PORTLAND, OREGON – Broadcast meteorologists from across the country gathered recently for a one-day workshop to learn more about climate change science and explore new ways to better inform their audiences on an issue they likely will increasingly encounter in on-air and off-air appearances.

The meteorologists and weathercasters took part in an American Meteorological Society (AMS) “short course” as part of an annual meeting in late June in Portland, Oregon (see Yale Forum related article & downloadable documents). The “Understanding Climate Science: Essentials for Broadcast Meteorologists” workshop was sponsored by this online publication, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, with financial support from the Grantham Foundation for Protection of the Environment and from the Flora Family Foundation. (AMS attendees receive continuing education credit for official “short course” workshops.)

Studies indicate that meteorologists and weathercasters (those latter having no formal meteorology degree and credentials) are among the most trusted sources of information in the U.S. when it comes to global warming, with a powerful local communications platform for informing the public about climate change. At the same time, meteorologists are often seen as being disproportionately skeptical of evidence most climatologists find compelling (see Yale Forum June 12 article). The day-long series of lectures by climatologists, broadcast meteorologists, and researchers explored new and emerging scientific evidence on climate change and ways to frame and integrate climate change information for on-air and off-air audiences.

In an opening presentation, writer Robert Henson, University Consortium for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Co., reviewed how weather forecasting has changed from the early days of television when weather was more entertainment than science. In the 1950s, broadcast news programs generally included weather “lite” delivered by the “weather girl.”

Over time, forecasters began taking a more science-based approach to weather reporting, and by the 1990s, climate change was in the news and often covered as a “dueling scientists” story, said Henson, author of the highly regarded “Rough Guide to Climate Change.” A series of national and international events led to a shift in public attitudes toward climate change – the 2003 heat wave in Europe that resulted in more than 50,000 deaths, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Despite increased public acceptance of climate change, reporting on the issue remains challenging for meteorologists and weathercasters, said Kris Wilson, University of Texas, Austin. “The more complicated it is, the harder it is to contain in a sound bite.” Climate change is a science story, but it is also a policy issue. Wilson’s presentation outlined a number of his findings from a recent survey of meteorologists.

Weird Weather: Opportunities for Communications

Weather anomalies often prompt questions from the public, said Anthony Broccoli, director of the Center for Environmental Prediction, Rutgers University. Those questions can provide meteorologists opportunities to report on climate change and science in direct and understandable terms, he said.

Broccoli’s presentation outlined the kinds of questions likely to arise from lay audiences, and how meteorologists might answer them:

Q. Why don’t all scientists agree about global warming?

A. Science can be messy and doesn’t follow a straight line. And not all evidence points in the same direction. Consensus emerges gradually as scientific evidence for hypothesis increases. Additionally, climate science has policy implications, which is not always true with other science issues.

Q. Were recent unusual temperatures a result of global warming?

A. Time will tell. Nowhere is this more important than as it is applied to climate change.

Q. What should individuals and society do to combat excessive climate change?

A. This is not just a question of science, it’s a policy decision. Policy makers have to balance a wide variety of considerations in considering and shaping policy responses. There are no easy solutions. It is complicated. New sources of energy will ultimately be required. But the consequences of today’s actions or inactions will be felt decades in the future.

Senior Scientist Judith Lean, a solar physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., described natural and anthropogenic influences on Earth’s surface temperatures. Her presentation left little doubt that radiation from the sun cannot alone account for observed atmospheric warming.

Research Meteorologist Keith Dixon, NOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), Princeton, N.J., discussed the importance of the subsurface and deep ocean in moderating Earth’s climate through heat absorption from the atmosphere, and GFDL scientist Gabriel Vecchi explained the relationships between climate change and frequency and intensity of severe weather. Dixon, Vecchi, and Lean described the research they are conducting – from space and in the global oceans – to better understand climate change.

As a Meteorologist … “Something Ain’t Right”

“As a meteorologist,” said Stu Ostro, of The Weather Channel in Atlanta, “I’m telling you, something ain’t right.”

Ostro described his initial skepticism about human-caused climate change, doubts now reversed by his own observations about anomalous climate circulation patterns and severe weather events. Weather, he said, is where climate hits the road. Ostro, a meteorologist, explained to the meteorologists and weathercasters in the audience how his observations of severe weather events and unusual climate patterns convinced him of the “consensus science” expressed by IPCC scientists, the National Academy of Sciences, and other leading scientific organizations.

Meteorologist Dan Satterfield, WHNT-TV, Huntsville, Alabama, spoke about his own local broadcasts addressing climate change science but said large percentages of his television audience remain unconvinced that climate change is occurring and that humans play a significant role in that warming.

Satterfield said the public often discounts climate change concerns because the most significant impacts are gradual and the precise amount of warming in a particular area or region is uncertain. Global warming, he said, is only one of many pressing news issues.

He advised meteorologists to invoke scientific evidence whenever possible, stick to scientific discussions rather than policy, and point to record-breaking events and impacts already evident as indicative of the kinds of impacts expected in a warmer climate. Satterfield concluded his presentation with a short video by the late Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot.”

Mike Wallace, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, emphasized the importance of distinguishing science and policy in discussing climate change. He suggested that meteorologists and weathercasters frame climate issues strictly in science, but suggested that they need to be mindful of their local roles in communities and national climate change policies. Wallace emphasized the need to communicate responsibly about the uncertainty of scientific research, including studies involving climate change. He suggested that meteorologists can play an important role in helping the public understand what they can do as individuals such as conserving energy.

A key challenge in communicating climate change to television audiences, said KATU-TV, Portland 15-year weathercasting veteran Rhonda Shelby, is the time limitations of broadcast media. Correctly forecasting the daily and five-day weather – interpreting climate models and managing the graphics – leaves little time to report on climate trends, she said. In addition, pitching compelling climate change stories to news directors also poses a challenge.

“We are so into the day to day, we don’t always see the apparent long-term or climate patterns, we are so worried about getting it right. Sometimes you miss the big picture,” Shelby said.

[Editor’s Note: The Portland AMS workshop for TV meteorologists and weathercasters is the second in a series of such workshops The Yale Forum is planning. As judged by workshop participants’ formal evaluations, the Portland session was highly successful: 91 of 105 answers on five different questions gave a top rating of 5 on a scale of 1 through 5. Another 13 votes gave the second highest-ranking numerical evaluation, 4, and there was one “3” vote on the one-through-five scale (five being most positive). Additional information on the climate change/meteorology workshops and schedules will be posted online as it becomes available.]

Jackleen de La Harpe is an Oregon-based writer.