Communicating about weather and climate: What are the biggest issues?

Margaret LeMone | 17 November 2010  •  This column will be a little different from previous ones, because it extends well beyond my backyard.

David Levin and Tim Lim at VORTEX2
David Levin (NOVA) interviews NCAR's Timothy Lim as Lim prepares to launch a radiosonde near Limon, Colorado, during the VORTEX2 field project.

As president of the American Meteorological Society, one of my duties is to select a theme for the AMS’s 91st Annual Meeting, which takes place in Seattle, Washington, on 24–27 January 2011. The choice was straightforward: Communicating about Weather and Climate.

I’ve worked and interacted with teachers from a variety of locations—Colorado, while I was in UCAR’s former Project LEARN; the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere, while speaking for AMS Project Atmosphere; and around the world in the GLOBE program. Along the way, I have always been struck by the pitfalls in communicating with them about weather and climate. There are the difficulties with conveying the basics (try explaining the adiabatic lapse rate!), dealing with different levels of knowledge and some misconceptions, not to mention helping teachers to deal with parental resistance to lessons about global warming/climate change, and, yes, difficulties in remembering that communication involves listening as well as speaking. Add to that the familiar (and sometimes humorous) examples of misunderstandings that crop up related to a news event, the difficulties operational meteorologists have in dealing with diverse communities, and even difficulties in communicating with our scientific peers, and “Communicating about Weather and Climate” seemed a natural theme for the AMS meeting.

I’m certainly not the first to be concerned about this topic. Many people in atmospheric and related research have been thinking about the problems of communicating science, especially over the last year or so. There have been talks and sessions at AGU, AAAS, and AMS meetings. There have been workshops and seminars at NCAR. The sociological, political, ethical, and psychological aspects have been discussed. And the conversation always seems to turn to climate. But what about weather?

In a given day, if we atmospheric scientists aren’t undergoing “analysis paralysis” about people’s perceptions of climate change, we mostly talk about the weather, just like other people do (o.k., maybe more than other people do). Like the public, we find out about the weather through watching The Weather Channel, watching our local TV weather broadcasters, reading our newspapers, and increasingly through smartphones and websites like NCAR’s www.rap.ucar.edu/weather. Broadcasters, print journalists, and bloggers have a wonderful opportunity to teach us about the atmosphere through these venues, and sometimes the TV weather broadcaster is the de facto local expert on anything that has to do with science. Watching the same broadcasters for years, through good forecasts (mostly good these days) and bad, we grow to trust them.

Weathercasters introduced the public to Doppler radar, the UV Index, the Fujita Scale, the Saffir-Simpson Scale, model projections, and more. They have also acquainted the public with phenomena unknown to the public only 30 years ago, like the Southern Oscillation (or El Niño and La Niña)—which can shift equatorial Pacific surface temperatures every few years and influence the weather around the world—or another multi-year semi-cyclic phenomenon, the Arctic Oscillation, which last year cooled the United States and warmed Canada. Even as teachers educate children and youth, the mainstream media continue their parents’ education.  Both of these groups play an important role in guiding people through the complexities of weather and climate.

On Monday, 24 January, as part of the Presidential Forum at the AMS Annual Meeting, we will hear about issues encountered by the media and educators in communicating about weather and climate. Bob Ryan, a long-time weather broadcaster in Washington, D.C., will moderate the panel, which will consist of Tom Skilling (chief meteorologist at WGN-TV/Chicago Tribune), Claire Martin (chief meteorologist of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and chairman of the International Association of Broadcast Meteorology), Doyle Rice (weather editor of USA Today), and Martin Storksdieck (director of the Board on Science Education for the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council).

In addition to the unique perspective that each panelist brings, we invite questions from you.  To help stimulate your thinking, Bob Ryan and I have put together several questions that are listed below.  Please take a minute to let us know what question(s) you are most interested in, or feel free to send additional queries to me at lemone@ucar.edu. Thanks in advance for your input.

  • What role do meteorology and related sciences have, or what role should they have, in science education?
  • Some schools have dropped “Earth Science” from the high school science “ladder”.  What is the impact of this move?
  • What has been the impact of Project Atmosphere on general science education?
  • The public knows uncertainty is an integral part of forecasting weather and climate.  Are we effectively communicating and acknowledging uncertainty in peer-reviewed papers, popularized articles/blogs/stories, etc.?
  • What does each panelist think is the greatest challenge they regularly face in communicating in their field?
  • Does discussion/communication of policy, programs, and “solutions” by leading scientists help or hinder public understanding of the science issues?
  • Should the community try to be more “on message” (i.e. rely on National Academies reports/studies as being the primary source for weather/climate science issues) in communicating weather/climate information to the public?
  • What is the role of sites/blogs hosted by atmospheric scientists who remain at odds with the majority or “consensus” views, conclusions, and statements from bodies such as NAS, NCAR, and AMS?  Is it worthwhile to find some common areas to communicate?
  • Can each panelist list the five primary sources of climate/global change information that they regularly consult in communicating information to the public.
  • How has the current Twitter communication environment hindered, or helped, communication of questions/issues that require more than “yes” or “no” answers?
  • How have current events presented challenges and opportunities regarding communicating about weather and climate?  (e.g., this year’s BP oil spill, last year’s Air France crash)
  • There doesn’t seem to be much controversy about recent results in weather research.  You can explain how a tornado forms and there is no argument among the public.  But if you discuss results of climate-change research, there is pushback and skepticism.  Why is this?  Among politicians?  Among the public?
  • How do you think evolution of “the media” has affected our acceptance of weather and climate information?
  • What are some common misconceptions that people have about weather and climate information and how do you deal with them?
  • How do so-called government restrictions to access by the press in both U.S. and Canada affect your jobs?
  • Does our evolving language help the public understand weather and climate events? (microbursts, Saffir Simpson Scale, Fujita Scale, etc.)
  • How can the people in this room [attending the panel discussion] help foster the public understanding of weather and climate?