The climate, it is a-changin’

2006 may have been the summer of global warming, but you’d never know it by watching local TV forecasts

The summer of 2006 likely will go down in the books as the one that had “global warming” stamped all over it. Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, played locally most of the summer, and his companion book made The New York Times’ best-seller list. Newsweek put a high-and-dry polar bear on its cover, and a National Academy of Sciences report said global climate change is here, it’s real, and humans did it. Global warming—or, more accurately, global climate change—reached its tipping point.

That got SN&R wondering why we never hear about global climate change from television meteorologists on local weather forecasts.

The answer, according to Mark Finan, chief meteorologist for KCRA Channel 3, is that, strange as it seems, “global warming doesn’t affect the day-to-day forecasting at all. Global warming is a long-term, subtle change on the environment, so it has zero impact on the next five to seven days, which is what we’re concerned with.”

Viewers of TV weather forecasts are interested in what temperatures will be like over the weekend. They want to know if the weather will be good for rafting on the American River, not about the impact of climate change on the river’s watershed over the next 10 years. That’s why Finan believes coverage of global warming “falls more appropriately under the umbrella of the news section.”

Gregg Lalka, News10 weather anchor, agreed with Finan. There’s just not enough time in the minute or two slotted for each day’s forecast, he said, to cover global-warming issues.

Some weather experts, however, believe short-term forecasts could benefit with the addition of a larger perspective on climate change.

“People won’t understand the details of climate change unless they see how what’s happening in their backyard fits into that big picture,” said Heidi Cullen, climate expert for The Weather Channel. “Local weather doesn’t happen in isolation from the rest of the planet.”

If you want that kind of information, tune in to The Weather Channel. Cullen, the first climate expert at the 24-hour cable channel devoted to all things weather, has been part of a move to include the larger issue of climate change in the channel’s reporting. “We’ve really become more outspoken in the area of climate change because we feel like we have an obligation, as a 24-hour weather channel,” she said. “We have a commitment to talk about climate change and how it affects daily weather.”

With 13 temperature-related deaths during July’s scorching heat wave and amid climatologists’ predictions for another month of summer in Sacramento’s future (see “Hot futures” by Ralph Brave, SN&R Feature Story, August 24), discussion of climate change’s impact on day-to-day weather seems newsworthy.

And Cullen advocates that local forecasters bring discussion of global warming into their coverage. “Most people get their information about weather and climate from the local meteorologist. If those guys never mention climate change, people won’t be able to make the connection.”

While she understands the time constraints of TV news, Cullen thinks viewers of local news would benefit from the kind of comprehensive picture of the climate that she’s able to give on the weather channel. “When there’s a heat wave going on, it gives us an opportunity to talk about it, to tie the string of high temperatures to the larger picture. When the situation presents itself, local meteorologists would be a huge resource.”

Finan remains adamant that reporting on global warming is not part of his job description: “Some people think that all meteorologists are the same and that we all do the same things. There are some that study future climatology, past climatology, and then there are people like myself that pay attention to short-term forecasting.”

Bryan Weare, professor of atmospheric science at UC Davis, notes that while TV forecasts have strong science behind them, local weather reports concentrate on a tiny portion of the story. “The forecasts are based on large, global models,” Weare said. “Local weather reporters simply take their part of the forecasts.”

Ironically, it’s the scientific advances that have come from the study of global warming and climate change that have led to improved local predictions.

“Climate models have gotten better,” Cullen said. “Scientists are now able to predict in advance, for the most part, an El Niño or La Niña. That has made a great deal of difference worldwide for many people. We no longer are limited to looking just a few days out, because weather is closely connected to climate.”

Finan agrees: “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t forecast to the end of the week with a lot of accuracy. Now, the eight- or nine-day forecast is as good as you used to get for two- or three-day forecasts.”