A Meeting Of Meteorologists

Bill Geist/weather forecasters/SundayMorning
Bill Geist/weather forecasters/SundayMorning

Everybody's talking about the weird winter weather: blizzards here, cherry blossoms there. So when Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist heard that a group of top TV weathercasters were gathered for a summit Steamboat Springs, Colo., he raced over.
A summit of esteemed meteorologists seemed like a golden opportunity to get some answers to some nagging climatological questions, like what is the difference between partly cloudy and partly sunny?

"Partly cloudy means part of the sky is cloudy," meteorologist Steve Stewart told Geist. "So there will be more sun actually. partly sunny means part of the sky is sunny so there will be more clouds."

Each day at the summit begins not with the national anthem but with an extended forecast that lasts 15 minutes. It is delivered by Dale Eck, director of the global forecast center at the weather channel.

The forecast for this highly scientific seminar was dry for the session on making your station the go-to severe weather authority in your market the forecast was wet and for this seminar on wowing your audience with snazzy computer graphics, the forecast was foggy - at least to Geist.

"I started with a magnetic weather board," Jennifer Hill from Tampa, Fla. said. "Now we've gotten to the point that I'm switching between four computer systems within a three minute newscast."

Forecasters these days have to know about atmospheric science and computer technology. They aren't the lame-brained TV weathercasters so often depicted in such films as "L.A. Story," although a lot have had to do some shtick on the way up.

Dave Sweeney from Portland Ore. explains that today's forecasters are serious meteorologists not clowns — although his neon green outfit sent a mixed message.

"What was that depiction a generation ago? I think you had a guy with a sock puppet doing weather and somebody with a dog and a sweater on you stuck him out in the snow and said I think its gonna snow today. Bowzers got his. That's all changed," he said.

Between seminars, the forecasters partake of the snow they all claim to have accurately predicted. And they talk weather, constantly, says dr. Neil frank of Houston.

"El Niño, global warming hurricanes it's all the same thing," he said. "We talk about weather when we get out of meetings, and we talk about weather at breakfast."

The summit is also an opportunity to share war stories from the front, usually the storm front. One weathercaster told of the time he cut into the final vote to announce a tornado warning. Another time he predicted a winter storm and a man who ran a business salting parking lots sent him the bill for all the salt he bough in anticipation of the storm that never came. Another weathercaster received a e-mail bomb threat when he cut into a University of Alabama football game with a tornado warning.

Even at the summit, they can't stop themselves. They continue to do their hometown weather reports. These are professional meteorologists but in television ratings are the name of the game.

"Gimmicks news directors will do whatever it takes if they think viewers will watch," Stewart said. "If it's a gimmick they'll do it."

Gimmicks like giving snappy names to their weather reports, and hyping the size of their radar units, even though Stewart says they are basically all the same.

But at best weather forecasting remains an educated guess, says dr. Neil frank.

"I've found people appreciate it when you tell them what your uncertainty is," he said. "Number one you're forecasting a specific event but then we've got to also emphasize the uncertainly of the event."

So to be completely straightforward, a station would really have a weather like this: "Accu-hunch weather, with the same Doppler as everybody else," but according to those at the weather summit don't expect to see it anytime soon.