October 03, 2010

TV Weathercasters

A question that I get asked all the time (including yesterday, which stimulated this blog) is what do I think of TV weathercasters? Who is the best one? And similar questions.

The truth is that the quality of these folks vary widely and many are not even meteorologists. And their forecasts tend to follow the NWS closely.

One thing is remarkable--the only scientific discipline to have a representative on virtually every news broadcast is MY field---meteorology. Quite an opportunity! TV weathercasters are often consider the station scientific experts...which has its ups and downs as I will note below.

I like to use the term TV weathercaster, even though many, if not most, call themselves meteorologists. The truth is that many, if not the majority, are NOT meteorologists...if by that you mean someone who has an actual degree in the subject. They looks good and talk well on TV, which is a real skill, of course. But it drives me crazy seeing people without a real background in the topic call themselves a meteorologist. Should TV medical reporters be called doctors? Or TV financial reporters be called economists?

Those with the strongest backgrounds tend to do the weather during the week, with the weaker folks (with a few exceptions, like Shannon O'Donnell of KOMO) doing the weekends. Some of the weekend types are a real problem, point to the wrong features on satellite pictures or misinterpreting the radar imagery (no names!).

I teach atmospheric sciences 101 and on several occasions I had asked my students (for extra credit) to write down the forecasts of the TV weathercasters from all of the local stations. Then we did a statistical analysis comparing the TV folks to the National Weather Service (NWS). The result: there was no statistically significant difference among the forecasts. Bottom line: the TV weathercasters don't stray far from the NWS forecasts, and they probably shouldn't. The NWS forecasters have degrees, many years of experience, and are receiving updated training. I occasionally have my issues with NWS forecasts (like a slow update cycle, not wanting to change forecasts too rapidly, and lack of emphasis on strong-range forecasting), but they are experienced pros. And they are willing to go on rotating shift to give us 24-h forecasts, which we all should be thankful.

A maddening aspect of the TV weather business is the weather hype that news directors seem to think as mandatory. Here in Seattle, snow is hyper-hyped. And one station even has a professional weather hyper, Jim Foreman of KING TV, who I love to tease. "Pinpoint forecasts", "County by County Forecasts", "Severe Weather Center", Doppler this and that, you have heard it all! Sometime I would like to visit a "Severe Weather Center"--but perhaps it would be too dangerous. And some of the graphics on air are impressive, but entirely confusing--like the "fly-through" 3D clouds and precipitation animations that are so popular on some stations.

The American Meteorological Society has a program to certify TV weathercasters--the AMS Seal of Approval--which has recently been updated to REQUIRE that the certified have real degrees. Other organizations, like the National Weather Association, also have certifications that require less background.

Here in Seattle we are very fortunate to have a very good group of TV weather folks. Many have real degrees (from the UW!) including Jeff Renner, M.J. McDermott, Shannon O'Donnell, and Rich Marriott. Steve Pool was not only tutored at the UW (by me), but works closely with Scott Sistek, who got his degree at the UW. Steve has been around long enough to know the local ropes. Scott S. also has a very good weather blog. Rebecca Stevenson took the weather course at Mississippi State and sat through the UW senior weather forecasting class. In short, the Seattle market has very good people, except for some of the unnamed and less experienced weekend folks. Portland also has some excellent weathercasters, such as Mark Nelsen, who is also a degreed meteorologist.

One of the more controversial aspects of TV weathercasting these days is that a small number of them have been energetic global warming "skeptics." An survey of more than 500 TV weathercasters found that one in four of them say there is no global warming, with 27% agreeing with the statement "global warming is a scam". Most of what these people are saying makes no sense, and quite frankly TV weathercasters generally have little background in climate science. My advice--go elsewhere for guidance on this issue.


  1. As an aside:


  2. For personality alone, you can't beat Q13's Walter Kelly. The guy is a kook and a chatterbox. And he's very much in love with the weather. It's all very personal to him.

  3. I was at your talk in Bellingham last night, Cliff, and I really enjoyed it. The only issue I had was you always mentioned global warming as something to come in the future, rather than something that is already happening. We are seeing major extreme events that are most likely exacerbated by current climate change. In my opinion.

  4. When I was a child in Fort Worth, TX, my family watched Harold Taft's weather forecast on the evening news every night. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Taft for biographical info.) For me, he set the bar against which other TV meteorologists are judged, and few measure up to his standard.

    Harold seemed to truly love sharing his weather knowledge with the public. If he was alive and working today, I think he would write a blog similar to this one.

  5. Clumsy Sunday tweeting: Admittedly Cliff Mass fans, Jim and I were just discussing TV weather yesterday: http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/ and great illustrations!

