hand, doesn’t specifically imply any loss of visibility. 

In either, case, the repertoire of terms available to the meteorologist is quite broad, but they are also meteorology terms of art, and not English.

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