In the hours leading up to Superstorm Sandy careening into the Jersey Shore last fall, Maria got an unexpected call from her dad.
“Is it really going to be that bad?” Maria remembers her dad asking from the seemingly secure comfort of his home on the shore, as the sky darkened outside and the wind started gathering strength. “They say it’s gonna be bad.”
“Yes, dad,” Maria told her easy-going father. “It really is going to be that bad.”
“So what, I should evacuate or something?” he asked incredulously.
“Um, yes, you need to get out,” said Maria. “If you won’t do it for your own safety then please do it for me. Don’t make me the Weather Channel lady whose dad had to be rescued off of the roof of his flooded home.”
Thankfully, the fear of embarrassing his daughter, possibly on national television, finally persuaded Maria LaRosa’s dad to seek higher ground before the storm surge slammed into the deserted boardwalks and beach homes of the Jersey coast.
But the experience has stuck with LaRosa, who hosts Weekend Now on the Weather Channel.
“My own dad didn’t believe me,” said LaRosa. “Ninety percent of the people I know and love were in the path of that storm and everyone was texting me, ‘What’s really going to happen? No, really.’ It was like neither my relationship with them or my professional expertise was enough to convince them that it could get that bad.”
At her job on the Weather Channel, one of the few places where hurricanes and droughts actually make for good business, LaRosa is part of a team of broadcast meteorologists who are trying to help people understand extreme weather and how the likelihood that it will strike close to home is changing as the planet warms.
The Weather Channel hasn’t always prioritized climate change coverage, and in recent years has become somewhat notorious for extreme weather reality TV shows, but now under the guidance of CEO Dave Kenney, there has been a resurgence of serious reporting about the big picture when it comes to our warming world.
“We insert climate into every weather story,” said Kenney. “We’re scientific journalists. We start with science and try to tell scientifically based stories. It’s not a political point of view.”
Historically, broadcast meteorologists have unfortunately been among some of the most reticent to speak out about climate change. Famously, a 2010 survey by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that twenty-five percent of the 751 television weathercasters asked said they were unconvinced that the climate was changing and another twenty percent said they were undecided. Overall, fewer than a third believed that the primary cause of the warming was human activity. One quarter of those surveyed said they agreed with the statement “global warming is a scam.”
But times are changing. In June, the Weather Channel was the only cable network to broadcast President Obama’s 49 minute climate action speech in its entirety and continue the conversation afterwards with analysis and commentary. In contrast, MSNBC devoted a whopping 41 seconds to the landmark announcement.
Dr. Heidi Cullen, who for five years hosted a weekly hour-long show on the Weather Channel dedicated to climate change coverage before helping to start Climate Central in 2008, is optimistic that the Weather Channel and local broadcast meteorologists around the country are starting to really address the issue of climate change as only they are uniquely positioned to do.
“I think there has been a tremendous shift in the last few years towards incorporating climate change into weather coverage,” said Dr. Cullen, who became the center of a heated debate back in 2006 when she suggested that meteorologists who lacked a basic understanding of climate science should not be certified by the American Meteorological Society. “And that’s critical, because at the local level, meteorologists are the station scientists. If you’re not hearing about climate change on the local level, you’re not going to feel like it is an issue that affects you here and now. It’s all going to be about Bangladesh in a couple decades.”
“There is an awareness of weather and climate that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before,” said LaRosa. “And that makes climate change an easier topic to broach. Everyone is sharing weather via Twitter and Instagram. Droughts, floods and wildfires are showing up on our Facebook feeds. But it’s still an uphill battle having this conversation. Even on the Jersey Shore, people are now saying it won’t ever get that bad again, when we know it could.”
For LaRosa, it is all about helping her viewers make sense of what is going on not only in their hometown, but around the world.
“I feel like it’s my job to help people put it all together,” said LaRosa. “It’s not just Poland had a harsh winter, but Alaska has been really warm and Greenland is melting but ice on the South Pole is growing. It’s everything connected, everything that has been going on for the last week, month, year, decade.”
Even for those broadcast journalists who are dedicated to explaining the climate story, it can be hard when most only get about three minutes of air time, far less on average then say, the sportscaster.
But Dr. Cullen says there are quick and yet powerful ways to tell the story.
“If you’re in the middle of a heat wave, make the simple, scientifically-grounded statement, ‘And you think this is bad? We can expect to see more intense and more frequent heat waves as we move into the future if we do not reduce our emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses,’” said Dr. Cullen “It doesn’t take that much time to help an audience connect the dots as to what the larger climate context is of their weather. Not doing this is like giving numbers on what happened on the stock market today without any reference to the economic landscape.”
Fortunately, it’s not just the broadcasters at the Weather Channel rolling up their sleeves and jumping into the fray. Tammie Souza, a meteorologist with a local FOX-affiliate in Chicago, has been deliberately addressing climate change on her broadcast. When carbon dioxide in the atmosphere crossed the 400 ppm threshold earlier this year, Souza dedicated air time to explaining to her viewers what that did and didn’t mean.
Mike Nelson from 7News in Denver, Colorado and Danny Satterfield with CBS-affiliate WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland have also been diligent climate educators as they tell people not just what to expect in the coming week but coming months and years.
“For the most part, the bread and butter of what I do is still the now-casting,” said LaRosa. “What’s going on right now. At the same time, however, on Memorial Day weekend, people want to know what the summer is going to look like and that kind of three month outlook, that’s made possible thanks to climate modeling. And when a big storm hits where it never struck before and everyone is asking why — well that’s climate, too, and people need to know.”
Andrew Breiner contributed the graphics for this piece.