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Meteorologist On Climate Change: Viewers Are Less Skeptical, Forecasts Getting Fuzzier

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Weathercasters who address climate change on air are facing less skepticism among their viewers, but their forecasts of weather events may soon suffer due to budget cuts.
Weathercasters who address climate change on air are facing less skepticism among their viewers, but their forecasts of weather events may soon suffer due to budget cuts.

Dan Satterfield recently recalled the angry emails that used to flood his inbox whenever he brought up climate change on the air.

"I don't get very many at all now," Satterfield, the chief meteorologist at WBOC-TV in Salisbury, Md., said this week. "The number of climate skeptics has really dropped. I think we are basically left with the conspiracy theory types."

New data supports his hunch. The number of American adults who are "very certain that global warming is not occurring" has dropped from 16 percent in 2010 to 8 percent in 2012, according to a survey released Wednesday by Yale University. But a recent poll still shows a nation split over questions of whether climate change is real, whether humans play a major role in it, and what can be done about it.

"Fossil fuel interests are still spending big money on misinformation and it does work," Satterfield added.

Between tweeting and broadcasting reports of a winter storm bearing down on Salisbury Wednesday evening, Satterfield shared with The Huffington Post his concerns about a nation moving too slowly on both mitigating and adapting to climate change. In addition to the ongoing challenge of instilling a sense of understanding and urgency among his viewers, he said he's frustrated that budget cuts may soon hinder his ability to provide accurate and timely forecasts before major storms -- which climatologists expect will increase in frequency and severity.

Individual weather events cannot be pinned on climate change, of course. Storms happen, and always have with some regularity. Still, Satterfield suggested that superstorm Sandy was a "watershed" moment for raising the public's climate consciousness. He's noticed that his meteorologist peers seem to be coming along as well. As HuffPost reported last year, skepticism has long-run rampant among weathercasters, who tend to base their denial on their own inability to forecast more than seven days out. If they can't forecast the weather a week from now, how then, the deniers argue, could scientists try to tell us what the climate might be like in 70 years?

To convince the climate change deniers, climate experts often say that climate and weather are not the same thing -- weather tells you what to wear that day and climate tells you what wardrobe to buy. And forecasting tools used by the two professions differ significantly.

Although more weathercasters seem to be on board than in the past, Satterfield said, the realization that their tools are becoming outdated and aging is now leading many to fear a future of fuzzier forecasting.

"Our satellites are getting past their lifetime and are going to start dying," Satterfield said. "People don't realize that without them we wouldn't make reliable forecasts beyond four or five days."

Across-the-board federal spending cuts that affect the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite program may be patched by legislation approved by the House on Wednesday. Yet widespread concern remains, as the help needed to maintain and upgrade the satellites may not survive the Senate or go far enough to prevent a gap in key weather data. A Government Accountability Office report warned in February that the potential gap in coverage could last anywhere from 17 to 53 months.

In the same report, the GAO also highlighted the growing threat of climate change. And the compounded costs could be high.

Both polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites are threatened by the budget squeeze. The fleets work together to keep close watch of short- and long-term weather patterns across the globe. Without the polar-orbiting satellites, models would have shown superstorm Sandy missing landfall on the coast. Similarly, the amount of snow that fell during the "Snowmageddon" blizzard that hit the East Coast in 2010 would have been underestimated by nearly half.

Meanwhile, just as Europe generally leads the U.S. in addressing climate change, it is also well ahead in terms of weather forecasting -- wielding more sophisticated satellites and more powerful computers.

Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, calls it a "national embarrassment."

"Weather prediction is critical for the U.S. economy and for public safety," Mass wrote in his blog in February. "The number one thing one needs to encourage resilience in a changing climate is to have good weather prediction!"

Satterfield considers this problem to be part of the U.S.' larger scientific illiteracy crisis, which he is trying to address via education campaigns and an informative blog he keeps regularly updated. He's also taken opportunities to discuss climate change on air in Salisbury. The seaside city is situated at low elevation and is vulnerable to rising sea levels projected with climate change.

"I recently pointed out that storms like [the one that struck this week] will cause tides to be about a foot higher in just 40 to 50 years. Another Sandy in 50 years will do far more damage and in 75 years the water level from the same storm will be 2 feet higher still," he said.

More and more of Satterfield's peers are doing the same, thanks in part to outreach efforts from organizations such as the National Environmental Education Foundation. Jim Gandy of WLTX in Columbia, S.C., is a case in point. He now has frequent on-air segments devoted to the subject. In one segment, he made his case clear to his viewers in what he calls a "dark red" state: "It's pretty unmistakable that climate change is taking place, the earth is warming and we're seeing the effects here in South Carolina. Evidence for global warming is undeniable."

Gandy told NPR in February that the station has received surprisingly few cranky calls in response to the series.

Nevertheless, Satterfield noted, some weathercasters remain "forbidden" by their stations to mention climate change on air. Until recently, the same seemed to be true of leaders in Washington, including those who decide how much money to devote to weather forecasting.

"I still don't think most politicians on both sides of the aisle get that we're looking at a major dramatic change," he said. "If the models are right, then we're looking at inability for this nation to grow corn and wheat where we're growing them now."

"If we can get the science message out and dispel the myths, then hopefully something will be done by the political leaders," Satterfield added. "But I do not envy them. Some hard choices are coming, and the longer we wait before taking action, the harder the choices and the less options we will have."

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