Friday, January 19, 2007

The Weather Kerfuffle

As a reformed broadcaster (and life-long meteorology buff), I've been following the recent weather kerfuffle with a great deal of interest. It began when Dr. Heidi Cullen of The Weather Channel suggested that broadcast meteorologists who don't subscribe to the Al Gore Theory of Global Warming should lose their accreditation from the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Of course, Dr. Cullen is a big believer that man-made greenhouse gasses are the primary cause of global warming; her weekly program on The Weather Channel ("The Climate Code") is essentially an echo of that theme. From her perspective, it's an open-and-shut case, despite serious opposition from some eminent climatologists, notably Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University.

Now, a well-respected broadcast meteorologist is firing back. James Spann of ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama has a post on his weather blog that highlights a root cause of the global warming hysteria:

*Billions of dollars of grant money is flowing into the pockets of those on the man-made global warming bandwagon. No man-made global warming, the money dries up. This is big money, make no mistake about it. Always follow the money trail and it tells a story. Even the lady at The Weather Channel probably gets paid good money for a prime time show on climate change. No man-made global warming, no show, and no salary. Nothing wrong with making money at all, but when money becomes the motivation for a scientific conclusion, then we have a problem. For many, global warming is a big cash grab.

*The climate of this planet has been changing since God put the planet here. It will always change, and the warming in the last 10 years is not much difference than the warming we saw in the 1930s and other decades. And, lets not forget we are at the end of the ice age in which ice covered most of North America and Northern Europe.

If you don't like to listen to me, find a meteorologistist with no tie to grant money for research on the subject. I would not listen to anyone that is a politician, a journalist, or someone in science who is generating revenue from this issue.

Mr. Spann doesn't have the same academic pedigree as Heidi Cullen, but he's hardly a weather interloper. He holds credentials as a Certified Broadcast Meteorologistist (CBM) from the AMS, which mandates that recipients meet the following criteria:

"In order to acquire a CBM, new applicants must hold a degree in meteorology (or equivalent) from an accredited college/university, pass a written examination, and have their work reviewed to assess technical competence, informational value, explanatory value, and communication skills."

And here's the recommended study guide/knowledge base for the CBM exam. It may not be the equivalent of a PhD curriculum in climatology, but it is rigorous and demanding. The AMS also has a list meteorologists who currently hold the CBM certificate. Funny, but I don't see any of the anchors from The Weather Channel--including Heidi Cullen--on that list.

More importantly, Mr. Spann has passed the tests of time (and competition) in a demanding weather market. When Channel 33/40 became Birmingham's ABC affiliate about 10 years ago, one of the first persons hired for its fledgling news operation was James Spann. Market research showed that viewers flocked to his channel during severe weather coverage. He's one of the main reasons that Channel 33/40 remains at or near the top of the ratings heap in Birmingham's TV news wars.

But there may be a little more a work here than a mere scientific disagreement over global warming. Cullen and Spann represent two distinct divisions within the meteorologicalcal community, with the pedigreed "scientists" in one corner, and broadcast meteorologists in the other.

Many in the "scientific" crowd look down on their broadcast counterparts, sneering at their "lack" meteorological training. Read the bios of a few TV weather anchors, and you'll find more than a few received their training via the Broadcast Meteorology Program at Mississippi State University. Completion of that program provides 36 hours of academic credit in meteorology, climatology, and earth science, and prepares graduates for certification by the AMS and its counterpart, the National Weather Association (NWA).

The Mississippi State program is administered and taught by PhD meteorologists; some of the curriculum (notably the radar course) is quite good, but it's not quite up to snuff for the scientists. From their perspective, anyone without a B.S. from one of the "big meteorology programs (Penn State, Florida State, Missouri, or Texas A&M) simply isn't a meteorologist.

On the other hand, is it really necessary for a television weathercaster to have an advanced degree meteorology? In my old outfit, the U.S. Air Force, weather officers have meteorology degrees, but the actual forecasts are generated by enlisted personnel (typically NCOs) who have completed courses in weather observation and forecasting. Both schools are challenging, but they're not the equivalent of a bachelor's degree meteorology. But somehow, the Air Force (and the other services) have managed to survive.

