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Climate Change and Water Pollution: Turns Out You DO Need a Weatherman
Joel Makower, 24 Apr 06

Today's weather: sunny with scattered clouds. Tomorrow's climate: changing.

You won't hear such forecasts from your friendly local meteorologist -- at least, not the ones typically hired by TV stations for local newscasts. Climate change and other environmental issues just don't fit into the three-minute block of time most weather reporters get. Besides, weathercasters are supposed to engender hope, not fear; environmental issues like climate change are seen as just too damn depressing to show viewers just before they doze off to sleep.

That's a lost opportunity. According to research by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, 80% of U.S. TV viewers list the weather as the primary reason they watch local news, and the weather report is often the only place adults get any scientific information at all.

In other words, Americans already get more environmental information from TV weathercasts than from anywhere else -- think air quality, ozone levels, pollen counts, asthma alerts, UV indexes, and, of course, catastrophic weather, from floods and droughts to hurricanes and tornadoes. But such information is disguised; it's rarely described as "environmental," let alone linked to the everyday actions of viewers. Could TV weathercasts be tweaked to provide context as well as content? Could TV weather help connect the dots to become a leading source of environmental education?

A fast-growing nonprofit program thinks so and is trying to transform weathercasts into "envirocasts." Seems that TV weather, like the weather itself, is changing.

The program, Earth Gauge, was launched in 2002 by the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation. (Full disclosure: Until recently, NEETF was also the home of, which I founded, though I had no involvement with Earth Gauge.) Partnering with the American Meteorological Society, the premier professional organization for broadcast meteorologists in the U.S., NEETF has taken a unique approach to educating the public by linking environmental information to the weather report.

According to NEETF, Earth Gauge provides tools, education, and training to broadcast meteorologists, "with the vision of changing the way the weather is delivered to include environmental impacts of weather events in compelling ways that inspire individual stewardship."

NEETF tested the concept with Bob Ryan, Chief Meteorologist at WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. To provide Ryan and his weather team with the information they needed, NEETF helped launch a Chesapeake Bay-specific pilot program focused on combining weather forecasting and environmental issues. The partners developed a Web site about the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, including satellite imagery, educational information, and up-to-date descriptions of watershed events and information.

Now, Earth Gauge reaches 14 major U.S. viewing markets serving more than 50 million Americans, and these figures will double this year, says NEETF, due in part to the addition of The Weather Channel as an Earth Gauge participant.

The vision of changing the weathercast to an "envirocast" requires giving TV viewers environmental information on a regular basis and offering simple actions they can take to address environmental issues in their communities. Some of this is simple and direct: "Thunderstorms expected this weekend -- not a good time to fertilize your lawn." Of course, even this simple, declarative sentence begs additional information -- how rainstorms carry fertilizer from lawns into creeks, rivers, and bays, where it can harm fish and other animals that depend on the water. (You can view actual Earth Gauge broadcasts here.)

Not all environmental information is quite so easy to explain -- but then again, neither are isobars, high-pressure areas, or the jet stream, among the many scientific staples of TV weathercasts. Indeed, NEETF found that while weathercasters are experts in atmospheric sciences, they typically have a more limited background in environmental topics. To remedy that, NEETF is partnering with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research's Cooperative Program for Meteorology, Education and Training (COMET) to develop a set of online courses to help weathercasters gain a background in environmental topics such as watersheds/water quality and airsheds/air quality, and learn how to "tell the story" to their viewers.

Telling the story, of course, is what it's all about. Amid the confusing, conflicting, and oft-depressing environmental news of the day -- and the sense that it's all well beyond our individual control -- having friendly local TV meteorologists offer both insight and inspiration can go a long way toward creating an eco-literate populace.

And that can create a sunnier disposition for everyone -- policy makers, leadership companies, eco-entrepreneurs, public health advocates, homeland security officials, and the myriad of others concerned about Americans taking responsibility for their environmental impacts where they live, work, and play.

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Hi Joel
Great to see your site. I fully agree the weather forecaster on tv could be so powerful. I often wonder that climate change is ignored. In Australia, where I live, we are starting to get increased severe tropical cyclones, (not where I live, fortunately) just as climate change predicts. Even if weather forecaster's don't get too involved, the picture is getting harder to deny. Cheers

Posted by: Ron Baker on 24 Apr 06 recently ran an article on the role of the weatherman:

Just say it's sunny:

Posted by: Dave Chiu on 25 Apr 06

Hi. What a great idea, I was thinking about how it would be possible to make people pay attention to these issues and putting it into the weather reports is a brilliant. After all, the weather is such an important part of everyone's life so a longer programme (the Weather News) makes perfect sense. Great site by the way, its nice to know some people are still trying.

Posted by: Helen Rule on 26 Apr 06

What a bunch of crock. Just keep saying it long enough "and they will come". Weather changes throughout history. If it was human based the smog of the 70's would make our avg temp 100 by now. Talk amongst yourselves and feel good, thats the way opinions seem to be made these days. The famous hockey stick was made from false data that assumed everything from tree's yet ignored normal ice age rotations:

Read it with an open mind if any left.

Posted by: SF Res on 26 Apr 06



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