Just in Time for Winter

Homans on weathermen as climate skeptics

The cover story in the current issue of CJR, about why climate skepticism is so common among television weather forecasters, is a must read. With the onset of winter, and abnormally cold temperatures around the globe, it could not come any sooner.

The Observatory has commented numerous times on the confusion in the media between short-term weather patterns, like the current cold threatening Florida’s strawberry crops, and long-term climate trends such as global warming. Part and parcel of that is the strong vein of skepticism about the latter among television weather personalities. They are the “gateway” to the news for many Americans (the weather reporter often being the most popular segment of local news broadcasts) and often serve as the de facto “voice” of science at their respective stations.

Our cover story is by Charles Homans, an editor at the The Washington Monthly, who catalogues a number of recent efforts by groups on both sides of the climate policy debate to woo weather forecasters. “For all of their differing agendas, the outfits have one thing in common,” Homans writes, “they have all realized that, however improbably, the future of climate-change policy in the United States rests to a not-insubstantial degree on the well-tailored shoulders of the local weatherman.”

Homans also dives deep into the history, training, and psychology of television weather forecasting to assess why climate skepticism is so prominent there. The explanation starts with the fact, as Homans puts it, that:

Meteorology has a deceptively close relationship with climatology: both disciplines study the same general subject, the behavior of the atmosphere, but they ask very different questions about it. Meteorologists live in the short term, the day-to-day forecast. It’s an incredibly hard thing to predict accurately, even with the best models and data; tiny discrepancies matter enormously, and can pile up quickly into giant errors. Given this level of uncertainty in their own work, meteorologists looking at long-range climate questions are predisposed to see a system doomed to terminal unpredictability. But in fact, the basic question of whether rising greenhouse gas emissions will lead to climate change hinges on mostly simple, and predictable, matters of physics. The short-term variations that throw the weathercasters’ forecasts out of whack barely register at all.

Of course, skepticism of models and forecasting doesn’t explain why weatherman have “disregarded the mountain of evidence of global warming that has already occurred,” Homans cautions. His conclusion is that, paradoxically, much of the larger problem dates back to American Meteorological Society efforts to improve the professionalism and expertise of television weathermen:

The AMS had succeeded in making many weathercasters into responsible authorities in their own wheelhouse, but somewhere along the way that narrow professional authority had been misconstrued as a sort of all-purpose scientific legitimacy. It had bolstered meteorologists’ sense of their expertise outside of their own discipline, without necessarily improving the expertise itself. Most scientists are loath to speak to subjects outside of their own field, and with good reason—you wouldn’t expect a dentist to know much about, say, the geological strata of the Grand Canyon. But meteorologists, by virtue of typically being the only people with any science background at their stations, are under the opposite pressure—to be conversant in anything and everything scientific.

Whatever the case may be, better explanations and delineations of weather and climate phenomena continue to be needed in newsrooms. In its daily news round-up on Thursday, the Society of Environmental Journalists cited a blog post from Jack Williams—a long-time weather reporter and editor for USA Today who retired in 2005—with the headline, “Science Stories about Arctic Blasts Missing in Action.”

“The New Year has brought us a blizzard of stories about frigid temperatures and snow storms,” Williams wrote, “but I’ve been unable to find any stories that closely examine what’s going on.”

On Wednesday, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker listed only two blog posts—one by Andrew Revkin at The New York Times and one by John Cox at Discovery News—that took at a crack at explaining the winter weather. They pointed to the Arctic Oscillation, a pattern of atmospheric pressure that has two phases, positive and negative. According to Cox’s post:

The pressure pattern drives a ring of winds that blows counter-clockwise at about 55 degrees north, over places like Moscow and Belfast and Ketchikan, Alaska.

When the pattern is positive, the winds are strong, and the power of the vortex holds the storms in its embrace. When the pattern is negative, the winds are weak, winter storms slide farther south and their sub-freezing temperatures grip much deeper into the Northern Hemisphere. As Andrew Revkin at the New York Times has pointed out recently, the Arctic Oscillation is more deeply negative this year than it has been since the 1980s.

In fact, Revkin not only did that, he had Ignatius Rigor, a senior mathematician at the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, generate a graph for his blog showing changes in the Arctic Oscillation since 1950. The graph by itself doesn’t say much, of course, but more reporters should be seeking out such exclusive, “value-added” components for their stories.

The Associated Press, for instance, ran a story on Wednesday, under the headline, “Experts: Cold snap doesn’t disprove global warming,” that delivered a helpful, but somewhat vague explanation of the current state of the Arctic Oscillation (“large rivers of air” that usually run west to east and have “become bent into a pronounced zigzag pattern, meandering north and south”) and did not actually refer to it by name.

So Williams seems to be right—useful stories explaining the current cold-weather patterns are “missing in action.” Whether that exacerbates, or is exacerbated by, some of the problems that Homans cited in his cover story about climate skepticism television weather forecasters is difficult to tell. It’s probably a little of both. But journalists and weathermen alike would be well advised to read Williams’s entire post. He lists a number of good questions that anybody seeking to cover the current cold patterns would want to ask, as well as a number of resources from places like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the American Meteorological Society.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.