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Station Scientists: Beyond the Daily Forecast

By: by Ann Posegate
By: by Ann Posegate

The job of a broadcast meteorologist is a busy one. Just ask Mike Buresh, chief meteorologist for CBS47 and FOX30 TV in Jacksonville, Florida. On a typical day, Buresh arrives at the station in the early afternoon. For at least the next 10 hours, he is busy making his forecast, creating accompanying graphics, typing copies for the newsroom, posting the information to the station Web site, presenting it to the public during on-air newscasts, writing a blog entry about his forecast, and updating it to reflect any changes before finishing his shift. His day might be longer if severe weather hits. Like many of his colleagues, he is also frequently called upon to make public presentations and classroom visits—an average of 50 per year.

Recently, Buresh took on another role—that of “station scientist.” As such, he provides information to his audience about weather, geoscience, and environmental topics. Buresh is actually only one of a number of broadcast meteorologists who are now doing double-duty at their stations, supplementing the weather report with a variety of scientific information that is relevant to their viewers.

The Station Scientist: Bridging the Information Gap
In 1999, the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), a Congressionally-chartered non-profit organization that seeks to advance environmental knowledge, held a workshop on the use of visuals to enhance watershed education. One of the invited panelists was a local meteorologist who spoke about the links between weather and watersheds. It was through this initial discussion that the idea for engaging broadcast meteorologists in environmental reporting was born.

Around the same time, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) was beginning to promote the concept of broadcast meteorologists as station scientists. AMS’s 10-Year Vision Study, published in 1999 as the road map for the society’s activities in the new millennium, called for greater emphasis on outreach to the public, as well as the promotion of scientific literacy and a more holistic understanding of the physical environment. Because a broadcast meteorologist is often the only person in the TV newsroom with a science background, AMS believed that the meteorologist would be qualified to deliver not just the weather, but also more science to the viewing audience.

In 2002, NEEF approached AMS to learn more about the society’s broadcast meteorology certification program and the station scientist concept. The two organizations realized the potential power of collaboration. NEEF could serve as a ready source of balanced, science-based environmental information from which local TV meteorologists could easily draw information to incorporate into their weather reports. At the same time, AMS provided a well-established network of local TV meteorologists who were already highly trusted public figures and effective communicators. Together the partners could equip broadcast meteorologists with broader knowledge and more effectively promote the idea of them being station scientists.

Led by AMS, the initiative has grown in the last six years to include several components. Two of the largest are online classes that can be used for AMS certification and a program called Earth Gauge® that provides broadcast meteorologists with environmental tips and scientific information.

Environmental Education Courses for Broadcast Meteorologists
One of the crucial aspects of the station scientist initiative is the online education component.

NEEF and AMS have partnered with the Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training (COMET®) at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, to provide courses for broadcast meteorologists on environmental topics connected to the weather. COMET® provides online training modules to improve communication and application of scientific knowledge of the atmospheric and related sciences to the operational and educational communities.

For the station scientist initiative, COMET® works with NEEF and a team of experts in various subject areas to create courses that address the connection between weather and the environment. The courses are free, are easily accessible online, and contain copyright-cleared information such as imagery, Podcasts, and narrative scripts that meteorologists can use in their reports and public outreach efforts.

The courses available to meteorologists cover a number of relevant areas. Watersheds: Connecting Weather and the Environment, which was the first course launched in 2006, is a two-hour introduction to the path of precipitation over land and into local waterways.

Another course titled Weather and the Built Environment was designed as a sequel to Watersheds and provides an overview of the evolution of our modern urban environment and its impact on watersheds, air quality, climate, and local and severe weather events. Each unit in the one-hour course includes information on ways to reduce that impact, with ideas ranging from simple changes in our commuting habits to modifications in how we build houses and roads.

COMET® and NEEF also created a Weather and the Public’s Health course, which provides information about the impact of weather events and climate change on Americans’ health and safety. By including this information in their weather reports, broadcast meteorologists can help the public make informed decisions about how to protect their families, their communities, and the environment.

Perhaps the timeliest course is Communicating Climate Change, which is due to be released in early 2009. Because the science of climate change is complex, this course takes the simple approach of addressing questions most commonly asked of broadcast meteorologists by their viewers.
The station scientist team continues to develop new courses. The next course on oceans and coasts will explore the connection between the atmosphere and the ocean and address major environmental threats to oceans and coastal communities.

The courses are available to all individuals who wish to learn more about the connection between weather and the environment. However, the primary audience is broadcast meteorologists. The courses provide continuing education credits for those meteorologists working to obtain AMS’s Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM) title. This certification was created in 2005 in the early phases of the station scientist initiative to raise the professional standard in broadcast meteorology, provide incentive for the continued professional growth of meteorologists, and encourage a broader range of scientific understanding, especially with respect to environmental issues. Currently, about 300 broadcast meteorologists hold the CBM title, although earning the title is not a requirement for participating in the station scientist initiative.

Earth Gauge®: Serving a National Network of Station Scientists
The largest and most visible component of the station scientist initiative is the Earth Gauge® program.

According to Buresh, “Probably the greatest challenges [to providing more scientific information on the air] are having enough time to fully present the topic and convincing the newsroom that our viewers are interested in science stories.” Although interest in environmental issues has increased in the United States in recent years and more newsrooms are broadcasting stories about the environment, stations still have limitations when it comes to presenting scientific information, including the need to cover breaking news and lack of staff expertise.

Another challenge for meteorologists is finding concise information that can be presented in a way that the public understands.

In an effort to address these challenges, Earth Gauge® provides meteorologists with concise pieces of non-biased scientific information tied to the three-to-five-day forecast for inclusion in the local weather report.