In fact, there's long been an element of jealousy between the scientific meteorology community and their colleagues on the broadcast side. A TV weather anchor at the top of his profession (say, Sam Champion of Good Morning America) can earn a six or seven-figure income. That's quite a jump from the salary meteorology PhDs typically earns in academia, or working for a private forecasting company. Some of those folks are incensed that weather "personalities" like Mr. Champion (who doesn't have any formal meteorology training) earn public acclaim and mega-bucks, despite slim credentials.

On the other hand, doing the weather on TV isn't as easy as it appears. Try standing in front of a blank wall, in front of a television camera. Your graphics are supplied by two computers and one or two radars. You can only see the graphics by looking at off-camera monitors, while trying to avoid standing in front of the storm front you're talking about. Using those tools, your own forecasting abilities and communications skills, you've got to provide a meaningful forecast to your viewers, usually in less than four minutes. And you're doing that with a producer barking through your earpiece, urging you to speed up, while you're praying that the computers don't lock up.

Or, you're anchoring two hours of live, severe weather coverage. Nothing but you, your forecasting skills, the station's radar, warning data from the National Weather Service, and (if you're lucky) assistance from one of your broadcast colleagues. Thosands of viewers are relying on you for information that could save their lives. And, you've got to do it in a calm, professional manner, to avoid inciting panic. Local weather icons like James Spann earn their reputations by doing just that, offering accurate, timely and vital information over decades, not during a half-hour cable show.

As for Dr. Cullen, she's certainly entitled to her scientific opinion. But her call to "de-certify" broadcast meteorologists who don't agree with the global warming orthodoxy is nothing more than scientific McCarthyism. Kudos to Mr. Spann for standing up for the other side of this scientific debate, and having the guts to challenge meteorology's version of political correctness. According to Mr. Spann, there are many broadcast meteorologists who share his views; if that's true, then more need to speak up. With the exception of one newsroom in Birmingham, the silence on this issue from the broadcast meteorology crowd is deafening.


LCarolS said...

My sister is a forecaster with NOAA and DOES have a B.S. from Missouri. She says that everyone in every office in which she has ever worked says the same thing... human-caused global warming is bunk. It really is all about the money, honey.

A.C. McCloud said...

Good post, spook. For anyone interested in real data, not partisan hyperbole, I suggest browsing the NASA GISS site. Try comparing rural weather station yearly temps to urban sites. You'll find there really isn't a warming trend of any significance in the sticks, away from the concrete. If CO2 is causing it, it should be causing it everywhere.

Dan O. said...

I've seen the ads for her shows, but never had the stomach to actually watch. Is there any kind of disclaimer that her opinions are her own or does TWC proclaim to promote this GW farce?

JH said...

Her biogrophy says : "She received a bachelor’s degree in Engineering/Operations Research from Columbia University in New York City and went on to receive her doctorate in climatology and ocean-atmosphere dynamics at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University."

I don't think you can attack her education. She certainly is entitled to her opinion and research that GW is man made.

The offensive part is the naked attempt at censorship! Either she misspoke and now is like a politician refusing to admit an error or she has lost touch with reality.

By the way you should know both NOAA and NASA pretty much buy into the man-made warming theory...I am sure they have folks of both opionions but to get funding from Congress they have to be careful.

Mike H. said...

Nasa doesn't 'buy into' man made global warming, not while they are broadcasting the fact that the whole solar system is heating up. They are somewhat tentative on assigning blame. They report that the ice caps on Mars are diminishing, the outside pole of Uranus is radiating more heat than calculated for its size and distance, in fact all of the gas planets are doing the same. The UN this year has downgraded the effect that mankind has on the planet, instead. blaming the bovine contingent of the biosphere. How someone can point to a particular area and say that it is the problem is beyond me. Systems are good for study but not living in, somewhere, something that is outside the system is going to slap you upside yo head. You won't know it's coming.

John F. Opie said...

Hi -

I put it down to theory vs. empiricism. I'm a business economist, i.e. an economist who provides services to businesses for money. We're raving empiricists, and could care less for the rapture that theorists have with their castles-in-the-sky modelling work.

That is one of the reasons I have a really hard time believing the scaremongers: I live and breath models and earn my living by doing so. I know GIGO is the only truly fundamental truth in modelling: garbage in, garbage out, and if you don't like the results you "adjust" the data and "calibrate" the models.

Like the man said: follow the money. That really will tell you everything

the weatherman said...

The only sad thing is that even though world concern like this global warming still there are such political motivations behind it..Why don't they just do things that would make this planet a better place to leave on..Too many debates where in in the end humans will take all the consequences..