Hyper-Local Weather Takes A Human Touch
With the proliferation of social media and mobile apps over the last decade, weather information — from sport-specific predictions to 30-day forecasts — has never been more accessible.
But accessibility doesn’t always equate with accuracy, caution broadcast meteorologists, who are trying to meet consumer expectations while keeping their daily weather presentations grounded in scientific reality.
While consumers with GPS-enabled smartphones expect real-time weather reports down to the street-corner level, they say, it isn’t as easy as pointing them to the closest burger joint or hardware store.
“When you’re moving around the phone knows where you are, but the information coming in is just not that highly specialized,” says Paul Dellegatto, chief meteorologist for Fox O&O WTVT Tampa Bay, Fla.
“The update itself is fast enough. But if you have a summer thunderstorm developing in the afternoon at the beach, the response time to all that is not going to be quick enough to alert you, because the forecast is six hours old.”
WTVT has its own mobile app, of course, and its best feature is mobile radar that “saves lives,” Dellegatto says.
But in general, he says, most of what one gets from apps is just model data that hasn’t been subject to human interpretation. Sifting through the various models and presenting a forecast that incorporates local knowledge is what meteorologists do.
“We never throw a raw number on the screen,” he says. “Our job is to know the strengths and weaknesses of the model data.”
To produce his forecasts, Dellegatto uses weather data and graphics from market leader The Weather Company (formerly WSI, now owned by IBM) and Baron Systems.
WTVT also has its own Doppler radar, made by Baron, a luxury that most stations don’t have but certainly an important tool in the thunderstorm-prone Tampa Bay market.
The station has its own web page dedicated to hurricane coverage, and has used Facebook Live to offer continuous coverage of major storms like Hurricane Irma. Dellegatto himself maintains a very active social media presence, with 300,000 followers on Facebook and 55,000 on Twitter.
Educating viewers has always been part of a meteorologist’s mission, and Dellegatto says he takes time to explain weather phenomena like a halo around the sun caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere.
Karl Eggestad, sales director for weather solutions at ChyronHego, sees a growing demand for “hyper-local” weather.
“That’s good in a way, that people have that level of expectation that data will be available and accurate. But there is a discrepancy between what people expect and what is possible, and can certainly be justified, on a scientific basis.
“What we are struggling with, in both the U.S. and globally, is that people expect to zoom down to their house, and look at the forecast for 3:35 p.m. tomorrow when they’re going to be packing their car in the driveway. That’s not the level of accuracy we’re talking about.
“While geographically we have the capability to show it, that’s not where weather forecasting is at. Not even observations are that local. People expect to see the radar zoom down to the corner of their street, but that is not possible. More local is not more accurate, and that is something we’re struggling with.”
While smartphones may have taken it to the next level, the emphasis on local weather information is nothing new, notes Justin Kiefer, chief meteorologist for Nexstar ABC affiliate WMBB Panama City, Fla.
Kiefer, a 31-year broadcast veteran who has worked in the Tallahassee, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Hartford, Conn., markets, recalls that it was about 15 years ago when high-resolution graphics got good enough to zoom down to the street level.
At the same time, news consultants and focus groups were telling news directors to make their weather more local. Soon the national weather maps that typically opened the weather segment became a thing of the past at many stations, says Kiefer.
“The only person we care about is the mom taking her kids to school in the morning,” he recalls. “Talking about a front over Idaho had no bearing on whether it was going to be raining in the morning.”
Since then technology has improved to deliver forecasts on an ever-tighter local basis. Kiefer notes that there are “very good and somewhat reliable high-resolution computer models” that predict weather down to the one-kilometer level by pulling data from weather balloons, satellites and radar. But there are limits.
“You don’t have enough computing power to bring it down to someone’s backyard,” he says.
But one can deliver segmented forecasts tailored to particular areas and interests in a market.
Kiefer, who uses weather data and graphics systems from Baron, breaks his forecast into coastal and inland zones; for example, there might only be a 10% chance of rain at the coast but a 40% chance inland on a given day.
He also uses his knowledge of the local seabreeze — he says there are five variations depending on the direction of the prevailing weather system (gradient) wind and other atmospheric variables — to shape his boat and beach forecasts. His understanding of the seabreeze also helps him predict how inland storms may progress overnight, something the computer models often miss.
“I think the local knowledge that experienced meteorologists can lend to the product is invaluable.”
Keifer says say the national upgrade of National Weather Service Doppler radars to dual-polarizaton technology several years ago was a dramatic improvement to storm coverage.
The addition of radar in the vertical plane allowed graphics vendors to deliver a three-dimensional look at storms and let meteorologists more easily confirm the presence of a tornado as the radar would now not only pick up rain but also show trees and debris in a cloud. That is particularly crucial in markets where tornados are a threat many months of the year.
“You can confirm a tornado on the ground because of the dual polarization,” says Jarod Floyd, chief meteorologist for Nexstar’s NBC affiliate KTVE West Monroe, La.. “You can see the debris getting picked up by a tornado. Viewers don’t want to hear about something, they want to see it. You can tell them to move indoors now, but they’ll act a lot more responsibly when they know it’s happening.”
For some TV meteorologists, the job has expanded to dispelling “fake news” about weather that is being disseminated through social media.
Floyd has been a broadcast meteorologist since 2006. In recent years, he has frequently fielded inquiries from worried viewers who have seen dire forecasts from amateur forecasters on Facebook or Twitter.
“I was saying recently to another meteorologist, we’re not competing against each other, we’re competing against misinformation,” says Floyd.
“That’s where the industry has really changed in the last four or five years with social media. So many people have an open, unedited voice and use social media to post doomsday scenarios.
“They put up screen shots saying we’re going to get a foot and a half of rain, and we get calls from viewers who want to know, ‘Is this true?’ We spend so much of our time now killing the spread of misinformation, so much more than 10 years ago.”