Shutterstock

Weather Forecasters Used To Be Among The Country’s Staunchest Climate Deniers. Why That’s Changing Fast.

Keah Schuenemann, a meteorology professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, has never met an atmospheric or climate scientist who doesn’t agree that most of the planet’s warming over the last century is a result of human activity. Weather forecasters though, whom she deals with regularly, are a different story. Schuenemann, who has a PhD in atmospheric and oceanic science from the University of Colorado, Boulder, said she’s been exposed to a “whole slew of forecasters who don’t understand climate science.”

This experience has even influenced her approach to teaching.

“My students can vouch for the fact that I boycott some meteorology software created by some very vocal weather folks who use their weather platform as a means of influencing people with no climate background into thinking the ‘cool kids’ don’t accept the IPCC conclusions,” she told ThinkProgress.

While this type of anti-science affront really bothers Schuenemann, overall she believes meteorology academic programs “are slowly integrating more climate literacy in their curricula.”

But that’s come “about ten years too late in my opinion,” she added.

Training to be a weather forecaster is completely different than studying to be a climate scientist. For years this divergence in knowledge has left weathercasters with a bad rap when it comes to incorporating climate change into their coverage. While fault for this has been placed on political and religious ideologies as well as audience interests, a prevailing element has been a lack of adequate climate knowledge.

However with more forecasters taking an interest in educational materials like the National Climate Assessment and enrolling in programs like Climate Matters, a Climate Central program affiliated with NASA and NOAA that helps forecasters perform local climate analyses, there is a sea change underway in how weather forecasters report the climate.

For most of us, there’s weather and there’s climate. The weather is something we check multiple times a day through a variety of means: TV, phone, computer, walking outside. It dictates our immediate plans and holds sway over our mood. We praise the forecasters when they bring us news of blue skies and warm temperatures, and curse them when they are wrong.

Then there’s climate: it’s changing but we don’t think about it every day. Maybe we drive less or stop eating meat to do our part in slowing greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe in the dog days of summer we lament the way humanity is destroying the earth, or how capitalism has led us awry. Maybe we invest in solar panels, both for environmental and economic reasons.

While climate change is filtering its way into discussions across many industries — economics, insurance, energy, textiles, public relations — rarely is its impact as inherent, and unavoidable, as in the business of forecasting the weather. Meteorologists are not climate scientists, but they are the de facto group charged with imbuing the general public with a sense of the differences between weather and climate, and how the high-in-the-sky notion of climate change plays into our daily obsession with the weather.

For better or worse, forecasters are the vanguard of educating the masses on this issue — and an educated public could go a long way in redirecting the domestic debate and galvanizing action to actually address climate change. Until now they’ve shirked this role. Either out of indecision, external pressures, or a lack of interest, weather forecasters — the public-facing figures who hold their audience’s trust as well as their attention — are yet to take the lead in forecasting climate change.

A recent survey added to the anecdotal evidence that this shift is underway by finding that more than 9 in 10 TV weathercasters have concluded that climate change is happening. Of these, nearly 9 in 10 think human activity is at least partly responsible over the past 50 years. The survey, conducted by the George Mason University (GMU) Center for Climate Change Communication on 464 broadcast meteorologists, represented a significant increase from a similar 2010 survey, when 54 percent of weathercasters nationwide were convinced that the climate was changing, 25 percent were unconvinced, and 20 percent were undecided — and, of those, only about 65 percent felt human activity was at least half to blame.

In the 2010 survey, the authors wrote that “it is now clear that most weathercasters significantly underestimate the degree of consensus about anthropogenic climate change among climate scientists.”

Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, told ThinkProgress that the important thing about the new data is that it “makes clear that most TV weathercasters understand that climate change is altering the weather and other important things in their community, like water supplies and food crops.“

Maibach, who was lead author of the report, declined to comment directly on how much beliefs about climate change in the weathercaster community have changed recently as “all of the surveys have asked slightly different questions.” However, based on conversations he had, Maibach said his impression is that “more weathercasters are now more conversant with the facts than in the past.”

“Warning people about slow onset threats like climate change is obviously very different than warning people about rapid onset threats like tornadoes or other extreme weather events,” he said. “Lots of weathercasters understand that this is a new skill they will have to master, and many are already diving in and getting quite good at it.”

2.1.1.jpg

CREDIT: George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication

Dan Satterfield, chief meteorologist at WBOC in Maryland, told ThinkProgress that he was shocked more by the amount of climate skepticism in the 2010 survey than by the rapid fall of skepticism displayed in the recent analysis.

“It’s been the talk of the last two or three weather conferences,” he said. “How and when to bring up climate change.” Satterfield said he realized that a lot of forecasters just hadn’t put in the time to learn about the climate science, but “that’s all gone now.”

Satterfield, who has worked as a meteorologist for several decades in various regions of the U.S. including Oklahoma and Florida, said that this shift has a lot to do with educating TV broadcasters — many of whom don’t have much of a hard science background — on the science of climate change. Not only does this help dispel the climate denial “myths” around the science, but it helps the broadcasters better incorporate the new information into their coverage. Satterfield said that while he imagines there are still forecasters in the Deep South and Midwest that are hesitant to air segments dealing with climate change, “they shouldn’t be.”

“I found I get lots of respect from the audience if I say I don’t care about politics,” said Satterfield. “My job is to give you accurate science. I never get into the political side.”

