On 13 September 2012, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) sent out an international announcement in conjunction with the online release of a BAMS article by El Fadli and colleagues concerning an investigation into the validity of a global weather extreme. That extreme involved the 90-year-old record of the “world's highest recorded temperature” of 58°C at El Azizia, Libya. The WMO evaluation committee determined that the Libyan 1922 temperature extreme was invalid due to a variety of reasons, including type of instrumentation used and inexperience of the temporary observer at that time.
The initial international press announcement was made in Geneva, Switzerland, coincident with announcements at a London scientific conference, from the AMS in Boston, and from the Weather Channel/Weather Underground (wunderground.com). The news release was quickly picked up and disseminated around the world. Within 24 hours, more than 250 media sites, including United Press International, Associated Press, The Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, Los Angeles Times, Daily Mail, The Guardian, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, Discovery News, The Huffington Post, FRANCE 24, The Sydney Morning Herald, Tripoli Post, and The Daily Telegraph, among others, produced stories. Coincident with the release, the official results of that investigation and the awarding of the new “world's hottest temperature” extreme (134°F/56.8°C, recorded on 10 July 1913) to Death Valley, California, were posted on the WMO official website, the Archive of Weather and Climate Extremes (http://wmo.asu.edu).
Detailed analytics for web traffic to the WMO Extremes website reveals interesting geographic and virtual variations in the diffusion of the news story. These variations follow from geographic diffusion theory, which considers the spread of ideas and information from one person or location to another. Our case study of information diffusion addresses a set of fundamental questions involving how a major environmental news story (i.e., the evaluation of the world's “hottest” temperature) is disseminated across the world. Specifically, given the international nature of the story, are there specific regions of the world where viewers took a more active interest in the news story by additionally visiting the source website? How much of a role do social media play in the spread of a scientific news story? How much of an impact did the announcement have in directing traffic above the norm to the website? These questions are becoming more critical to atmospheric scientists as major discoveries in the fields of meteorology and climatology receive more attention and are spread through a variety of news and social/informational media.
Following the press announcement on 13 September 2012, the WMO Extremes website traffic jumped from averaging 150 hits per day prior to the release to more than 24,000 hits over a three-day period (Fig. 1, top). The news story generated intense but relatively short-lived interest, with traffic returning to slightly above preannouncement levels within a few days. A secondary peak occurred four months later after the New York Times wrote a follow-up story on the announcement, highlighting the importance of some specific media outlets (Fig. 1, bottom) to information dissemination. The fundamental conclusion might be that, in today's digital media world, the degree of interest is likely also linked to news cycles. With regard to the WMO press announcement, the murder in Libya of the American ambassador a few days prior likely played a role in the magnitude of public interest.
In terms of web traffic, somewhat surprisingly, citizens of Italy comprised the most hits to the site (with the United States, Netherlands, and Brazil being the next three, respectively). The high number of Italian hits may be the result of that country's historic linkages to Libya and to a major Italian news media source highlighting the story (Fig. 2). A key feature to the global interest in the WMO story was likely its release in six languages (English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic), thereby enhancing opportunities for people of different languages to receive specific details on the WMO evaluation without the filter of secondary translation. Consequently, we have added, for example, intuitive weather extremes symbols to the WMO extremes website (http://wmo.asu.edu/maps/symbol_key.html) that are independent (as much as possible) of any one specific language (e.g., symbols for hottest/coldest temperature extreme locations).
A significant number of site visits to the WMO Extremes Archive originated from other social media sites (Fig. 3). In the past, these media, such as Facebook, Google, and Bing, have not been greatly considered by scientists when preparing or making important press announcements of scientific findings. We learned, for instance, that the Wikipedia site was updated literally seconds after the announcement was made, and that update—including explicit links to the WMO Extremes website—directly resulted in a number of site visits. At first blush, some might be a bit surprised at the robust response in popular social media to scientific findings. Yet meteorological events—and particularly extremes (e.g., the BAMS article on 2011 extreme events by Peterson and colleagues as the most-read AMS article of 2012)—can garner considerable attention across wide geographies and outlets.
Through analytics of the traffic to the WMO Extremes website, we discovered that while many visitors stayed on the site for less than a minute, some visitors remained for extended visits—as long as 10 minutes. Consequently, we realize that we (and potentially other researchers) should give thought to not only our specific press releases but to overall website content. For example, to accommodate those visitors who partake of only a quick visit to the WMO extremes website, we now have employed simple graphics and maps to help summarize press release content (such as the GIS Google-like map analysis of our extremes data).
In today's digital, media-saturated world, important atmospheric research is being channeled through informational avenues that many scientists previously neglected. While this case study of web traffic in the wake of the WMO announcement of the geographic shift in hottest recorded temperature is undoubtedly unique, this work demonstrates a now-fundamental aspect of meteorological science: there now exists an important and complex linkage of our work to international news and social/informational media. This characteristic of modern atmospheric science consequently underscores the need for atmospheric scientists to be more aware of the impact of geographical and virtual dissemination of their climactic-meteorological information and events.
The authors sincerely thank the WMO evaluation team (K. El Fadli, C. Burt, P. Eden, D. Parker, M. Brunet, T. C. Peterson, G. Mordacchini, V. Pelino, P. Bessemoulin, J. LuisStella, F. Driouech, and M. M. Abdel-Wahab) for their work on the original evaluation, and members, particularly graduate and undergraduate students, of the Arizona State University School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning for their contributions to the design and maintenance of the WMO Archive of Weather and Climate Extremes.