  6. Highly entertaining & educational post! I do not have a television and would much rather rely on my experience and observation (educated by weather stats and info from meteorologists) at least for the local weather. Yes, snow hysteria is quite a phenomenon around here, about on the level of Yeti sightings...

  7. Cliff,
    Maybe a few of your readers will remember the amazing cartooning weathermen on King 5 - Bob Hale and Bob Cram. I remember watching them on our black & white Zenith in the 50's and 60's. Hale drew "Ol' Sol" for the sunny days and a shivering seagull for the rainy ones. My dad would say we had a 50/50 chance of getting the forecast weather. I just tried copying the cartoon pictures they drew live on the news each evening. It was fun. Who took weather forecasting seriously then, anyway!

  8. Hmm... sounds like maybe... John Coleman?
    I could never figure that guy out or what makes him tick. Especially when he crows about how Global Warming is a fraud and tries to explain it with a bunch of "Psychobabble"nonsense. And as far as I know, he doesn't even have a degree in Atmospheric Science or Meteorology, nor is he certified by the AMS.
    Enough said.

  9. As a meteorologist who traveled pretty widely across the country during the past 15 years while working locally in the air quality "biz" I can attest that the collective skill and reliability of the weather teams serving the Puget Sound TV market is far and away better than I have observed in any other similar market. This includes DC, New York, Chicago. In fact those markets are really lacking in my view.
    While I think this is testimony to the professionalism of the local TV Meteorologists and Weather Broadcasters it is also apparent the we all benefit from the best NWS forecast Office in the country. Just travel around the country a read the various forecast discussions from other NWS forecast offices. They really need some work compared to the Seattle team. And of course then there is Cliff..........

    I have just relocated to Monterey CA for another position and will just say I have not yet developed a taste for the local TV weather forecasters. Sigh!

    With La Nina getting in gear later this winter I will depend on seeing Jim Foreman strapped to the roof of the Space Needle in hurricane force wind and blinding rain.

  10. Portland is also lucky to have Mark Nelsen (among others)! The guy knows his stuff, and it's a major plus that he's also really, truly interested in meteorology (a weather geek of the highest caliber).

  11. What is meant by "strong-range forecasting"? Was "long-range forecasting" intended?

  12. You said "A maddening aspect of the TV weather business is the weather hype that news directors seem to think as mandatory."

    Just today, both the papers are hyping big time the expected severity of the coming winter. Is this hype, or is this something we should take seriously and prepare for assiduously?

  13. Scott and Steve on KOMO are the best. Jim Foreman makes me squirm, and I can't trust Jeff with his "additional 5 days". Ugh!

  14. Why did probcast have so much trouble with temperature predictions during the very cold weeks we had last winter?

  15. Cliff ~ The NOAA and others are really talking up the upcoming winter. They are making it sound like it's going to be worse than 2008/2009, the one in the 50's and the 70's combined. When you discussed in in your post a couple of weeks ago you said there is the potential but didn't go crazy like everyone else seems to be. What's your take? Are they going overboard on all the warnings or is there some new data out there that wasn't available a couple of weeks ago?

  16. Give me Ray Ramsey, his chalk and his circulating box and I'll be happy. What I liked about Ray was that he was always hoping for that perfect snow scenario (arctic front + ample ocean moisture) so he would always spend time speculating on what might or might not happen. For a kid who wanted the same, he was speaking to the choir!

  17. Komo's duo of Steve Pool on camera and Scott 'behind the scenes' works really well - They are by far my favorite weather team. Like you mentioned, Shannon O'Donnel is grat as well, but she also works for KOMO - not king. If I'm right, she originally worked at Kiro, before moving elsewhere and only recently returned this year to Seattle.

  18. Cliff,

    Just wanted to pass along a link to a typical article (or news cast) that illustrates so well how the news style approach to weather so often makes statements which are completely groundless scientifically.

    I was sent this link and it struck me as being very over the top trying to 'scare' people while mis-stating several facts. I think this really highlights the problem with the weather 'news' in general.


    We really need to get people like the PSE spokesman, Andy Wappler, to have a clue what they are talking about before they make bold statements about weather prognostication.

    Anyway, as an scientist I just thought you would appreciate the artistic license evident in this 'news' piece!

  19. In our family, the media over-hype about incoming "severe weather" locally is known as "Forman-in-a-Parka", as in: "There's only a 20% chance of snow, but they've already gotten all Forman-in-a-Parka about it."

  20. I have to second the comment about Harold Taft in Fort Worth. Anyone who grew up watching his forecasts on WBAP is a committed weather geek for life. He respected the intelligence of his viewers and listeners and taught us all some science, every day.

  21. @Jim, re: the cartooning weathermen.

    Now you've made me all nostalgic...
    Who could forget Onshore Flo?

  22. http://survivingtheworld.net/Lesson767.html - some great names for "Severe Weather."


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