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Broadcast meteorologists are taking up the task of communicating the effects of climate change as crisis accelerates

“If there’s a meteorologist out there who doesn’t feel comfortable talking about climate science, they’re missing the boat.”

Dan Schullman, of Framingham, photographs flooding caused by a king tide on Long Wharf in Boston in 2021. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The impacts of the accelerating climate crisis are capturing more and more attention, as headlines warn of the dire consequences of the warming planet. 

With the evidence of the crisis piling up, broadcast meteorologists — often considered the scientists or science experts in their newsrooms — are taking up the job of communicating information about the crisis to the viewers tuning in for their daily forecasts.

That doesn’t mean that the weather forecasters are talking about the climate crisis on a daily basis. But three local broadcast meteorologists who spoke with Boston.com said they are working to provide a context to the weather when it relates to climate.

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“At the end of the day, we’re meteorologists; we’re not climatologists,” said Eric Fisher, chief meteorologist WBZ TV. “But we’re probably the most qualified person to talk about what’s happening with the climate that the average person is going to encounter on a daily basis. There aren’t a lot of climatologists who are out there walking around and able to address some of these things.”

Meteorologists are well suited to communicating to the public about climate change since the forecasters “do spend a good amount of time” studying the crisis because it applies to their job responsibilities, Fisher said.

“It affects all of us over time,” he said.

The Boston meteorologists all said that taking on the role of communicators about climate change and climate science is a function of the job that they only expect to grow in the future as the crisis continues. 

‘It’s all becoming clearer

A home at the edge of a cliff in Truro due to erosion off the ocean coast. – David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

Dave Epstein, a meteorologist whose work is carried by CBS Boston, WBUR, The Boston Globe, and Boston.com, said that the way that forecasters approach climate change in broadcast journalism has evolved over the years. 

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“If you talked to meteorologists 20 years ago, I think you would have found more skepticism in the meteorological community, especially those of us who were on-air in front of cameras, on radio,” he said. “I think that one of the things that’s changed over the past couple of decades as we’ve gotten more and more data that clearly shows the human impact on the climate, I think we have really begun to incorporate it when appropriate into our broadcasts.”

Michael Page, a meteorologist who most recently produced forecasts on NECN and NBC10 Boston, and now reports for The Weather Channel and runs the weather blog FlawlessForecast.com, agreed. 

Just in the last 10 years alone, he said the tone of the stories he’s done has changed. 

A decade ago, he said he and others were still using hypotheticals, telling viewers, “Hey, this could happen.”

“Now, fast forward 10 years and some of those changes are already well underway or even a little worse than we thought, like sea-level rise for example,” Page said. “In Boston, it’s now very routine to see Long Wharf flood on a sunny day with a particularly high tide. That’s something that 10 years ago we weren’t seeing, and now all of a sudden we are seeing it. So the tone of the storytelling has changed.”

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Now the tone is, “Hey, this is happening already, you can see it with your own eyes, I’m showing you,” he said.

How much more common the events or impacts are going to become is also more certain and can be communicated differently to viewers, Page said.

“In the last decade, there’s so much more clarity as to sea level rise, temperature climbs,” he said. “It’s all becoming clearer because we have better data.”

And as a result, meteorologists are talking about it more, Fisher said. 

It’s now more a daily routine, as opposed to something that would just be mentioned in a year-end or month-end report.

“I remember when I was starting in the business, it was just kind of at the beginning of green reporting and doing stories on renewable energy or on the climate in general was just kind of starting,” Fisher said. “And now it’s just become very commonplace because we’ve learned so much over time.”

Page noted that technology has also changed over the years, which means meteorologists are much better equipped to predict extreme weather events that are happening — and that will continue to happen — as climate change unfolds.

When the remnants of Hurricane Ida arrived in the northeast last summer, he said forecasters had the tools they needed to predict that the storm was going to bring the kind of “freakishly heavy rain” that is becoming more common with climate change, Page said. 

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“We have the tools to pinpoint that a day, a day and a half beforehand,” he said. “We knew there was going to be tremendous amounts of rain around New York City.”

At least 43 people were killed in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania during Ida; 13 of the deaths occurred in New York City.

Page said he doesn’t think people understood the forecasts meteorologists were delivering or what 8 inches of rain in just a couple of hours would mean for the city.

“We were able to say, ‘This is going to be a really bad flood event in the New York City area,’” he said. “We knew this was going to happen. Unfortunately, like I said, people didn’t necessarily know how to take that information. That’s where we still can get better … Maybe we as meteorologists need to do better and say [with these events], ‘OK if you do live in a basement, you’re going to flood,’ like explicitly tell people this is what it’s going to look like.”

Page said the problem he and his colleagues run into is that people often tell them they’ve seen extreme weather in their lifetimes before. 

