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Will the Real Meteorologists Please Stand Up?

TV weatherpeople seem like such a goofy anachronism these days that I forget they even still exist until I'm in a motel room in some small town somewhere watching the local 10 o'clock news and, hey, there's someone calling themselves a meteorologist...
January 29, 2012, 8:27pm

TV weatherpeople seem like such a goofy anachronism these days that I forget they even still exist until I’m in a motel room in some small town somewhere watching the local 10 o’clock news and, hey, there’s someone calling themselves a meteorologist pointing at smiley suns and frowny clouds hyping up a trace of snow to apocalyptic proportions. There’s nothing outwardly all that sinister about that until you consider that a) this person on TV is not just reporting on the weather, like the sports guy or the news anchor, but predicting the weather and b), someone on TV predicting the weather is the closest a lot of people get to someone engaged in science, at least that isn’t connected to crime-/forensics-oriented reality TV. (Before you protest, consider that if the latter-day tilt of The Learning Channel and Discovery and the like is any indication, natural sciences were never their biggest hits.)

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The internet has, in principle, killed the TV weatherperson. Shattered the myth. We can now go straight to the source easily enough, with NOAA forecasts, forecast discussions, and every forecast model from across the globe at our fingertips, with plenty of learning resources and the like out there to teach you what it all means. TV stations, radio stations, and local daily newspapers aren’t privy to special information, don’t have their own satellites and top-secret forecast models and supercomputers; if they’re lucky, they have a weather deck so you can see first hand the current weather at said station. Generally, weather info all comes from the NOAA (which is, notably, a real dick about this fact: “Where do you think those weather forecasts originate? Not from a tv or a radio station or some website on the Internet. Weather forecasts come from NOAA.”) Past that, it’s interpretation.

Last week, the Guardian outed a company called Positive Weather Solutions (PWS), a UK outfit used by the The Daily Mail and others for their forecasts, for having a fake staff. Like, there’s an eight person staff listed on its website (below) — or was — and it seems pretty likely that they don’t exist. What does exist in the UK is the Met, the NOAA’s Brit analog(ue), where weather satellite info is collected and crunched by supercomputers and relayed/interpreted by places like PWS.

Real? Doubtfully.

So is your own local weather forecaster an avatar stolen from the internet? I dunno, I only had time to look at so many newspapers and TV stations in the U.S., and I didn’t turn up anything capital “f” fake. There do seem to be people in the employ of media outlets identified as meteorologists, of course, but actual degrees in meteorology — or anything remotely science-related, for that matter — are harder to find. What you will find, however, are a whole lot of American Meteorological Society “seal of approval”s. Which has to mean something, right? Like this person passed a test of basic weather knowledge at least? Nope.

The seal was awarded to weather people that turned in a few clips of themselves “doing weather” and were judged for approval by a panel. Nothing else. (People somehow did get turned down for seals, according to the AMS. Which is amazing.) You can get certified by the AWS as a broadcast meteorologist, but that requires a degree. You don’t see full-on certifications all that often. Chief Meteorologist Doug Hill at Washington D.C.’s ABC affiliate, whose former career was as a suburban cop, rocks the AMS seal. So does “Janice Dean the Weather Queen” at Fox News, who sports a degree in English and used to report for Imus In the Morning. Al Roker has an AMS seal of approval from 1980.

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Dean got her seal in 2009, which is about as late as you could get one. Note you won’t find a seal of approval, however proudly displayed, from 2011; the AMS ditched the program. You’ll find a whole lot of seals from 2008 actually, because that’s the last year you could get them and there was a big rush at the end.“If we were certifying meteorologists, we felt it was appropriate for the candidates to have the educational background equivalent to a degree in meteorology,” AMS’ Kelly Savoie tells Motherboard. “We also added a written meteorological exam to the review process in addition to the weathercast evaluation.”

In other words, you now need to know something about meteorology to call yourself a meteorologist, at least in the AMS eyes. (I write a lot about physics, but I don’t call myself a physicist.) You as someone that wants to know what the weather is going to do should know two things. 1) Any forecast predicting weather past seven days is full of shit. 2) You can find the NOAA discussions page here, which is where weather forecasts are born, before they’re bent around by know-nothing forecasters more interested in sensationalism and ratings.

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Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.