Social media a blessing -- and a curse -- for meteorologists

Photo: Brendan Ramsey

As I stared at my Twitter feed blowing up on Thursday with excited Tweets about potential snow -- for the following Tuesday -- it really dawned on me just how things have changed in the meteorology field over the past 10-20 years. We're publically talking about a marginal snow event -- in Seattle -- already? When it's still five days away?!?!?

Way back at the start of my career, when I used to walk uphill both ways in the snow to the KOMO studios (that we probably only had forecasted a day or two before), meteorology used to go on behind the curtains. Forecast models were sent from NOAA via satellite to massive printers that used to noisily whirr away in an adjacent room, eating up reams of paper a day.

It then required the new kid to sort through the stack of 30-40 papers, sort them by model and forecast period, and place them on dozens of clips on a massive bulletin board, which you can see on the left side of this "Throwback Thursday on a Wednesday" photo:

Awww -- look! A rolodex! That's so cute...

It wasn't exactly a setup a weather geek could convince their parents or significant others to take over a room of the house, and besides the printer would keep the cat awake all night. So meteorologists could safely pore over the data, maybe see a marginal snow event on the horizon, but weigh the low confidence of it actually coming through versus the penalty of the mere mention of snow in a weathercast inciting panic in the streets, we could take a measured wait and see approach.

That worked for all forecasts -- the meteorologists held all of the cards, as most people were only able to get weather forecasts from the TV newscasts, or NOAA weather radio, or the pretty color charts in the USA Today.

Then the internet came along, put all the forecast models online out the world (in color!), and made the process of making a forecast light years more efficient. I could walk into the office, open up Netscape and start getting a feeling for the forecast. The massive printer because an extra cup holder, and we used the extra reams of paper to go essentially "TP" the trees outside of KIRO's studios. (OK, not really. It was KING.)

But then again, everyone else could start firing up their Netscape and peek at the models too.

Then as social media came along, people could share those maps directly with their friends. And as forecast models have advanced, they have become somewhat simpler to read. All of a sudden, meteorologists have lost sole possession of the megaphone. Now there are thousands of megaphones.

People are sharing forecasts directly with each other - you don't have to wait for the 5 p.m. newscast anymore (although we certainly encourage you to do so. Steve Pool: Still awesome!) Automated smart phone apps that just spit out forecasts from a computer and daringly put snowflakes on the forecast for Downtown Seattle on Day 5? Snapchatted in an instant.

And now, that low confidence, marginal snow event that used to be the proverbial cat safely trapped in the bag? It's now out of the bag, has joined 21 other cats, and is creating mayhem at the farmer's market.

It's an adjustment for those of us in the business that now we have to react to events sooner, and face the challenge of communicating effectively through the clamor of all the other megaphones that, yes, that model 5 days out might show some snow around here, but maybe it's the only one? Maybe it's the outlier?

In this particular case, the snow event that had popped up in some local models and, quickly thereafter, in local conversations last week was never really a serious threat. This was probably the most daunting model -- it's from last Friday -- showing maybe 1-2" up north in a Convergence Zone and in Whatcom County. So even then, it wasn't looking like a major widespread snow event.

The caked egg on meteorologists' faces from past snow events has taught us that one model image is but a snapshot -- you have to factor in how consistent has it been from run-to-run, and how does it measure up against several other computers models and forecast tools in our arsenal? But today, one model photo is a Facebook or Twitter attachment, spread as gospel.

But it's awesome too!

Now before this blog turns into a meteorological version of shouting "Hey kids - get off my lawn!" (too late?) there are some tremendous benefits to social media to the meteorology world. Now, meteorologists have realtime access to what's happening during weather events.

Before, it'd require someone to pick up a phone (a landline, or plunk down a quarter for a payphone) or depend on a reporter being in the right place at the right time (Read: Going to Alki Beach (wind) or Snoqualmie Pass (snow) just to have some sort of live shot to match a forecast).

Now, thanks to all of you, we pretty much know what's going on everywhere at any time. Even that random selfie can sometimes give a hint to cloud cover. (Not that we're stalking you. We're conducting important meteorological research!)

That information is crucial -- and can be live-saving information during severe weather. Think of how much help Tweets are during tornadoes, verifying what meteorologists are seeing on radar.

And now everyone carries a camera in their phone, providing not just spoken descriptions, but photo descriptions. Rumors of "it's snowing in Mill Creek" can be easily verified that it's not hail or just the way your porch light is hitting raindrops, (and on the other hand, when that person says they have a foot of snow outside, we can tell from their patio furniture it's probably closer to 3 inches...)

Going the other way, social media also allows us to get crucial information to you much faster. When that Winter Storm Watch goes up, you'll all know via Tweets, App alerts, Facebook posts -- heck, you might get a note on Pinterest: "Here's a great quiche for Thanksgiving week... and hey, did you hear about the Winter Storm Watch?" How many of you came to this blog via a Tweet or Facebook share?

It also allows meteorologists to better connect with our viewers and readers -- for example, it's much easier these days to tweet us to ask if your town is in the "Northwest Interior" when we talk wind warnings or if your town is above 500 feet when we give that snow level.

It's way more useful information than just relying on that rock you got for Christmas that says if it's white, it's snowing and if it's gone, it's windy. It's also a great neighborhood tool during severe weather events to keep tabs on your neighbors, finding out whether power is on back home so you can justify another hour at the mall, or you get the post from the brave neighbor who says that yes, the hill outside the neighborhood is still covered in snow, and whoever has the recycling bin with 13102 on it will now find it about three houses down with a mysterious dent.

So meteorology sure has changed in the past 10 years. I'd say the benefits of social media far, far outweigh the challenges, but it sure is a whole new world for us weather geeks to adapt to. Just take care with that megaphone!

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