27 January 2020

Should We Continue To Show Weather Radar To The Public on TV/Online?

Posted by Dan Satterfield

I bet that headline got your attention, didn’t it?

Before we go on, I’ll state up front that I think the answer is yes, but there is actually a decent argument to be made otherwise.

Hurricane Carla on the Galveston Radar in 1961. From NWS.

When a cub TV reporter walked into the Weather Bureau office in Galveston, Texas on a muggy summer day in 1961, he saw something that few people had ever seen, a live weather radar image of an approaching hurricane. It was Hurricane Carla and the new weather radar was showing the eye clearly as the storm approached the Texas Coast.

The reporter realised immediately that this was a powerful image and it had to be a part of his story about the approaching storm. The weather bureau thought otherwise. It might cause panic was the thought, but after some discussion that apparently went all the way to headquarters in Washington, he was able to film the image of the radar scope and show it on TV that evening. Many feel that that image caused a lot of people to evacuate that might not have otherwise. As far as I know, this is the first time weather radar was shown in almost real-time on TV, and the story got that young reporter noticed by the network folks.

Soon, Dan Rather was a correspondent for CBS News. You can read about it in his fantastic book, The Camera Never Blinks.

Fast forward to 2019 when radar and satellite are available in real-time on the computer in your pocket that also makes and receives (unfortunately IMHO) phone calls. Now, read this story by my friend Matthew Cappucci at The Washington Post. It’s about a boat captain in Missouri who used that radar image on his phone to make a fateful decision. A decision that he was not qualified to make and one that he had already been warned was wrong by the NWS.

Weather radar does not show rain or snow. It does not show severe storms or tornadoes either. What it does show is reflected radio wave energy bounced back by objects in the path of the narrow high powered beam. Yes, you say, I knew that, but do you really? I have looked at radar images every day for 40 years and I can tell you, that I am often scratching my head and trying to deduce what I am really looking at. What you think you are seeing is often not really what is there and for those who have not been trained to interpret the images, this is nearly always the case.

I was once awoken by a producer early on a clear and cold Saturday morning in Florida, telling me I needed to come in because the radar scope was covered in heavy thunderstorms. When the grogginess went away, I replied, “that’s just ground clutter caused by a strong temperature inversion, I’m going back to sleep now!”

We live in an age when climate experts I know are told by people in the grocery line that there is not enough carbon dioxide in the air to change the temperature of the planet (Wrong), and doctors are told by patients they already know what is wrong with them because they looked it up on Google!  The point here is that there is value in expertise, and the times we live in call that into question more than ever before. If you do not believe me, read Tom Nichols’ book The Death of Expertise.

The most frequent question I get from viewers is about why storms approaching their city tend to split and miss them. They do not of course, but the reason they think so is based on the radar images we show on TV and online. In the case of that tour boat captain, the consequences were far more serious. His misunderstanding of that radar image cost lives. Both of these are examples of the Dunning Kruger effect.

In the case of the boat captain in Missouri, his ignorance of what that radar image showed trumped the knowledge of the local NWS office who had put out a strongly worded severe thunderstorm warning, that explicitly mentioned very high straight-line winds.

And people died.