In Ontario, Canada a set of complex dynamics complicates the processes of warning production, communication and interpretation of weather-related hazard information. Meteorologists at Ontario’s Storm Prediction Centre (OSPC; the Ontario branch of the Meteorological Service of Canada [MSC] at Environment Canada [EC]) issue products, such as the Severe Thunderstorm Warning and the Special Weather Statement, based on the anticipation of ‘severe’ and ‘non-severe’ weather conditions that could be of miniscule atmospheric and societal difference, occurring within their jurisdiction at some point in the future. The choice for which product to choose as well as the inclusion of specific words and phrases by meteorologists in these particular text-based products is governed by institutional rules, yet also influenced by differing degrees of individual agency and consensus-based decision-making. Once issued, the OSPC products are then transmitted to a number of partners, including media, who make their own interpretations and decisions to re-communicate the message to their audiences. In Ontario, all media are mandated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to broadcast OSPC’s official warning notifications for ‘severe’ weather, but the same is not required for OSPC statements related to ‘non-severe’ conditions. Residents, the end-user and presumably the most uninformed, therefore have any number of options regarding platforms to access warning information and from whom, which has implications for what information is shared and ultimately what responses are made. In this grand game of ‘telephone’ whereby the original points of meteorological and societal importance have the ability to change or become lost altogether, it is critical to ask: to what extent is OSPC weather information being understood and re-communicated as intended? And what are the specific complications and unintended consequences of linguistic choice and sense-making on the production, communication and response to two OSPC products: the Severe Thunderstorm Warning and the Special Weather Statement?
While part of a broader doctoral project in sociocultural anthropology centred on the interpretation, communication and response to weather and flood information in Toronto, Ontario, this paper addresses the particular questions raised above. Using anthropological methods of inquiry, data was collected through participant observation and semi-structured interviews with meteorologists, media groups, institutional users and residents in Toronto, Ontario, Canada from May 2015 to August 2016 where each participant was presented with either one or both OSPC products and was asked to note words that capture their attention as well as provide definitions for various terms and phrases found within each text. Qualitative analysis shows perceptual differences along the continuum of expert to lay-person between: important and unimportant words in the Severe Thunderstorm Warning, what is meant by Special Weather Statement and what type of weather it signifies, the various terminology found within these OSPC products such as ‘is possible’, ‘low pressure system’, or ‘afternoon’, as well as conceptual differences between ‘severe’ and ‘non-severe’ thunderstorms. The results highlight areas of linguistic disconnect among and between groups and demonstrate the potential influence of this on notions of risk and decision-making behavior. A strong case is made here for the value of social science research in generating a deeper understanding for how a myriad of groups in Toronto utilize OSPC products. In addition, the research and results generated here are useful because they provide to MSC, and perhaps to other groups within and beyond Canada’s borders responsible for producing meteorological information, user-informed clues for enhancing the production, communication and utility of weather information.