6 March 2009

Is Your Local TV Weatherperson a Meteorologist? Do They Understand Climate Science?

Posted by Dan Satterfield

As someone who does a TV weathercast each day,  I’m keenly aware, that I’m the only person with a Science background that most people see, on a daily basis.

This is true of just about everyone who does weather on TV. This begs the question that is the title of this post. Is your local weather person a Meteorologist?

It depends, I guess, on what your definition of a Meteorologist is.

TV stations tend to call anyone doing the weather on air a Meteorologist, even though many have little formal training in Science.

The American Meteorological Society will not give someone a seal now, unless they have ,the basic equivalent of an undergrad. degree in Meteorology. That means 2 years of Math, including at least 3 semesters of Calculus. In addition, a year of Calculus based Physics, and courses in Atmospheric Dynamics and Thermodynamics.

There are actually two types of certification by the AMS. The old “AMS Seal of Approval”, and the new CBM seal. ( Certified Broadcast Meteorologist).


The old AMS seal had much looser requirements, that have slowly been tightened over the years. The new CBM seal is held by some without an undergrad. degree in Atmospheric Science, because they were allowed to upgrade their AMS seal. In a few years, as old seal holders retire, the vast majority of CBM seal holders will have degrees.

CBM seal holders must also pass a rather rigorous test, and meet continuing education requirements. Most importantly, the must demonstrate that they can convey information well to a broad audience. I have known some very bright Meteorologists, who had the education, but were lousy communicators. I also know a few very good presenters, who have a limited Science background, but do an excellent on air weathercast!

In general, the CBM seal is a good indicator of whether or not your local weather man or woman is really a Meteorologist, with the exceptions noted above.


Now, the second question. Does he/she understand Climate Science??

First of all, climate is much different than weather. I would not bet my house on the high temperature tomorrow (say, within 7 degrees). I WILL bet my house on the average high for the month of June, averaged over the next 4 years. Am I making sense?

Climate Physics is very specialized, and most undergrads have not had much more than an introduction to the topic. If your local weather person has a Science background, then they likely have the Math, and Science knowledge to bring themselves up to speed on the latest research. That’s exactly what I did. I won’t lie. It was tough. Graduate level statistics is required to understand many of the published papers, and for me it’s a bear! A weather person with limited science background, will find it very hard.

Now lets add in Climate Change.

Some recent surveys show that many TV weather folks have serious disagreements with the AMS position on climate change. The position of the AMS is about the same as the ones adopted by virtually EVERY major scientific organization in the world. That being, that this is a very serious problem, that must be solved soon.

Some more famous weathercasters have publicly called climate change a hoax. Weather Channel founder John Coleman is one example. (Note: The Weather Channel has a far different position). Certainly this confuses the public.

What are the reasons for this split between some on air weather people, and the AMS in general? My personal opinion is that it’s related to what I have previously discussed.

1.Weather and Climate, are two different branches of Atmospheric Science.

2. The widely varying education level of on air weather people.

At an AMS meeting last June, a survey of seal holders indicated, that less than half, had read any substantial amount of the IPCC report. Yet, many of these people are commenting on climate change. Many of the comments, bare little resemblance to what is published in peer reviewed journals.  Some, have even called it a hoax.

Are they giving a scientific opinion, or a political one?

amsseal1Bob Ryan, the longtime Meteorologist for WRC TV in Washington, is the only broadcaster to serve as President of the American Meteorological Society. (Very few Meteorologists work in TV. Most in academia, or for NOAA). In August 2007 he wrote a guest editorial, in the Bulletin of the AMS, raising this issue. It’s well worth reading. (The link takes you to the website of the AMS Committee on Station Science. I’m  a member of this committee.)

Education is the key to this problem, and the AMS is taking several steps to do just that. I’m proud to have a small part in it.

These thoughts are my own of course, and do not necessarily represent those of the AMS.