Last week, after raging for two months over an area larger than Perth, the Fort McMurray fire was finally declared "under control" This was the costliest fire in Canadian history, forcing the relocation of 90,000 people — the largest evacuation in Alberta's history — and over $US2.9 billion ($3.7 billion) in losses. Although the fire is finally manageable, parts of the forest will likely burn for another year. Think about that: An entire year. Meteorologists need to give climate context for extreme weather events like the Fort McMurray fire. (Image: Getty Images)
Scientists agree that large, destructive wildfires, of which the Fort McMurray fire is a prime example, are becoming more frequent because of climate change. But when it comes to those who warn people about the extreme weather that caused the fires — blistering temperatures, nonexistent snowpack — climate change has largely been scrubbed from the script. Why aren't meteorologists, the people who tell the public about severe weather, also telling us what's contributing to it? After all, any respectable climate scientist would tell you that this type of extreme weather is consistent with what you'd expect from climate change.
The role of the meteorologist in contemporary society is important but often invisible. They're the people who remind us to grab a jumper or take an umbrella — sometimes on TV or the radio, more likely through a weather app on our phones. But they are also the only individuals that people receive advice from during potentially life-threatening weather. If a meteorologist is warning about an impending storm surge, wouldn't it be helpful to know that those surges are likely to be worse due to rising sea levels — particularly if you live near the coast? "As a weather junkie as well as a climate scientist, I see it as our responsibility to include context," Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang told Gizmodo.
— Capital Weather Gang (@capitalweather) January 15, 2016
But meteorologists like Samenow seem to be in the minority. Although 96 per cent of American Meteorological Society members say they believe climate change is real and human-caused, climate doesn't make its way into their reports. On MSNBC, Bill Nye called out the network's own meteorologists on live TV for failing to make the connection to climate change.
Granted, weather is not the same thing as climate. But for the past year, meteorological data has confirmed each month that it is once again the warmest month in the planet's history, like a broken record of broken records. And after the harrowing weather stories of the last few months — not just the catastrophic fires in Alberta, but also the end-of-days rain in Houston, the most bizarre temperature data ever coming out of Alaska and the cold snaps and flooding across Australia — it's clear that extreme weather is becoming the norm.
Extreme downpours, or "Very Heavy Precipitation" is becoming more frequent and is linked to climate change
Scientists are only now starting to understand how changes in climate affect extreme weather, in a field of study that's called "attribution". This has become such an important area that Climate Central has launched an entire initiative around it called World Weather Attribution. By adding historical data and other types of context to extreme weather events, climate scientists look for "fingerprints" of human behaviour. Heavy rainfall, like what caused historic flooding in France and Germany last month, has been directly attributed to climate change. But these kinds of weather stories are nuanced and complicated, so it's not easy to quickly communicate them during the weekend outlook forecast.
As a broadcast meteorologist, Bernadette Woods Placky saw firsthand how difficult it was to get climate stories on air. First, there's the issue of time — most weather reports are only a few minutes long and don't offer much space for commentary. Then there's the fact that climate change has become so politicised that a conservative audience, or a fear of losing the brands that advertise to them, could scare stations out of reporting on it. "The focus wasn't on science as much as I wanted to to be," she told Gizmodo. "But at the same time, the public was asking questions, and there was a lot of misinformation."
Climate Central's Climate Matters portal collects videos of meteorologists in its network
Woods Placky now heads up Climate Central's Climate Matters, where she creates tools for meteorologists ranging from talking points to on-air graphics, that help them communicate climate change messages with their audiences. This also includes extensive social media assets which allow meteorologists to report beyond the handful of on-air minutes they're allotted. In her mind, weather forecasts are the perfect place to talk about climate, because weather is accessible and relatable. "It is one of the things in life that affects absolutely everyone — weather is all-encompassing."
There are about 2200 broadcast meteorologists in the US and Climate Central is working with 300 of them, including John Morales, chief meteorologist at NBC 6 in Miami. One might say there is no meteorologist who is more on the front lines of climate change; reporting from a place where "nuisance floods" are now affecting residents more often than not. Morales' extensive reporting on the link between a warming climate and the city's intensifying "king tides" earned him a cameo in the famous New Yorker story on Miami's vanishing coastlines.
— John Morales (@JohnMoralesNBC6) October 21, 2015
"I don't do it every day," he said, when asked about how often he works climate messaging into his reports. "My job is to give viewers the weather forecast that they need short-term, including warnings for extreme weather that can affect their lives. But if an opportunity arises, like nuisance floods are being linked to sea level rise, I will get on air and do more of a presentation aligned with informing the public while it's happening."
But if my neighbourhood is flooding, does it really matter whether extreme flooding is related to climate change or not? Is believing in the science going to make me pay attention, or prepare, or, as a last resort, evacuate?
Social scientists are engaging with that issue through a program called the Communication of Contentious Science, a two-year initiative of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that specifically studies scepticism — not just in the field of climate change but other culturally contentious areas like vaccinations.
"It's not just about information — you have to link it to actions and very concrete steps that people can take," said Irina Feygina, director of behavioural science at Climate Central, and one of the study partners. "One thing that research has shown is that balancing information about the problem with solutions can help this. So if people want to talk about protecting their homes, talk about protecting their homes — don't start by talking about climate change."
Amber Sullins at KNXV used the recent heat wave in Phoenix to talk about how many more 43C days might be in the city's future due to climate change
So, say meteorologists start making attribution part of their forecasts. Do we get daily reminders for how not to screw up the planet? This approach is very tricky. If you use a severe weather hook to talk about climate change, especially when lives or property have been lost, climate deniers will brand your message insensitive or opportunistic. But without meteorologists connecting the dots, how else will people start to see the those human "fingerprints" on their weather, and potentially make changes?
I asked Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist for Slate and host of the new podcast Warm Regards, who has encouraged meteorologists to talk about climate change, if he thought having climate information inserted into our daily forecasts might help people to take action. He was not optimistic. "I think that really, what you're describing is the main challenge of climate change communication for the last 35 years or more," he said. "We've known the science of climate change for a long time, but just knowing what's going to happen hasn't been enough to reduce emissions yet."
In a place like Alberta, which will be recovering from the Ft McMurray wildfire for a very long time, it may not be popular to make a connection to climate change, but I'd argue it's critical. This is a region where the economy is almost entirely supported by the extraction of fossil fuels. These fossil fuels are in turn directly contributing to the warming that has extended the region's fire season by 20 per cent in just 35 years. In this case, suppressing that connection is not just destroying the livelihoods of those residents, it's criminal. Giving weather attribution data to residents who have lost everything in severe weather events might empower them to demand serious reform.