In a blog post about the new survey, Satterfield details some of the “ridiculous pronouncements about climate change” from TV weathercasters that he’s heard over the years, including “statements blaming the sun, volcanoes, or even claiming that CO2 was good for you.” These assertions “looked to be taken directly from right-wing talk radio,” he wrote.

Satterfield said that the weathercasters who made these outlandish statements “never took the time to search out what the real science showed” and that many of the remaining deniers are simply those who are yet to be adequately educated on the subject.

One recent extreme example of this lack of education — or lack of will to become educated — on the issue of climate change comes from the co-founder of the Weather Channel, John Coleman. In October 2014, Coleman, who does not hold a meteorology or climate science degree, told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that climate change is based on “bad science” and does not exist. Coleman, who claims to have studied the topic for years, said “the science is not valid” and “there has been no warming for 18 years.”

In response to Coleman’s remarks, the Weather Channel issued a statement saying that the planet is “indeed warming,” with temperatures increasing 1 to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 100 years. The Weather Channel’s statement says that the “extent the current warming is due to human activity is complicated” but that “impacts can already be seen” including “shorter-term phenomena such as heat waves and precipitation extremes.”

A December 2014 rainstorm brings much needed relief to drought-stricken California. Climate models show the current lack of precipitation in the state to be part of an expected hotter and drier climate driven by human-caused global warming.

A December 2014 rainstorm brings much needed relief to drought-stricken California. Climate models show the current lack of precipitation in the state to be part of an expected hotter and drier climate driven by human-caused global warming.

CREDIT: flickr

In an effort to clarify their positions in support of the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, businesses and organizations like the Weather Channel and the American Meteorological Society (AMS) have published statements laying out their views.

Dr. Keith Seitter, executive director of the AMS, agrees with Satterfield that weathercasters are learning more about climate change and that they are becoming more likely to include “aspects of the changing climate when reporting on local weather events.”

“With climate change in the news regularly, television weathercasters are being called on to address the issue, if not on-air, then in speaking engagements or on social media,” Seitter told ThinkProgress.

Seitter said that while extreme weather events such as flooding or drought are one of the most salient ways climate change issues can “help further inform” a weathercast, there are a number of other tangible examples. These include reporting on things like earlier springtime blossoms, especially those that impact allergies, as well as putting heat records in context, such as how climate change is causing more days to spike to temperatures above 90 or 100 degrees.

“This is all useful information that helps the public understand what to expect and how that might be different than what some of them grew up expecting,” said Seitter.

According to the AMS, there are a number of other ways that climate change impacts weather forecasting. These include rain occurring more frequently instead of snow in mountainous areas; spring snowpacks decreasing and snowmelt occurring earlier, causing streams to shift; growing seasons becoming longer; and record high temperatures being much more frequent than record lows.

Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor in California showing most of the state to be in exceptional drought as of late April, 2015.

Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor in California showing most of the state to be in exceptional drought as of late April, 2015.

CREDIT: U.S. Drought Monitor California

Jim Gandy, chief meteorologist for WLTX in Columbia, South Carolina, has been somewhat of a trailblazer in incorporating climate impacts into his broadcasting career, which has spanned some three decades in the state. Gandy told ThinkProgress that he started covering “climate matters” around five years ago for a project that was a partnership with GMU’s Center for Climate Change Communication. As part of a year-long study that started in 2010, Gandy did a number of segments incorporating climate change into his coverage. The university then undertook pre- and post-study surveys to gauge the audience’s reaction to the stories.

Gandy said that while he initially got some pushback, he never received many complaints from viewers.

“We got more complaints about what the anchors were wearing according to the news editor,” he said. These days, Gandy said they typically do a story factoring in climate change every three weeks or so, although they are sometimes just featured online. He said the segments that seem to resonate the most with viewers are the ones about how climate change relates to ecology.

“We think we are the pollen capital of the world,” said Gandy. “And we’re seeing longer and more intense pollen seasons. The feedback I’m getting from people is they are recognizing this in their personal lives.”

Another climate change story that viewers found especially engaging focused on poison ivy. Gandy said he won an award for the coverage, which took advantage of some research from Duke University showing that a rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is affecting the growth of poison ivy. He said after doing the story he was even contacted by people at nearby national parks who were familiar with the issue.

“In this area poison ivy is a big deal,” he said. “When we went on the air for the first time with that, it surprised a lot of people.”

More intense, heavier rainfall is another climate impact that Gandy has highlighted. While average rainfall is decreasing in the state, incidents of extreme rainfall are increasing. Gandy says that “when it comes down to it” he is not trying to take a viewpoint, but simply explaining the “overwhelming” science.

“We’re getting buried by a landslide of research all on one side,” said Gandy, who originally studied meteorology back in the 1970s. “The research shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the climate is changing and fossil fuels are largely responsible.”

When Gandy first studied meteorology the field ignored certain elements of atmospheric science that took longer than five days to develop, as the daily forecast didn’t extend beyond that timeframe. Over the ensuing decades the forecast has extended up to two weeks, and the influence of human-caused climate change is now bringing even more science, technology, and data into weather broadcasters’ portfolios.

Schuenemann, who teaches meteorology to the next generation of weather forecasters, said that she teaches a class that combines “all the really hard topics,” including climate change, in an effort to make sure the students understand “how changes are happening to large-scale weather patterns.”

She also has the students undertake projects based on the potential impacts of climate change on past events like Hurricane Sandy.

“I think it gives them a chance to at least be exposed to the idea,” she said. “And about how they might be able to talk about these things in the future.”

« »