Meteorologists discuss how to warn the public about extreme weather

Photo by Justin Ray.

California knows the disastrous impacts of climate change. It has the worst air pollution of any state, and several of its counties have recently seen record-setting temperatures. Its climate and topography make it vulnerable to devastating wildfires, such as last year’s Camp Fire, which burned over 150,000 acres of land and claimed 85 lives. So perhaps it stands to reason that, this year, the 100-year-old American Meteorological Society held its annual Conference on Broadcast Meteorology in San Diego.

The three-day conference, held at the Marriott in Mission Valley East, convened roughly 200 attendees—among them, broadcast meteorologists, National Weather Service officials, climate science researchers, climate-communications experts, and at least one behavioral scientist. Between panels and lectures, guests could mingle in a hallway by a refreshment stand, or lounge on a sun-drenched patio overlooking a turquoise pool. Otherwise, for eight hours each day, people gathered in two conference rooms for discussions that centered on our volatile climate, and how urgent information about weather and the climate reaches the public.

When it comes to weather, there is no universal understanding of cautionary language, and no single standard for alerting TV viewers—a fact that should raise more concern than it does. Some people believe the term “voluntary evacuation” means there is no risk. One TV station’s weather colors may differ from a competitor’s. “In my market, the channel across town is using different colors for different watches and warnings,” Bri Eggers, meteorologist at KTVB in Boise, Idaho, told CJR. For people watching multiple stations, she says, “that’s going to cause a lot of confusion.” A 30-percent chance of rain means different things to different people. “Does that mean 30 percent of the day?” Eggers offered as an example. “Thirty percent of the area?”

RELATED: Severe weather pits meteorologists against some viewers

The same problem applies to climate change, an inarguable factor in weather that nevertheless remains hard to connect to messaging. “We kinda dance around it, unfortunately,” Patrick Burke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center, said. “I think we need to educate the media to start asking those questions. They could ask: ‘How anomalous is this event? Is it really extraordinary?’ They can also ask, ‘What do you think is causing that?’” Burke provides soundbites for broadcast meteorologists, but says he is rarely asked to link current weather events to global trends.

“One of the difficulties is, as a weather forecaster you’re typically focused on what’s going to happen today, or what’s going to happen in five days,” Burke said. “It’s very difficult, scientifically, to draw a one-to-one link between what’s happening today and climate change.”

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A graph, based on work by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and shared at the conference, showed the significant variation in how we understand the role of global warming in a variety of weather events. According to NOAA, scientists’ confidence in connecting weather events to climate change depends on three factors: the quality of the observational record, the success of models at simulating an event, and knowledge of the physical processes underlying the event. Meaning? Scientists have less confidence in connecting global warming to wildfires and tropical cyclones than to extreme heat or cold.

J-P Dice, who serves as Chief Meteorologist at WBRC in Birmingham, Alabama, said that climate change would be difficult to tackle during his broadcast updates.

“We are meteorologists, there are climatologists,” Dice said, before digging further into the classifications. “You have meteorologists that specialize in climate prediction. We are your daily operational meteorologists. We’re like the family doctor. These other folks are specialists. Sometimes we defer to a climatologist if it is a specific question on that. But, on a daily basis, we don’t get a lot of questions from viewers regarding climatology.”

Some conference attendees mentioned Joe Crain, a meteorologist who was recently fired from his Sinclair-owned station in Springfield, Illinois, for criticizing station management’s weather alerts. Crain told viewers on-air that his station’s “Code Red” weather alerts were a mandatory measure from the station’s owner, which Crain saw as out-of-step with the National Weather Service’s standards. (In a recent column, Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik likened “Code Red” problems to crying wolf.)

Dice said nearly every station has similar branding, which should be used with caution. An alert “needs to be something from a meteorologist,” Dice said. “You can’t just have this be something issued from management. I do think there’s a value in it when you have a large event to get people’s attention. We do it, but we are very strategic and I think we do it appropriately.”

Some meteorologists discussed how social media has made their jobs more difficult. “There is a lot of bad information tossed around,” Dice said. He’s dealt with fake weather reports and what he calls “basement meteorologists,” people who “post raw model data that gets everybody stirred up. So we put out a lot of fires because of that information.”

It’s not all bad. Bill Parker, Meteorologist-in-Charge of the National Weather Service in Jackson, Mississippi, says that when tornadoes barreled through Vicksburg, his team used livestreams to communicate to the public. “One of the reasons why they appreciated us using Facebook Live to communicate tornado warnings is because they were losing power and losing connection to their broadcast meteorologists,” Parker said.

Conference attendees were passionate about communicating the risk of weather events to the public. Dr. Sweta Chakraborty, a risk and behavioral scientist who has discussed extreme weather and climate change in numerous media appearances, said the public is capable of grasping concepts like extreme weather events and climate change, but such concepts must be communicated in a thoughtful way.

“Humans are capable of understanding information and acting in a way that’s beneficial to themselves and society writ large,” Chakraborty says. “People do make sensible decisions, but they require relevant, accurate, timely, [and] credible information.”

ICYMI: Transforming the media’s coverage of the climate crisis

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.