“People say, ‘Oh, we’ve seen that before, I know what that’s like, I know what that storm is like,’” Page said. “But it’s like, no, you haven’t. You maybe have not seen 8 inches of rain falling in just a couple hours and what that does in a city. So when we have these extreme events on paper we can see them coming with our technology. But now the challenge for us is we might not have physically seen it with our own eyes either, we really have to try and paint the picture. So it’s a hard thing. We have the data in front of us, we know it’s going to be bad, but what does that look like?”

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Following events, like Ida as an example, Page said now both forecasters and the public know what that looks like for a city to see 8 inches of rain in just a few hours when it “inevitably happens again.”

“Something hypothetical is harder to take seriously and take action on than if you can see it or you know you have a history with it,” Page said.

‘I’m not telling you what to believe’

Part of the dock at Chelsea’s Mary O’Malley State Park was submerged by the Mystic River on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Chelsea officials and community advocates are warning that climate change-induced flooding threatens the city. – Roseann Bongiovanni

But just because there is more data available, improved technology, and greater certainty about how the effects of climate change will be felt, Fisher, Page, and Epstein agreed that the crisis isn’t necessarily impacting or changing the way meteorologists approach their work on a day-to-day basis. 

Weather and climate are different, they said.

Epstein stressed that every extreme weather event also is not climate change.

“I would never say, ‘Oh, this cold snap is climate change or this warm day in the middle of March is climate change,’” he said. 

Epstein said his main job is not to provide a day-to-day climate assessment; rather it is to find the moments when he can provide added information or context to his audience about how what they are observing on a daily basis may have changed or may continue to change as the climate does.

He said it is important to frame for the public that some of the weather patterns that we are observing will become more, or less, frequent as the climate changes. 

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“So we may see more warm nights, we may see more warm winter days,” Epstein said. “We might see more extreme rainfall. Extreme rainfall events have happened for hundreds and hundreds of years … but these types of events, the frequency of them and the way they occur changes as climate changes. So I think inserting that into the discussion in a two-and-a-half to three-minute broadcast is how we approach it.”

The broadcasters said the way that meteorologists approach their day-to-day forecasting is the same. 

But today, compared to 20 years ago, Epstein said climate change and its “fingerprints” are always in the background. 

“If I see a week of really hot and humid weather coming, I might think this may be more intense than it would have been 30 years ago,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that 30 years ago that you wouldn’t have seen a hot and humid week. It’s just that how it manifests itself will be slightly different.”

One way to think about it, according to Epstein, is that climate is what is in your closet and day-to-day weather is the clothes you have available to wear.

The idea is that what you have in your closet to wear may change, so, as the climate warms, you may have fewer sweaters and more shorts. 

“That doesn’t mean you’re not going to need a heavy sweater, you just might not need it as much,” Epstein said. “And you may need the shorts more.”

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Working with that background of climate is how forecasting has changed for meteorologists, he said.

When it comes to incorporating context related to climate, Fisher said CBS Boston works a lot with the Blue Hill Observatory, which has the most extensive climate history in North America, in particular. 

Meteorologists at CBS Boston share the observatory’s statistics, using the facility’s data to inform viewers about the context for months or stretches when there are extreme weather events.

“Last year, being one of the warmest years on record in the area, we show how things have changed over time,” Fisher said. “How things are loaded toward being warmer and not colder. And we see at Blue Hill we’ve had a number of these top kind of warmest months in the last ten months, but top ten coldest just basically not existing anymore. So we try to have that dialogue.”

Sharing that context and information about climate trends is important because it affects how people plan their gardens and build infrastructure, Fisher said. 

“People want to know what obstacles they might be facing down the road, years from now,” he said.

In addition to offering forecasts with the awareness of climate in the background, meteorologists are also doing reporting specifically on the different impacts of the crisis that are emerging and mitigation efforts, among other storylines. 

In recent years, Page did a report examining the climate cost of the food we buy at grocery stores. Meanwhile, at CBS Boston, Fisher said the station’s whole team of meteorologists tries as often as possible to produce reports for their series “Eye on Earth,” ranging from the impact of climate change on harvests for cranberry bogs in Massachusetts to delving into the efforts to establish a wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard

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Page, Fisher, and Epstein were in agreement that in their positions of communicating about the weather and what climate change could mean for viewers, they believe their job is to stick to the science and data. It is not, they said, to veer into advocating for any specific action — political or otherwise — for what needs to happen in response to the climate crisis. 

Fisher said he likes to offer viewers the data and explain what is known, what’s being seen, how it’s being recorded, and what can be expected to change as a result. That way viewers, whether it be the general voting public or policy makers themselves, can make their own choices and decisions based on the information.

“To me it’s not really something that we’re debating,” Fisher said. “It’s something that we’ve honestly noticed. If you spend a lot of time outside or if you spend a lot of time looking at the data, it’s very clear that the climate is much warmer here than it used to be. And then I let people decide what they want to do with that information.” 

In sticking to the data and the science, Page and Epstein said they don’t have any concerns about alienating viewers. 

“I tell people all the time, I’m not telling you what to believe,” Page said. “I am telling you the science. So if you don’t believe the science, then I can’t help you.”