Cofounded by NEEF and AMS, Earth Gauge® gathers information from reputable research institutions, government agencies, universities, non-profit organizations, and other trusted entities. It then compiles the information into environmental tips designed to take only 30 to 40 seconds of airtime and fit seamlessly into the weather dialogue. The information is emailed free of charge to anyone wishing to sign up for the tips.

The information is composed of regionally tailored facts and viewer action tips based on the three-to-five-day forecast for the area. Topics include water quality, air quality, energy efficiency, wildlife, public health, and more. For example, if it’s raining in Boston, a tip might make the link between stormwater runoff and water pollution in the Charles River. Or if there is drought in Georgia, a meteorologist might receive information about how viewers can reduce their impact through simple water conservation practices. If a hurricane is approaching Florida, meteorologists might receive severe weather preparedness information and safety tips for their viewers.

In January 2007 Earth Gauge® also began distributing “Climate Facts” and a “Climate in the News” feature in its weekly newsletters. “Climate Facts” provide brief summaries of the latest research on observed changes in weather patterns, naturally occurring climate cycles, and the effects of climate change. They are designed to bring the topic of climate change to a regional level, making it more relevant to meteorologists and their viewers. Topics include phenology, precipitation trends, species ranges, and agriculture. “Climate in the News” highlights interesting articles that meteorologists can use for background information and story ideas.

Success in Education
Buresh said the move to become involved in the station scientist, “wasn’t so much a ‘decision to fill the role of station scientist’ as much as a natural fit in continuing a role I always felt strongly about since my move from college into professional life. That role is delivering a consistent and interesting weather forecast that includes insight into the fields of meteorology and general sciences that sometimes goes well beyond the daily forecast,” he explains.

And the station scientist initiative is helping many broadcast meteorologists like Buresh fill that role. Earth Gauge® in particular has become a key part of the initiative. Since Earth Gauge® was launched in 2005 with 7 TV meteorologists, the reach of the program has expanded to 160 TV and radio meteorologists—most of whom hold CBM certification—in 98 media markets nationwide. As a result, more than 199 million TV viewers—and an additional 91 million households through a partnership with The Weather Channel, where it is used on-air approximately 2 to 3 times per day—are learning more about the environment and other topics during their local weather broadcast. Earth Gauge® is also distributed to National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologists, educators, non-profit organizations, and other interested subscribers across the country.

On average, meteorologists who receive tips from Earth Gauge® use the information two to three times per month, although others use it more frequently. Buresh shows at least one tip per week on-air, uses the newsletter information in his weekly online blog column, and occasionally uses the content in his on-air “Weather Whys” trivia segment.

Meteorologist Joe Winters at KCRG-TV (ABC9) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he uses the information in many ways, depending on the topic, but consistently features the information twice per week in his Cedar Rapids Gazette column.

The public also seems to appreciate the fact that their broadcasters are better equipped to impart a wider breadth of scientific information to them.
“Viewer response has been great,” said Winters. “My audience loves hearing more information than just about the weather, especially when we are having a quiet weather day.”

Buresh said he has noticed that “the viewer response has been positive and curious...Even the news anchors often say something to the effect of ‘Really? That’s interesting.’” In addition, his blog receives the most Web site hits on days during which Earth Gauge® information is included.
Meanwhile, CBS4 in Denver, CBS47/FOX30 in Jacksonville, and other TV stations have experienced an increase in Web site traffic after coverage of environmental topics.

Bob Ryan, chief meteorologist of WRC-TV (NBC4), in Washington, D.C., said, “I think more and more people have to be aware that for their long-term career and for their service to the community, they’ve got to be more than just the weather forecaster. We know people always love the weather, but they’re also interested in and concerned about environmental issues. [Weather broadcasters] should be setting themselves up as the informed person—it will...make them a lot more valuable to the community and to the station.”

New Projects on the Horizon
As climate change creates a more pressing need to educate the public about weather, the environment, and related topics, the station scientist initiative will fill an increasingly important role.

AMS is working to promote a number of trainings and conferences related to the station scientist initiative. In addition, it hosts a broadcast meteorologist conference that occurs in conjunction with conferences in other subdisciplines, such as Radar Meteorology, to encourage broadcast meteorologists to interact with other scientists. As coordinator of the station scientist committee, AMS also maintains an online forum and Web site for resource-sharing and discussion among station scientists.

Meanwhile, Earth Gauge® is working to increase the number of resources for station scientists. It is testing the use of 20- to 30-second video clips with accompanying scripts which can be used on-air and voiced-over by broadcasters. Initially, videos will contain images related to seasonal freshwater topics, such as stormwater runoff pollution and drought. As the project continues to grow, two to three clips per month will be released to broadcast meteorologists based on seasonal topics.

“While the idea isn’t new that meteorologists can be tapped as the station scientists, I think with the recent changes in climate patterns and more awareness about our Earth, news management teams across the country are looking to us to address what’s going on,” said Jennifer Zeppelin of CBS4 TV in Denver, Colorado. Zeppelin uses Earth Gauge® information in the CBS4 Project Green Colorado Web site features. She added, “As more newsrooms increase the number of the stories they cover on the environment and weather, I think the information and resources that Earth Gauge® provides will continue to grow as well.”

Buresh said he hopes to use the new resources to educate the next generation about crucial topics related to weather and the environment. He plans to refer his young audiences to the new Earth Gauge Kids Web site, www.earthgauge.net/kids, which is geared toward children in fifth through eighth grade and includes quizzes, activities, facts, tips, and online resources on monthly weather-environment themes.

By changing the role of the broadcast meteorologist to a station scientist, the public will learn more from the local weather report, including the impacts of weather on their lives and the environment, simple actions they can take to address environmental issues in their communities, and the science of the world outside their windows.


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