18 September 2009
21st Century Weather Forecasts On TV
Posted by Dan Satterfield
I have been a little sparse in my writing here over the last few weeks, and for good reason. We have been installing a brand new state of the art weather computer system in the WHNT weather office. It’s actually a series of 6 very fast computers all networked together and integrated into the production switcher. It’s an amazing system. I can do things that I could not even image when I started doing weather on TV for KOKH TV in Oklahoma City in February of 1980.
I can call up the current weather for virtually any airport in the world, from the South Pole to Hanoi. I can see satellite images taken from a series of weather satellites minutes ago. What was the temperature over Pierre, South Dakota at 8,000 feet from the weather balloon launched at sunrise this morning? It’s just a couple of clicks away.
To be honest, it’s heaven itself for a weather geek!
In 1994, when I started here in Huntsville, the thought of running our own numerical weather prediction model “in house” would be laughable. It took HUGE computers at NOAA in Washington to run these models! I would get the output to forecast from. This still happens, but now we are running our own model for our region at a higher resolution than the national model run in Washington! What’s even better, I can convert the output to colourful graphics for the audience to see. No more just saying “the models say rain”, I can show it!
Best of all, I can draw on the maps again!
When I started in TV in 1980, we had magnetic boards and used water based paint to draw the fronts! With the advent of computers, I found myself in front of a blue or green screen. The maps were electronically keyed in. This is still done today. I use a green wall every evening, and that is what I see behind me when on air. Everything the camera sees that is a certain shade of green is electronically replaced. I have monitors just off camera so, I know what to point at!
This new system allows me to draw on the maps. A device on the camera follows the point farthest from my body and that is where the “mouse cursor” is. I can do anything with my fingers that I could do sitting in front of the maps on a monitor with a mouse in hand! (It definitely takes getting used to, but I love it!)
I realise that 99% of my audience just wants to know what the high will be tomorrow, and if it will rain where THEY are. Answering that question can be difficult, but I try to do it each night. People who watch me are giving me their time and in today’s frantically busy world, that is a very valuable commodity. Wasting their time is an unpardonable sin in my book.
It can be maddening to spend hours putting the maps and a detailed forecast together, only to have the phone ring and hear the words “Hey, is it gonna rain tonight?? You so want to tell them it’s called broadcasting for a reason. Turn on the TV! The forecast is availble online 24 hours a day, I cannot possibly give everyone in the viewing area a personal forecast. I would if I could though.
That said, if someone has a special event and needs some detailed information, I will always stop what I am doing and give them my best advice. It’s the least I can do, they give me their valuable time several times a week. I’ve talked with nervous brides the night before a wedding to rock concert promoters worried about lightning hitting a stage with thousand of people gathered around.
We truly live in Gutenberg times. In 1400 there were only a few thousand books in all of Europe. Most people could not read, much less afford to own one. 20 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press, there were a million! Your thoughts could be printed and reach thousands of more people than you could ever talk to in a lifetime.
Now we are going through such a change again. The internet has brought the worlds greatest libraries to our fingertips. There is a growing and dramatic divide between those connected to this world and those who still live in the world that existed up until around 1995.
Many times that caller asking for the weather forecast a few minutes after it was transmitted on air will say something like “I don’t have a computer or the internet”. What a great disadvantage they have. I can hear the frustration in their voice. Sometimes it’s an anger.
It’s not usually do to money, but more likely age or educational background. It’s these people who are keeping the newspapers alive…for now. We must make sure that not one student in America, or the world itself has that problem. I do get it!
My Mom is not going to join the internet generation at her age. If she wants the weather forecast, she can just call her son!
Gutenberg times are scary, or at least unsettling times for many. Perhaps this is behind the anger I sometimes feel from people when I refer them to a web site they do not have the ability to look at. The world of TV is changing too. I actually think it’s fascinating, but I hear stories of old crusty reporters who have no idea how to put their well crafted news story online.
The new connected world allows me to communicate with my viewers like never before, and I LOVE IT. It is frustrating to some, who want he world to be the way it used to be.
Most people watching my weathercast in 10 years, will likely see it on a computer screen. Possibly one in they are holding in their hand. (I look better on the small screen, believe me!). However you want the forecast, it’s my job to give it to you. It’s the forecasting I care about. You might have noticed, if you read this journal frequently, that I get into Science. I didn’t sweat through all that Calculus for nothing!
I want the students I meet to have the joy I have each day doing what I love. That’s why I write this journal and the Wild Wild Weather Page. I could not possibly imagine doing a job where I look at the clock hoping for the day to be done.