The air, and the airwaves, heat up

4 08 2010

Last winter, as unprecedented snowfall buried the mid-Atlantic states and Britain shivered through its worst winter in 30 years, journalists began to take a closer look at how TV weather covers, or doesn’t cover, climate change. That flurry of coverage faded by spring. Now, with a ten-minute segment that aired on 17 July, the “Dateline” series on Australia’s SBS network has joined the fray—just as both Moscow and Washington are enduring their hottest summers ever recorded, with New York not far behind.

The U.S. coverage unfolded in a fairly classic mode for what’s been dubbed the “media food chain.” It began with an cover story in the January/February 2010 issue of Columbia Journalism Review, a small but highly influential magazine that serves as inspiration for many reporters. In his CJR article, “Hot Air,” Charles Homans delivered a thorough, and at times pointed, analysis of the prevalence of climate skepticism among weathercasters. This trend had been noted in several surveys presented at AMS conferences and in the formal literature (including this 2009 BAMS report). It was also explored in some depth by the Yale Center on Climate Change and the Media in a 2008 article by Bill Dawson. But it hadn’t yet been covered widely by the popular press.

The next link in the food chain was The New York Times, which published a shorter piece on 29 March touching on many of the points made by Homans. The article also cited a brand-new survey on weathercaster attitudes toward climate—the largest such study ever conducted—led by Edward Maibach (George Mason University), Kristopher Wilson (University of Texas at Austin), and Joe Witte (GMU), with support from the National Science Foundation.

The survey is full of interesting material, but the most incendiary finding was that 26% of the 500-plus weathercasters surveyed agreed with the claim that “global warming is a scam,” a meme supported by Senator James Inhofe and San Diego weathercaster John Coleman. On the other hand, only about 15% of TV news directors agreed with the “scam” claim in another recent survey by Maibach and colleagues. And Maibach himself stresses the glass-half-full finding that most weathercasters are interested in climate change and want to learn more.

As is so often the case, the NYT article prompted other national news outlets to jump on the bandwagon. Subsequent coverage over the next month included a March 30 article in the Washington Times, an NPR  “Talk of the Nation” report on 9 April, and a 22 April segment on ABC’s “Nightline.” GMU’s Center for Climate Change Communication has a useful set of links to many of these stories.

The topic also broke into less conventional news outlets, including “The Colbert Report,” which produced a “science catfight” segment. In one corner: AccuWeather broadcast meteorologist Joe Bastardi. In the other: Brenda Ukwurzel, climate educator for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The segment served more to entertain (assuming you’re hip to Colbert’s satirical interviewing style) than to inform. But it did give Bastardi a chance to air his unorthodox position that global cooling is more likely than warming over the next decade and beyond. Ukwurzel played the foil, drawing on consensus-based research that points toward overall warming.

Bastardi also appears in the new Australian TV segment noted above, as do Maibach, Witte, and MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel. Witte and Bastardi represent weathercasters who respectively are, and aren’t, concerned about greenhouse-gas-induced climate change. Maibach points out the strong—and unfortunate—correlation between political viewpoint and opinions on climate change. Emanuel appears rather bemused over the whole debate: as he puts it, “Why would anyone ask weather forecasters about their opinion on climate?”

Bastardi’s take on climate change is front and center on The Joe Bastardi Channel, part of AccuWeather’s hugely popular website. Many of the clips deal with Bastardi’s predictions that a sustained drop in global temperatures will begin soon. In short, he believes that the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) are likely to enter negative phases in the next few years, teaming up for a double hit on global warming. He also thinks solar activity could enter a long-term period of relative quiet—the third element in what Bastardi dubs the “triple crown of cooling.”

Both the AMO and PDO are correlated with global temperature, and a cursory look at their trends over recent decades would lead you to think that both cycles could trend negative over the next few years.  However, predicting such a switch is a dangerous game. NOAA says, “We are not yet capable of predicting exactly when the AMO will switch, in any deterministic sense.” According to the University of Washington, “Causes for the PDO are not currently known. Likewise, the potential predictability for this climate oscillation are not known.”

More to the point, the AMO and PDO are internal modes of variability. That means their ups and downs happen regardless of climate change, and they can’t erase the longer-term warming produced by human activity; they can only obscure or accentuate it for a time. As for the Sun, its output could certainly go down, or up, but there’s no accepted technique for predicting long-term variations in solar energy. It’s worth noting that Earth has experienced its warmest year on record thus far, despite the fact that we’re only now coming out of the deepest minimum of the 11-year solar cycle in the last century.

All in all, from the local to the global, it’s the heat that’s hard for any weathercaster along the Eastern Seaboard to ignore right now.

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3 responses

6 08 2010
Weathercasters in Multiple Exposures

[...] recent blog post by Bob Henson, author of the new AMS book, Weather on the Air, serves as a good summary of the [...]

18 11 2013
Ryan6ZqbII8wE.jux.com

I am extremely impressed with your writing abilities and also with the layout
on your weblog. Is this a paid subject mtter orr did you
customize it yourself? Anyway stay up the nice quality writing,
it is uncommon to see a great weblog like this one these days..

18 11 2013
bhensoncolo

Thanks, Ryan! I wish time allowed me to post more often… :-)

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