The weather used to be a safe topic of conversation: apolitical, impersonal, agreed upon by all. And weathermen and women on local TV used to convey all those apolitical, impersonal, agreed-upon facts with goodwill and cheer. They could be trusted to soothe your nerves, bantering with news anchors about the likelihood of a snow day or dissecting satellite images of a summer storm.
But with climate catastrophe looming, all that has changed.
Now, some friendly local weathercasters see a new, urgent mission: to convey the climate crisis in their daily briefings to audiences around the world.
This week — after a weekend of record-shattering warm weather in Boston — hundreds of TV meteorologists from across the country gathered at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston for the American Meteorological Society conference, many of them focused on their new reality.
“We’re the bridge between the academics and the public,” said Natasha Ramsahai, an on-air meteorologist for 680 News and Citynews in Toronto, after a Powerpoint presentation for broadcasters featuring a slide that said: “Boom. Climate Change.”
With higher global temperatures contributing to frightening extreme weather events, from the wildfires raging in Australia to last year’s flooding in the Midwest, broadcast meteorologists have become unlikely foot soldiers in the battle to educate people about the climate crisis. They say they’re ready — and so is the public.
“People are craving the information,” Ramsahai said. She said her listeners often hear about “the global aspect. But they want someone to break it down more, into what does this mean for my property? And my city? And my drive to work?”
The society’s conference had the energy of a “Star Trek” convention mixed with a graduate-student seminar. Participants eagerly attended technical panels with titles like “History of the nucleation research and its impact on weather modification” (a packed room) and wandered an exhibit hall full of weather-related gadgets, “rugged environmental sensors,” silk ties patterned with meteorological symbols, and a poster about D-Day titled “The weather forecasts that changed history.” There was, of course, a green-screen photo booth.
Weathercasters, as a group, have radically shifted in how they think about climate. In 2008, a survey of some members of the society found that less than a quarter of weather broadcasters agreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion that global warming is caused by humans. By 2010, more than half of the broadcasters surveyed believed that climate change was caused by human activity; by 2017, about 90 percent believed in climate change, with 80 percent saying it was caused by humans, The Guardian reported.
That means the role of the broadcast meteorologist, the formal title for many local weathercasters, has changed, as well.
The meteorological society “has long championed the role of ‘station scientist’ for broadcast meteorologists,” the George Mason University researchers who conducted some of the surveys wrote. “The role of local climate educator — or local climate reporter — can add a significant new and important dimension to the role of the station scientist.”
The broadcasters at the Boston conference were a small fraction of the more than 5,000 academics, researchers, and students who gathered for the meteorological society’s 100th annual meeting. The society is based in Boston, and got to choose the host city for this year’s event.
(“We were all joking that we broke the all-time high in Boston,” said Cheryl Nelson, cochair of the broadcast conference this year. “It’s the power of meteorologists, together.”)
Many of the attendees are on the cutting edge of climate science, though the TV meteorologists perhaps have the biggest platforms to share that science with the public. But on-air meteorologists said it is often difficult to work climate change into their daily reports.
“Climate is to weather what a marathon is to a sprint. They look the same from a distance,” said Alan Sealls, chief meteorologist at the NBC affiliate in Mobile, Ala.
No single storm or hurricane can be attributed directly to rising temperatures, and the topic can be politically charged in some areas of the country.
Sealls relishes the role he plays in his community as a station scientist; he has guided his audience through 20 years of storms, hurricanes, and floods.
“We’re basically teachers on TV for two to three minutes every segment,” he said.
But, he added, some meteorologists don’t enjoy the same freedom to discuss rising temperatures.
“I know broadcasters who are afraid to talk about climate change because they fear a negative backlash, either from their viewers or from their management,” Sealls said.
These days, simply predicting the direction of a storm can spark a political fight.
Last year, when President Trump insisted that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama — despite forecasts to the contrary — some meteorologists found themselves in the uncomfortable position of contradicting the president. (The dispute was not about climate change, however.) The Alabama office of the National Weather Service tweeted that the state would not see any effect from the hurricane; Trump then seemingly altered a weather map with black Sharpie pen in an attempt to justify his claims.
“That was tough for us as a meteorological community,” Nelson said. “Because we have to stand up and defend the science.”