Climate Science for Meteorologists

15 Midwest TV Meteorologists, Weathercasters Weigh Climate Science at Chicago’s Field Museum

CHICAGO, IL. – Fifteen TV meteorologists and weathercasters from across five midwestern states gathered at The Field Museum April 18 for a full-day workshop on climate change science.

Underwritten by a grant from The McCormick Foundation to the Yale Project on Climate Change, publisher of this online journal and workshop manager, the session brought the invited meteorologists  together for a series of presentations by expert climate scientists and veteran meteorologists.

The workshop opened with a presentation by Emory University Professor Kris Wilson, a former TV meteorologist, on survey work he has done to better understand TV meteorologists’ and weathercasters’ familiarity with climate science and attitudes toward addressing climate change issues in on-air and off-air presentations. His work, to be the subject of an upcoming in-depth report in The Yale Forum, confirmed widely held understandings that many U.S. TV meteorologists – and also weathercasters, holding something less than formal meteorology degrees – appear to be disproportionately skeptical of basic climate change scientific findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, and other expert scientific organizations.


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NBC’s Bob Ryan addressing meteorologists about his new climate change website.

NBC meteorologist Bob Ryan, of Washington, D.C., outlined his own experiences in preparing an in-depth website spelling out his understanding of climate change science. Ryan, who said he had developed the site over many long weekend hours, reported that the site, launched in February 2009, had received more than one-million original visitors (see article, The Yale Forum).

Several of the attending meteorologists commended Ryan for having the courage and stamina to venture into such an undertaking given the barbs and criticisms such a site inevitably will draw from climate contrarians and those militantly rejecting the IPCC findings.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist and climate modeler Benjamin D. Santer – himself no stranger to criticisms and ad hominem attacks as a result of his long work with IPCC – explained to the attending meteorologists and weathercasters the basis for the scientific understanding that recent warming of the planet over the past half-century is attributable largely to emissions and higher concentrations of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide, resulting from human activities. Santer helped the attendees better understand differences between climate and weather models and why the former can be reliable over long time periods.

After discussing with Santer how scientists have determined that warming is attributable primarily to combustion of fossil fuels through human activities, the invitees learned of research being done by University of Illinois Professor Don Wuebbles, also an IPCC author, about potential impacts of climate change throughout the Midwest.

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Migrating Michigan – may “feel like” the Oklahoma panhandle by 2100. (Credit: http://usclimatenetwork.org/resource-database/greatlakes_final.pdf/view )

Wuebbles said his research points to substantially more hot days above 90 and above 100 degrees F in cities ranging from Chicago to Cleveland and Cincinnati, from Des Moines to Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. For instance, he projected 31 more days above 100 degrees under a higher emissions scenario, and eight more days over 100 degrees under a lower emissions scenario each year in Chicago by 2100. Wuebbles said the higher-emissions scenario foresees continued reliance on fossil fuels from industrialized nations, with emissions continuing to grow. The lower-emissions scenario envisions industrialized nations, including the U.S., reducing carbon dioxide emissions 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

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Migrating Illinois – Wuebles research points to Michigan weather more akin to that of parts of Texas by 2100. (Credit: http://usclimatenetwork.org/resource-database/greatlakes_final.pdf/view )

The notion of a full month of additional 100-degree-plus days in Chicago, and virtually a full summer above 90 degrees, appeared to impress – make that depress – Chicago-area meteorologists very mindful of excessive deaths in Chicago in recent unusually warm summers. Several attendees also remarked that they were struck by Wuebbles’ graphic map presentations of midwestern states like Illinois and Michigan seeming to march south and southwest over coming decades as their weather more and more “feels like” the current weather familiar to those in the Oklahoma panhandle or parts of Texas. (Wuebbles’ maps were drawn from work he had done earlier with the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

The connections and relationship between severe weather and climate change were the focus of remarks and analysis by Purdue University Professor Jeff Trapp, whose ongoing research sheds light on current understandings of those relationships. 


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Stu Ostro of The Weather Channel and NBC-4 meteorologist Bob Ryan, of Washington, D.C.

In the afternoon session at The Field Museum workshop, meteorologists heard presentations by Weather Channel senior meteorologist Stu Ostro on “Climate Change and Synoptic Weather Events” and by WHNT-TV, Huntsville, Alabama, meteorologist Dan Satterfield on “Keeping the Meteorologists’ Eye on the Ball: Science and not Policy.”

Ostro, a self-described weather geek since his days as a child, explained how he personally had come to be interested in climate change and provided an overview of his own extensive climate science research website. Satterfield described the trip he personally had made to the Arctic so he could reach his own conclusions about the seriousness of anthropogenic climate change.

Sara Espinoza, of the National Environmental Education Foundation, and Joe Witte, a veteran national and Washington, D.C., meteorologist, concluded the day’s workshop with overviews of climate change resources available to meteorologists and weathercasters from NEEF and of highlights of the day’s exchanges.

Meterologists’ Workshop Reactions, Critiques

The Yale Forum was still receiving the invited meteorologists’ and weathercasters’ formal workshop evaluations at deadline for this posting, and more will be reported on those evaluations in coming updates.

Among those responding prior to the deadline, Cincinnati meteorologist Eric Green said Wuebbles’ maps “showing a particular state super-imposed on another area of the country/continent really hits home for me.

“Being at the conference this past weekend has really lit a fire in me to be a messenger on this,” Green said, “and I hope/plan to become a much more frequent and well spoken role model in my community about climate change …. every meteorologist should get the opportunity to attend.”


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On-air Chicago area meteorologists Mary Kay Kleist, Duffy Atkins, and Amy Freeze.

Also complimentary of the workshop was WGN/CLTV Television meteorologist Duffy Atkins, who said, “I liked that they [the workshop faculty] help me to think out of the box and really consider all the variables to climate change.”

Milwaukee meteorologist John Malan, of WTMJ-TV, Milwaukee, gave the workshop six 5s and one 4 on the seven questions evaluating it, with 5 the most favorable score.

“The more facts the better,” Malan wrote, “especially those that refute the comments about natural cycle and other variables like sun cycles and upper air cooling. I also don’t think we put into perspective enough how many people are present on this planet using fossil fuels,” using growth in the global automobile fleet as an example of the growing fossil fuel use.

“My questions were answered,” meteorologist Mark Baden, of KJKLJKLJGFKLAJKLRJWIJIO, said in his workshop evaluation. “Honestly, this was the most helpful workshop I have attended. A close second is Les Lemon’s Doppler Radar workshop.”

Meteorologist Mike Stone of WTOL-TV, in Toledo, Ohio, also quite positive in his evaluation, said, “I would not mind the program going an additional hour so to allow a little more breathing room.”

Commenting on the workshop, for which he was among the presenters, NBC’s Bob Ryan suggested “wildcard” issues such as the roles of clouds and aerosols could be addressed in future such sessions, perhaps along with a discussion of the history of gclimate change models and how observations match earlier global forecasts. Ryan said recording such a workshop “in entirety would be useful,” and he also suggested conducting such a workshop thorugh a live webcast, with those watching from afar able to e-mail questions to speakers and attendees… “a way of greatly expanding such a workshop, especially if on a weekend day.” 

The Yale Forum anticipates conducting a second full-day workshop for broadcast meteorologists and weathercasters on Sunday, June 21, as part of an American Meteorological Society (AMS) annual broadcasters meeting in Portland, Oregon. Registration information and other details on that session are available online (pdf).

Additional Yale Forum meteorologists/weathercasters climate science workshops are in the early planning stages, subject to funding availability. Details on any such sessions will be announced at this site in coming months.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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