A Brief History of Broadcast Meteorology: From the Past to the Future

The evolution of broadcast meteorology goes hand in hand with scientific advances and the method that it is communicated to the consumer.

Timeline of broadcast meteorology (1915-1982)

The evolution of broadcast meteorology has worked hand in hand with advances in technology. This is true both with the scientific advances of meteorology itself, and the way that information is communicated to the consumer over the airwaves.

According to sangamoncountyhistory.org, the first weather report was a test transmitted by “wireless telegraphy” from Illiopolis, Illinois, in April of 1915. The transmission was received across most of the state and was supplied by Clarence Root, a meteorologist and the Director of the U.S. Weather Bureau in Springfield, Illinois.

A forward thinker, Mr. Root had this to say about the future of weather communication: “I believe that wireless will, in the future, be the method of distributing weather forecasts. The plan has never been used before. It is much quicker than the mails. In times of frosts or approaching storms, the information is of inestimable value to farmers and growers.”

The first commercial radio station in the U.S. was KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which launched on November 2, 1920. KDKA broadcast news and weather information that could be heard by the public.

The first commercial radio station in the U.S. (KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) was the first to broadcast news and weather information in 1920. Photo credit: Wikipedia, and is of public domain.

During the 1920’s, forecasting improvements occurred with the launching of weather balloons from various locations around the nation. Temperature and wind data at different levels of the atmosphere could be combined with the tracking of approaching weather systems.  Following the invention of the electronic computer in 1946 (called the ENIAC or Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), numerical weather prediction became reality when, in April of 1950, a group of meteorologists at New Jersey’s Institute for Advanced Study successfully produced the first weather forecast using the ENIAC and numerical prediction techniques.

A  New York Times article indicated that the first televised weather report occurred on October 14, 1941 from WNBT in New York. The report was given by a cartoon character “Wooly Lamb”. Since hardly anyone owned a television set at that time, only a few could see the report.

During World War II, more information about the jet stream was logged by B-29 pilots. Radar was also used for the first time to track storms.

As the war ended, television rose rapidly into the forefront of communication. Television stations hired meteorologists from the Weather Bureau; many who had served in the military or were college professors. The experiment didn’t last long as station directors considered most of the segments as too dull.

In the 1950s, the newscast weather segment became more of an afterthought. It was perceived that more entertainment was needed and the TV “weatherman” became more of a character than a scientist. Cartoon characters, crazy stunts, and wild costumes became more of the norm.

Some “entertainers” became household favorites. Willard Scott, who achieved fame on the Today Show, was originally on WRC TV in Washington, D.C. Besides presenting the weather, he played Bozo the Clown and was the original Ronald McDonald.

Some stations hired young females who were dubbed “weathergirls”. The concept quickly caught on and many TV markets across the nation had weathergirls. These women were not meteorologists, that trend would be many years away.

On-air graphics for weather presentations were primitive. Drawing highs, lows, fronts and current temperatures were often accomplished with black grease markers on Plexiglass. Some weather presenters, with a flair for the artistic, would draw plants, flowers, or smiling suns on the map.

A 1979 WGN Chicago weathercast with Harry Volkman (using a marker to draw on his map). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons, and is of public domain use.

Later, magnetic boards became weather maps. A magnetic weather icon, like snow, would light up and give the impression of “action weather” when placed on the board.

The 1970s brought significant changes to the weather broadcast. Although the graphics stayed primitive, the weather presenter became part of the “news team” and was often forced into situations where they had to talk about other subjects besides the weather.

Despite the slow trends in TV; technological advances with the development of computer weather models, allowed for better forecasts and they could be extended out to three days. Weather satellites were relaying valuable information from around the globe at a faster pace, too.

Societal changes resulted in more people moving around the country and taking advantage of more leisure time. The demand for weather information rose rapidly, along with the need for specific information. Receiving weather information on the 6 and 11 o’clock news didn’t seem to be enough. Critical weather warnings for tornadoes, hurricanes, and snowstorms were not being communicated and received in a timely manner.

