Weather forecasting has been welcomed into U.S. living rooms since the television became ubiquitous in the 1960’s. But now the local televised weather report has a new role: it is a central resource for U.S. viewers to learn about climate change, and it is a sign of an evolution in both broadcasting and science. The pleasant, unobtrusive, smiling symbol of sun and storm is now much more than an individual responsible for weather forecasting. Weathercasters have now become the public face for global warming information.
The National Weather Service (NWS) estimates that predicting the weather is now a $7 billion industry. With around 5,000 employees, the NWS is the liaison in the era of apps among 350 public- and private-sector organizations in the U.S. that continue to be trusted conduits of weather forecasting. According to 2015 research by the market research company SmithGeiger LLC, nearly 40 percent of people aged 18-64 watch broadcast news on daily basis, and weather reporting is an integral part of the lure to watch.
“Local TV news wouldn’t exist any more if it weren’t for the weathercasts,” says Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. That institution, in conjunction with Climate Central and the American Meteorological Society, has just released “A 2017 National Survey of Broadcast Meteorologists.” To explore broadcast weathercasters’ views and activities related to reporting on climate change, they looked into several related areas:
- broadcast weathercasters’ day-to-day activities;
- their engagement with their viewership;
- their use of social media;
- activity and secondary forecasts;
- the influence of news consultants on the weather segment;
- familiarity with the American Meteorological Society station scientist initiative; and,
- reporting longer-format science stories.
Interestingly, few weathercasters reported that they had received any advice regarding climate change reporting. Just 3% stated they had been advised to discuss climate change, while another 3% stated they had been advised not to discuss climate change.
So, why has weather forecasting become such a respected source of climate change information?
Weather Forecasters’ Views on Climate Change
The respondents to “A 2017 National Survey of Broadcast Meteorologists” were primarily male (75%: 25%) and ranged in age from 22 to 70 with a median age of 39. They were, overall, an educated group, with most holding a BS (65%) or MS (9%) in meteorology/atmospheric science, or a BS or BA (7%) or MS or MA (3%) in broadcast meteorology. Many also held some type of additional communication or journalism degree. Their coursework did tend to include some formal academic or post-graduate training on climate science, including within undergraduate work (49%); an entire undergraduate course (38%); continuing education or certification course (29%); certificate program coursework (19%); a major and/or minor devoted to climate science (12%); and a graduate course in climate science (28%).
Weather forecasters’ views of climate change are an important key to understanding why their responsibilities have extended into climate change advice for average U.S. television viewers.
- Nearly all weathercasters (95%) agree with the American Meteorological Society that climate change is a reality;
- About three-quarters of weathercasters concur that 50 years of climate change has been caused by human activity (49% say most or all is human-caused, while 21% say it’s more or less caused); about 21% continue to ground any climate change in natural events;
- Weathercasters had little consensus on if and/or how climate change can be averted over the next 50 years: 17% think a large amount or all additional climate change can be averted, 38% point to moderate amounts, 31% say small amounts, and 13% think almost no additional climate change can be averted;
- 31% of weathercasters indicated that they had witnessed positive outcomes in their communities as a result of climate change mitigation or adaptation activities;
- Nearly all felt that they understand climate change well, with 85% placing their knowledge base as “somewhat well” and 17% as “very well;”
- 62% of weathercasters think their local climate has changed in the past 50 years as a result of climate change, while 19% think it hasn’t, and 19% don’t know;
- Climate change impacts on local communities were viewed across a range of equally beneficial and harmful (49%); nearly four in ten (39%) say the impacts have been primarily or exclusively harmful;
- The most commonly cited harmful impacts of climate change that weathercasters listed were agriculture (50%), seasonal cycles (48%), water resources (47%), ecosystems and forests (43%), coastal property (34%), human health (33%) and infrastructure (31%);
- A significant number of weathercasters (ranging from 23% to 56%) indicated that they didn’t know if these harmful impacts were occurring or not;
- The most commonly cited beneficial impacts were benefits from milder seasons and/or more pleasant weather (42%), benefits to tourism, recreation or leisure (26%), and benefits to agriculture (20%).
How Is Weather Forecasting Informed Today by Climate Science?
Climate Central is an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public. Climate Central surveys and conducts scientific research on climate change and informs the public of key findings. Their publications have included the topics of climate science, energy, sea level rise, wildfires, and drought.
Because, unlike climate scientists, TV weathercasters have unparalleled access to their communities, Climate Central has designed a program called Climate Matters. It provides regularly produced content on the relationship between weather and climate. Graphics, text, animations, videos, and research aid TV weathercasters in presenting “science-rooted climate information in clear, concise, and relevant ways.”
Weathercasters receive blasts on possible topics for climate-related segments every week, with TV-ready data and graphics matched with large-scale meteorological events. Sample content includes:
- Days above 110 degrees;
- Change in growing season;
- More U.S. downpours;
- Arctic meltdown 2016;
- More large wildfires;
- Spring snowpack;
- Buzz Kill;
- More CO2 = more pollen;
- Summer heat trends since 1970s.
The materials from Climate Matters simplify complicated climatological topics for weathercasters. “I love science, I love data, I love numbers, but not everybody else does,” Amber Sullins, chief meteorologist at ABC15 News in Phoenix, Sullins, says. Viewers seem receptive to the climate change information when paired with visuals and connected to local events. “You just talk about how they’re going to be affected as things change, and they’re much more open to listening.”
The weekly packages distributed by Climate Matters are augmented by NASA or NOAA topic explanations, climate news summary, and research syntheses. These are partially funded by a National Science Foundation grant that uses the weather forecasting data as an evaluation tool.
Weather reporting seems just innocuous enough to assuage the pervasive public distaste about climatologists, who come off as dry, boring, fact-spewing scientists. Sullins helps her audience to differentiate between weather and climate, which she describes as “two entirely different beasts.” She explains that they are as distinct as someone’s mood and disposition. Sullins says part of her weather forecasting includes helping viewers to spend more time thinking about the planet’s disposition.