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Yes, there are still people out there who respond, despite the data that exists, with quips that there’s no climate change if there is a cold day in May, Epstein said. 

“But that’s just ignorant and they’re just trying to be trolls,” he said. “To me it’s just noise.”

Generally, the meteorologists agreed that the feedback from local viewers in New England to how they are approaching covering and talking about climate change has largely only been enthusiastic and receptive. 

They noted that is not the situation that all their colleagues face around the country.

“We’re very lucky to be able to just deliver information here and people will have interest in it,” Fisher said. “I do know that our colleagues in other parts of the nation, they get death threats, they get nasty calls, emails, people harass them because they bring it up just to show data in their local markets. So it is not the same everywhere in the U.S. as it is here in the Boston area.”

‘We are a connection and someone that they know

What makes broadcast meteorologists well suited to talking about climate change is that their job is communication, Fisher said. 

“You need that third party, you need that person who can learn the material, who knows the topic, but then can also boil it down and just talk about it in a very simple way,” he said. “Because most people are not going to read the literature, the journals, and a lot of science publications. And even if they did read it, they’d have no idea what’s going on because it’s heavy stuff. It’s not written for the general public.”

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That’s where broadcast meteorologists, who often already serve as sounding boards in their newsrooms for topics related to the earth sciences generally, have the opportunity to come in. 

Meteorologists, Fisher pointed out, are already working in an area of science where they are taking something complex and boiling it down to succinct directions for the public — when to plow, when to plan the garden, when to head to the beach.

“Our job isn’t to give you the calculus, it’s to give you the forecast,” he said. “And with climate science … our job is to say here’s the path we’re on, here’s what it means for you. And how we might be able to change it, possibly.”

Meteorologists, he said, are like a general contractor, while a climatologist is a specialized trades person, such as an expert plumber. 

And being that general contractor means meteorologists can be good messengers to help deliver the necessary information to their local communities.

“Meteorologists have a good background knowledge of all that information, they’re studying it, they’re reading up on it, they’re following their local trends … It’s kind of boiling down something that’s very complex into something that’s more digestible and usable for anyone who’s watching and to be a sounding board if people have questions,” Fisher said.

Page said given the strong connection audiences have with their broadcast meteorologists, the forecasters have an opportunity to reach people about climate change in a different way and even expand the public’s understanding of what their jobs might entail. 

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“People like to poke fun at us, ‘Oh it must be nice to get paid and still be wrong,’” he said. “But the reality is that people still really do pay attention to the weather, particularly [in] New England, viewers do form connections. I and other meteorologists are out in the community, we’re doing school visits, we’re going to nursing homes. People are messaging us all the time, ‘Should I get a tent for my kids party?’ People really do feel like we are a connection and someone that they know.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Page said meteorologists were probably the only scientists most of the population heard from on a regular basis. 

And being that person is “critical,” he said.

“Our job with the weather forecast is to boil down complicated things and make it digestible for people, and the same is true of climate change … We as scientists who are in the communication business are very uniquely positioned to take these really complex topics and very easily, for us, tell people what matters.”

Page, Epstein, and Fisher agreed that broadcast meteorologists talking about climate change is likely only to grow in the future. 

It’s an area that broadcast meteorologists should be pursuing, if they aren’t already, Page said. 

“If there’s a meteorologist out there who doesn’t feel comfortable talking about climate science, they’re missing the boat,” he said. “It’s just the way things are right now … Even if we are not designated as a climate scientist, people look to us and say, ‘You study the weather, you look at the sky, this is all related, you’re my go-to source.’ So we’re obligated to have a good understanding and be able to talk to people succinctly and clearly about climate science. And that’s definitely not something that was expected 10 years ago, certainly not 20, 30 years ago.”

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It’s an opportunity that should be embraced, he and Fisher said. 

Page said climate change presents meteorologists with the opportunity of being a good resource to audiences, giving people good information, to “make sure that they’re not just googling something and getting some really half-baked information on the internet.”

A forecast is something that has become easy to get in a number of places, Fisher pointed out. 

People aren’t sitting down at night to watch their evening news because it’s the only time they can get their weather forecast.

“One way that we adapt to that is by offering a bigger umbrella of information and that includes climate, that includes astronomy, what’s going on in the night skies, gardening, light planning,” the CBS Boston forecaster said. “You have to talk about some value-added things. And so there is plenty of time to talk about this.”

And when it comes to New England and climate change, that means talking about sea level rise, increasing precipitation events, and the fact that there’s less extreme cold, Fisher said.

Weather is one of the most collective experiences that can be had, so providing context should be a goal, he said.

It’s something that audiences watching, or listening to, their favorite meteorologists can anticipate only growing in the future, Epstein said.

It’s not going to decrease, he stressed.

“The public should expect to see more and more data, information, stories on how the changing climate is affecting everything from our daily lives to plants to animals and of course sea level,” Epstein said. “This isn’t going away and it’s not going to reverse itself. And so it’s here to stay.”

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