Increased interaction between what was is now called the National Weather Service, private weather services, and local television stations were occurring. A trend back to employing actual meteorologists to deliver weather segments was ramping up. For example, Dr, George Fishbeck (Los Angeles), Bob Ryan, (Washington, D.C.) and George Winterling (Jacksonville, Fla.) became fixtures in their respective markets for decades. The combination of more experienced meteorologists, along with advanced technology, created better produced weather segments and much better communication of weather information to the public.

The Weather Channel Revolution

Triggered from an idea by John Coleman, the weatherman on ABC’s Good Morning America; a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week cable TV network was launched. John partnered with Landmark Communications to put The Weather Channel on the air. The Weather Channel’s original broadcast occurred on May 2, 1982 and it remains on the air to this day.

The Weather Channel combined the advances in weather technology with the public’s need for more timely and specific weather information. Gone were the hand drawn map boards of the past. In were “colorgraphics” machines, which could generate computer graphics that were pleasing to the eye. Images created by these machines could be superimposed on a blue or green “chromakey” wall. This technology had been used by some television stations from the late 1970’s, but The Weather Channel made good use of all available new technology.

Many of their weather presenters were trained meteorologists, and they were supported by teams of meteorologists who produced current and forecast national weather maps. Local forecasts, generated by a Weather Star (Satellite Transponder Addressable Receiver) allowed forecasts produced by the National Weather Service to be sent to each cable system and the consumer could see their local forecast every 8 minutes on the network.

Meteorologists Tom Moore and Vivian Brown at The Weather Channel anchor desk in 1989.
Photo Credit : TWC-You Tube

Current temperatures, national weather maps, national and local radar and satellite pictures could be seen any time of day. Critical weather watches and warnings issued by the National Weather Service were instantly featured on a red and white scroll on your television screen.

As the 1980s progressed and transitioned into the 1990’s more coverage of major weather events, like hurricanes, severe weather, and snowstorms were covered by teams that were on live from the field. In additions, weather technology like Doppler Radar, increased satellite coverage and more advanced computer models greatly improved forecast accuracy and forecasts out to five days became more common.

Greatly influenced by the success of The Weather Channel, local TV stations began to rapidly increase their emphasis on weather coverage. There were more weather events on live, more use of advanced technology and more certified meteorologists on the air. The number of certified female meteorologists increased dramatically, as well.

Meteorologists like Jim Cantore from The Weather Channel became a household name with his energetic live reports of significant weather events. Photo Credit : Wikipedia Commons, and is of Public Domain use.

The overall trend that blossomed in the 1990’s has continued to this day. Significant weather events are at the top of the news. During severe weather events, some TV stations preempt national programming to stay live, using the latest weather technology, to analyze and communicate information. For example, a hook echo on radar, indicating a possible tornado, can be superimposed on a map showing the danger down to a neighborhood level. 

Since the mid 1990s, the number of ways that we can receive weather information has exploded. As the Internet became more popular, there became a wide variety of websites that could be accessed for information, written forecasts and video podcasts. Many private weather services distribute this information. Now, you can even receive forecasts and weather warnings, via your smartphone apps.

It will be interesting to see what is in store for the future of broadcast meteorology.  All we can do is speculate what will happen in the coming years.

What might be in store for broadcast meteorology?

Computer technology, computer speed and availability of information will continue to increase rapidly. Computerized weather forecasts and weather data will be an ever expanding resource. There will be more of an emphasis for watching TV broadcasts online for updated information from your computer or phone.

Radio and television weather broadcasts will continue to be available in local markets. An emphasis on local weather, hearing/seeing a weather authority that you are comfortable with, will continue. However, social media, online weather postings, smart phone apps and online broadcasts will continue to expand. Thus, a weather broadcaster will be placing more emphasis on these resources in addition to their on-air reports.

