Jason Samenow '94 on Predicting the Weather for The Washington Post
Today the meteorologist’s role is more important than ever. Although we still look to weathermen and women to tell us when to carry umbrellas, we now also seek their expertise on a weightier topic: global climate change. Jason Samenow ‘94, founder of the Capital Weather Gang blog and weather editor at The Washington Post, has been communicating the science of climate change for more than a decade. He now leads a spirited team of meteorologists who engage readers with storm-naming contests, heat wave humor, video Q&As, history lessons and more. Samenow told The Term about social media, the meteorologist’s evolving role and getting it wrong.
The Term: The DC-area snow storms of 1987 first sparked your interest in weather. Tell us about catching the weather bug at such an early age.
Jason Samenow: I found the beauty and tranquility of deep snows thrilling, and was fascinated by the impact they had on our region. My fascination with snowstorms evolved into an interest in all things weather and climate — from hurricanes and thunderstorms to, eventually, global warming.
While working at EPA as a climate change science analyst, you founded the blog CapitalWeather.com as a side project. How was that blog different from anything else out there?
When it was launched [in 2004], it was the first professional weather blog on the Web. The interactive element of the blog was really important because it enabled readers to become part of the forecast process, writing in with comments, questions and observations. In short, the blog format bridged the gap between the weather forecaster and the user.
In 2008, The Washington Post absorbed the blog, which became known as the Capital Weather Gang, and you became the Post’s chief meteorologist. How did the major snow storms of 2010 (among them “Snowmageddon”) affect the blog’s popularity?
Site traffic spiked to 10 to 20 times previous levels. Incredibly, "Capital Weather Gang" was one of the top search queries on all of Google as [Snowmageddon] hit. The comment volume during the storm was amazing. As the snow piled up to historic levels, readers craved the opportunity to share their experiences and have direct access to a local team of meteorologists. The dialog and interaction during that event truly showed off the power of the blog as a form of social media.
Significantly for me, our coverage of Snowmageddon also showed off the value of useful, accurate and entertaining local weather information on WashingtonPost.com and very likely played a role in the creation of the full-time weather editor position, which I accepted [in the summer of 2010].
What happens when your predictions are wrong? Do people give you a hard time?
Despite major improvements in forecasting over the last several decades, weather remains an inexact science. We do our best to educate our readers about uncertainty and convey our level of confidence in every forecast to reduce surprises. Nevertheless, we occasionally bust a forecast, and it feels like a punch in the gut each time it happens. And because the blog format facilitates user comments, we hear about our misses loud and clear. After one snow prediction fell short of expectations, one reader went as far as to say we purposely inflated our forecast snow amounts to convince the federal government to shutdown. If only we had that kind of influence...
In reality, our goal is to be accountable for our bad forecasts and learn from our mistakes.
How has the meteorologist’s role evolved now that climate change is such a hot topic?
Because the issue of climate change is so politicized, some weather communicators steer clear of the topic entirely. Others are starting to see climate change manifest itself in daily weather with increasing frequency of warm/hot days, precipitation extremes and other impacts. And so they view it as their responsibility to communicate the science. On the Capital Weather Gang blog, we regularly write about climate change science and do our best to accurately and fairly convey the latest, peer-reviewed scientific findings and the range of credible viewpoints.
There is a contingent of broadcast meteorologists unconvinced that climate change is happening and/or dismiss a human contribution, [even though] the overwhelming body of scientific literature suggests otherwise. [Because] many weather broadcasters are seen as trustworthy authorities on science by their audience, it's unfortunate that some of them use their position to present a narrow, unsupported perspective.
What have you learned about climate change outreach? What gets people engaged, and what turns them off?
In my experience, the most effective way to demonstrate the reality of global warming is to highlight the multiple lines of observational evidence that [global warming] is happening. Whether it's the retreat of glaciers around the world, melting of sea ice, increases in ocean heat content or longer growing seasons, the signs are all around us, and there are heaps of data to illustrate them. An excellent way to engage people is to show them how changes where they live fit in with the global picture.
Communication strategies that can backfire include a focus on doom and gloom scenarios based on predictions of the future. Some people are naturally skeptical about long-range predictions, while others shut down if confronted by scary forecasts that make them feel helpless. What's more effective is to first show observed data about what's happening now, followed by an exhibition of the full range of possible future scenarios, and to conclude by showing what actions taken today can reduce the risk of unwelcome future changes.
Did any of your Potomac teachers influence your career path?
My teachers at Potomac were very supportive of my interest in weather. I remember Scott Carneal, my advisor freshman and sophomore years, was a weather enthusiast. The environmental science class I took with John Drew my senior year was instrumental in broadening my interests beyond simply weather forecasting into the multidimensional issue of climate change, which I spent the first decade of my career working on at EPA. For my senior project at Potomac, I was fortunate enough to intern for meteorologist Bob Ryan (a Potomac parent) at NBC4. Bob's been both a great mentor and friend in my career.
What advice do you have for an aspiring meteorologist?
Meteorology requires taking a lot of math and science, so know that going in and work really hard on those subjects. But don't dismiss the importance of humanities and the ability to communicate. For most in the profession, public speaking and writing are critical to success. And now, more than ever, being up to speed on the latest computer/digital technology and social media platforms are key to mounting a successful career in the field.
Read Samenow’s posts on the Capital Weather Gang blog at www.capitalweathergang.com.