Get Away From That Barometer, Kid!

I am a weather watcher. I’ve been called a weather nerd, weather freak and weather geek. When I describe myself as a weather “enthusiast,” my wife laughs and mentions SNL’s Tracey Morgan in “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet.” In the intro to the SNL skits, it is said, “Brian Fellow is not an accredited zoologist, nor does he hold an advanced degree in any of the environmental sciences. He is simply an enthusiastic young man with a sixth-grade education.”

WAVE-TV’s Tom Wills

I laugh along with my wife. While I am not a young man and have more than a sixth-grade education, I spent years in broadcasting, where I worked closely with meteorologists. The first TV meteorologist in my town, Tom Wills, taught me how to pass along meaningful information from our area’s first TV weather radar, salvaged from the bottom of a WWII bomber. I was on the air during the April 1974 tornado outbreak. I am sure my love of broadcasting from that era planted the roots of my interest in weather. But one doesn’t need any professional connection to meteorology to hold an intense interest in the weather. The ever-changing sky grabs most of us at an early age.

Long ago, I grew tired of the presentation style of modern broadcast meteorologists. So today, I get my forecasts and weather information from the National Weather Service. No hype. Nothing fancy. I pull my weather satellite images and maps from NOAA satellites. I make observations. I pay little attention to any forecast from anyone that is more than three days out. I do not make forecasts or pretend to know how to do so.

Some of my friends have mistaken my interest in following the weather, and the hobby of posting my weather musings on a website, as a signal that I have professional expertise in the field. I wave them off appropriately. It is interesting to me how easily people will follow someone who shows more than a passing interest in science. The bar to be called a “weatherman” is pretty low. As evidence, I had my picture in our small town paper just for putting up my little weather station. I chuckled about it and played it down as much as I could. “Look,” I said. “I’m not a weatherman, I’m one of those voiceover guys! I narrate films and voice commercials for TV and I have clients all over the world! And, I have a studio in my basement! Wanna’ see it? Isn’t that more interesting than an appliance in my backyard?” But the Oldham Era was having none of that VO guy stuff. They were sent to write about a guy with an anemometer on his lawn and they were sticking to it.

I simply do not have the bona fides to call myself a meteorologist. Wikipedia will tell you, “Weather forecasts are made by collecting as much data as possible about the current state of the atmosphere (particularly the temperature, humidity and wind) and using an understanding of atmospheric processes (through meteorology) to determine how the atmosphere evolves in the future.” It’s that last part about understanding atmospheric processes that sets an accredited meteorologist aside from an enthusiast. It is safe to say most meteorologists are also enthusiasts, but most enthusiasts are not meteorologists.

Computer models help make sense of the chaos of the atmosphere and predict what might happen with our weather. Recently, some enthusiasts have discovered that they, too, have access to the models. I have seen amateur weather watchers take computer model runs and hit the forecast as accurately as the people with the met degrees. A few mets are waving their credentials around on social media in a defensive move. The frustration drove one met to publish a page of equations on Twitter that looked intimidatingly complex to a layman. His purpose, of course, was to show the deep knowledge needed to have credibility as a forecaster, and that it takes more than just a computer model to understand physics and fluid dynamics. He was correct, of course, but it is likely his tactic of trying to blow everyone’s mind with a page of calculus formulas probably discouraged some budding atmospheric scientists.

I can understand the frustration when a met has put in years of study and experience only to see a 15-year-old enthusiast over-hype a long-range model, or even worse, nail a forecast. Just as the world is now awash in voiceover people with pro-level studios in their basement, any amateur today has nearly the same forecasting tools as the pros. A few have graphics suites and studios that produce professional visual results, too. Some non-pros also have a social media audience that, in some cases, is larger than that of a local broadcast station. To the concerned meteorologists I say – welcome to the internet world, where the gatekeepers no longer exist, a phenomenon that has affected nearly every profession. There are now few limits to the tools and methods any individual, regardless of training, can access. The line between amateur and professional has blurred. The keys to the gates and the holy writings are there for the taking. It falls upon us to sort out the real thing from the wannabes and bamboozlers.

So far, it seems the meteorologists from the broadcast community are the ones who feel most threatened. And maybe they should be. Who would have predicted a few years ago that the most-watched TV network in the world would be YouTube? I don’t think other professional meteorologists, the ones hired to provide sustainable, accurate forecasts for agriculture, the military and industry, have cause for worry. I just don’t see that tier investing their trust in some kid on Twitter.

I’m not sure how this will shake out. So far, the response from some mets has been, “Get away from that barometer, kid, before you kill somebody!”

The Washington Post has a good article on this subject here.