Improvements to forecast model accuracy and speed will continue. It will become more difficult for a human to significantly out perform these computerized forecasts. Forecast accuracy will increase, especially for extended forecasts.

The explanatory value and personality of the human presenting weather information will continue to be important to the public. Thus, replacing human TV meteorologists is not in the cards just yet. However, there will be a rise of computerized digital avatars that can deliver online forecasts when provided the typical weather data that a weather broadcaster uses. Over time, these will become more and more sophisticated. The digital avatar weathercasts can be updated as new weather data is received.

Will our personal digital avatar be providing us with weather information in the coming years ? Image credit: Bemidji State University-Free for public use

Per some influential members of the broadcast meteorology community, the human aspect of weather communication will continue, at least for the foreseeable future.

Larry Cosgrove, Chief Meteorologist at WEATHERAmerica, a media consultant and former On-Camera Meteorologist in New York City and Philadelphia, has some interesting insights. He suggests that as television transitions at some point to a holographic or dimensional entity and perhaps adds yet another method of transmission, weather forecasting and presentation could become hyper-localized.

“In the more immediate future, longer term prediction will be a particular emphasis because there is no big push to deliver an outlook that has any chance at succeeding beyond 5 days at the present time. He indicated that those with skills in setting up extreme weather threats will rise to the forefront. “Since we are dealing with the television, the overall produced segment could end up at the whim of a news director or consultant, however.”

He did say that overall, the future is bright for meteorologists who love discussing the weather. “In order to succeed, the coming years must be controlled by those who put effort into the forecast. Meteorology students who want to learn about the business of media and could care less about computer programs, algorithms and indices that are not really relevant to the wishes of the general public. That is, a solid reliable prediction without hype, vagueness, and over-structure that bogs down the best efforts of today’s weather professionals.”

Jim Cantore, nationally renowned On-Camera Meteorologist and AMS Fellow from The Weather Channel, also weighed in on the subject. “I think that with all of the cameras and technology available, the future broadcast meteorologist will make the ultimate decision, matching precipitation/hazards that he/she sees on a limitless camera/drone network with what’s happening on radar then nowcasting from there. All of this on an iPad by the way.”

Maureen McCann, Meteorologist at News 13 in Orlando, Florida and AMS Commissioner on Professional Affairs still sees a vital role for humans in broadcast meteorology as we move forward. “I think the future of broadcast meteorology still has to involve a human aspect, and we can’t solely rely on apps and computer generated forecasts. An app that indicates a 90% chance of rain via a storm cloud icon can’t provide a sense of urgency like a broadcast meteorologist talking to you through a severe weather event in your neighborhood, threatening your home and school. The apps are convenient but humans still need to be involved, especially when it comes to communicating hazards.”

“We all know that the days of 6pm news is over, and broadcast meteorologists aren’t confined to just weathercasts on television. We are now responsible for providing weather information around the clock whenever consumers are receiving their weather. The key is to make ourselves available, and relevant on other platforms as they evolve, but still keep that human element in mind.”

Meteorologist Maureen McCann uses the latest computer generated images to present updates during a severe weather event. Photo credit: News 13 – Orlando, Florida

Additional future possibilities and expansions of technology

As we move even farther ahead, 3-D viewing will finally break out into the mainstream using eyewear and phones. An app will become available on the phone where a 3-D hologram image will be produced. 

Weather radios and weather sirens will likely fade into the sunset since the automatic emergency feature will be available on all smart phones. Smart phones will be the primary method of disseminating severe weather warnings. Selecting the specific warning will allow a 3-D view of the storm, along with current and future affected areas.

Currently, many synoptic weather forecast models are updated every 12 hours. This will be replaced by models being updated every minute. Each new legitimate piece of weather information will be integrated and updated by the model. Minute by minute sampling mechanisms of the atmosphere will replace the need for rawinsondes.

Weather technology and methods of communicating vital weather information continue to evolve. Hopefully, this will keep us more weather informed and more prepared for any weather emergency as we proceed into the future.

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