As storms intensify, the job of TV weather person gets more serious
By Marc Tracy
After the remains of Hurricane Ida dumped historic levels of rain in the Northeast last year, ABC News’ chief meteorologist, Ginger Zee, stood in front of a collapsed bridge in New Jersey and gave viewers of “Good Morning America” a clear warning.
“Human-induced” global warming does not cause storms like Hurricane Ida to happen in the first place, Zee said. But the higher moisture levels over oceans do make them more destructive.
“Extreme events that would have already happened,” she said, “are going to become more extreme.”
The job of TV weather reporter is changing along with the weather.
For decades, the men and women taking their best educated guess about the weather provided a respite from grim news reports, often playing a comic foil to the anchors. Before Willard Scott became the most prominent weather forecaster of the 1980s on NBC’s “Today Show,” he had played Ronald McDonald and Bozo the Clown.
But Zee and her colleagues see themselves as tracking maybe the most serious story of our time. Increasingly destructive weather had already given TV meteorologists a more visceral presence in viewers’ lives. In the past few years, though, they have often gone out of their way to remind viewers explicitly that human-created climate change is a real and disruptive force that has put lives and the environment at risk.
“As a scientist and someone who understands the atmosphere, I have not only a passion but a true connection to climate science,” Zee, who majored in meteorology at Valparaiso University, said.
On CNN, meteorologist Derek Van Dam dipped into international politics in October with a report on the link between climate change and migration crises. The Weather Channel announced last summer it would increase its coverage of climate change. Even local broadcasters known for five-day forecasts are no longer avoiding the topic.
“During the weathercast, you generally want to give people what they’re looking for at that moment,” said Jeff Berardelli, who moved to NBC’s Tampa affiliate in November after time as a national meteorologist for CBS News. “But when the opportunity presents itself, I will put it into its climate context.”
In an article Friday about the weekend’s impending snowstorm in the Northeast, Berardelli reported that warming waters off the Northeast were probably the cause of far more frequent major winter weather events. The Tampa Bay area is also getting a share of extreme weather, with freezing temperatures expected Sunday, which Berardelli said could be related to the storm a thousand miles away.
Al Roker, the weather and feature anchor of NBC’s “Today” show and a longtime co-host, said that NBC News’ climate unit — the weather unit’s new name as of 2019 — does not try to “force the issue or beat you over the head.” Instead, he said, the group draws careful correlations between severe weather events and climate change.
In 2021, the unit offered more than 50 segments that concerned climate change, untethered to weather forecasts — about drought in the West, wet summers, rapidly intensifying hurricanes — compared with roughly 20 in 2019, Roker said.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of a summit at the White House of more than 100 national and local television forecasters. Then-President Bill Clinton hoped that they would communicate the realities of global warming to the public.
But many of the meteorologists and climate scientists interviewed for this article said the trend of weather personalities broadcasting frankly about man-made global warming was much more recent, as the consequences of climate change have grown starker. The topic has remained politically divisive, with many conservatives — including former President Donald Trump — dismissive of the overwhelming scientific consensus.
Meteorologist Amy Freeze (her given name, she noted) said that Fox Weather, the 24-hour streaming channel started in October, has acknowledged the issue. The channel was set to take over Fox Business’ airwaves Saturday morning and afternoon (as well as one early-morning hour on Fox News) in deference to the weekend’s storm. She conceded that the topic is fraught “in the political arena.”
“Our job is to help people live better and to give them information and tools they can use in the here and the now,” Freeze said. “So we are going to cover climate change.”
James Spann, a meteorologist at ABC’s affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote in a Medium article last year that he mostly eschews explicit mentions of climate to avoid alienating some viewers. “Say anything about climate and you lose half your audience,” he said.
Other forecasters insisted that positive feedback for climate coverage far outweighed negative responses. “I don’t look at my position as a bully pulpit,” Roker said. “It’s informational. You can open more eyes by just presenting facts.
“Our management and producers don’t underestimate our audience,” he added. “I think politicians may.”
More than 1,000 TV meteorologists receive free weekly bursts of information, data and visuals on links between the weather and climate change from Climate Central, a nonprofit organization that works with journalists to publicize facts about climate change. Forecasters, said Bernadette Woods Placky, Climate Central’s chief meteorologist, “have been at the forefront of making these connections to the public.”
Zee, the first female chief meteorologist at a major broadcast network, said she became interested in the weather during her childhood watching storms develop over Lake Michigan. As a teenager, she saw a future version of herself in the storm-chasing meteorologist played by Helen Hunt in the 1996 movie “Twister.”
Now, she hosts a recurring feature on climate change with the title “It’s Not Too Late,” including a 50-minute special around last Earth Day that streamed on Hulu. She recently added the titles of chief climate correspondent and managing editor of a new ABC News unit devoted to climate change. Topics she reports on include those only adjacent to the weather, such as carbon renewal technologies.
“Someone said, ‘Why did you change into such an advocate?’” Zee said. “Well, I’ve always been in love with the atmosphere, considerate of it, respecting it. But, mostly, this is just science. At the end of the day, I’m just telling you the science.”