Finding Science in TV Weather

TV weather is becoming more scientific in style. Ten years ago, the TV forecast was accompanied by small talk and banter so light it might make you forget that weather is a subject of scientific inquiry. This year you are more likely to hear a nuanced discussion of the relative likelihood of competing forecast scenarios than a mention of folk wisdom or superstition about weather events.

An example of this could be seen with the approach of Hurricane Joaquin early this month. The TV forecast did not merely say “batten down the hatches,” but explained, for those who still hoped the hurricane would turn out to sea, that the euro ensemble models that provided this prediction did not agree with each other — these predictions were not statistically robust, so even though the scenarios they provided couldn’t yet be ruled out, they were not to be relied upon.

In truth, it has long been the case that popular TV meteorologists had scientific training. If they are talking more science on television these days, it is just a matter of following their audience, which has become more scientifically astute and more likely to look at weather forecasts in scientific terms.

Going back at least to the 1970s, the late evening weather forecast was likely to be longer and more scientific in tone than the early evening weather forecast on the same station. The explanation for this was that high school students were more likely to be watching the late broadcast, and they wanted to hear more of the technical details. By now, of course, almost the entire audience for TV weather consists of current or former science students. The scientific information is readily available on the Internet and is part of everyday weather conversation. It almost looks like a coverup if TV meteorologists talk as if this information doesn’t exist. Of course, a local TV weather forecast has to be kept short, so a few words and a few graphics will have to cover the topic, with the more detailed discussion to be found elsewhere. Still, the more popular forecasters will boost their credibility by mentioning the key points and uncertainties and describing them in scientific terms.

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