Who's Responsible for the Weather Report?
January 27, 2010 8:15 AM   Subscribe

I have questions about the weather reporting on my local television and radio stations, and how that data is gathered. I want to know how it likely works, rather than how it ideally should work, especially as I'm located in a small college town in the Midwest.

I live Columbia, Missouri, a college town with a population of about 100,000. I am fascinated by weather, and I would like to have an idea of how weather forecasting works, more or less.

We have about three TV stations in our town and a couple dozen radio stations, some of which are more corporate than others (I don't really know) and some of which are owned by the University of Missouri (which is known for its journalism program and which has a meteorology program as well). What is the likelihood that all of these TV stations and radio stations (or radio groups, whatever) hire their own meteorologists? Do they gather the weather data themselves, or is it likely that the smaller stations pay some kind of vendor to get that data and then they just interpret it? Or do they rely on weather websites?

We get the Weather Channel here, but as I have satellite TV rather than cable, I cannot get a local weather report on it- it only lists the national reports with forecasts for the major cities that are more than 100 miles away from me. I often check different weather websites. How do these national organizations get their data? Is it all from the NWS or are there private organizations that do this as well? Do they have people employed in my area that gather this information, or is it all done by satellite or remote or something?

Sometimes when we have our summer storms here, I will notice that some websites/TV stations/etc will carry a tornado watch/warning and others will not, and they often don't match the information I get on my NOAA weather radio. I know that the Emergency Alert System disseminates the information to NOAA, but I don't know how the EAS gets the signal to put the alert out. Do they get that information from private organizations local to me, by the National Weather Service only, or both? Is the difference on whether a tornado watch is reported chalked up to the workings of the individual stations?

I am just curious and I apologize for my ignorance. I've done some reading, but I'm still a little confused as to how this is actually happening in my small college town, or how it would be done if I lived somewhere more remote and rural, many hours from even a medium size city (like in the west somewhere). I can see how it's supposed to work, but I don't know how that translates to reality.
posted by aabbbiee to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
What is the likelihood that all of these TV stations and radio stations (or radio groups, whatever) hire their own meteorologists?

Pretty high, especially for TV. Local news is all about working your way up from the bottom, and your market, Columbia-Jefferson City, MO, is #137.

For an example, look at the bio of Janice Huff, the current meteorologist for the flagship NBC station in NYC. She got a degree in meteorology then went to Columbus, GA (#124), then St. Louis, MO (#21), then San Francisco (#6), then NYC (#1).
posted by smackfu at 8:53 AM on January 27, 2010

They use services like Accuweather. Go to a local news website and send the weatherman an email asking all of these questions. They'll be glad to answer them. I have worked with lots of local news weatherpeople. Most of them would be glad to help you.
posted by Zambrano at 8:57 AM on January 27, 2010

When I was in college, a friend of mine and I went to the little local municipal airport for the express purpose of meeting the guy(s) in the NOAA office there.

They were absolutely flabbergasted to have visitors and took about 2 hours to show us...well, everything. All of the radar stuff, the feeds coming in from various other sites, satellite images, forecasts in progress, everything. It was awesome. If you're interested in local weather data-gathering, see if there's an office nearby (airport is the most likely spot). They might love the company (caveat: this was in the early 90's, so access to the spot may be tighter these days).
posted by jquinby at 9:19 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

KOMU - Eric Aldrich - has a degree in Meteorology

KRCG - Mike Roberts - has a degree in Meteorology

KMIZ - Sharon Ray and Jeff Huffman both claim the title of meteorologist (no bios)

I didn't check with Komu or Krcg to see if there were other meteorologist on staff, but both Aldrich and Roberts have other meteorological qualifications as well.

I do know from just watching the forecasts that they receive a certain amount of data from the National Weather Service. They also have access to or own radar systems which collects data they interpret.
posted by Atreides at 9:31 AM on January 27, 2010

Great questions! It is the responsibility of the National Weather Service to gather and disseminate weather information, provide general weather forecasts, and warn of severe/hazardous weather.

Commercial forecasting companies like Accuweather, Unisys, the Weather Channel, etc take the NWS data, reanalyze it, run their own models, and possibly add their own data to provide general forecasts as well as forecasts tailored to specific regions or industries that are vulnerable to weather impacts (i.e. airlines, agriculture, golf and ski resorts). In order to enhance competition and have a viable commercial market the NWS is limited in how much value-added weather information they can provide. This is why weather.gov are rather dowdy looking. On the other hand, to avoid confusion, commercial outfits are allowed to issue their own severe weather alerts.

TV stations really run the gamut. Some, even some with meteorologists, will simply repeat the NWS forecast. Others will purchase Accuweather or Unisys (and probably other companies) forecast and weather graphics packages. Other stations will have their own on-air and off-air meteorologists and observing equipment like doppler radar. These stations tend to be where severe weather is frequent or dangerous (tornado alley) and the weather segment of the news draws a lot of viewers and is a profit maker for the station.

MU has as small atmospheric science program. Given your interests you may want to check out if their meteorology club is still active.
posted by plastic_animals at 12:09 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can get a lot of the raw data yourself at the page of the National Weather Service Forecast Office, St. Louis, MO. You can get some of the same information at the bottom of the weather.gov page for your area.
posted by bentley at 3:42 PM on January 27, 2010

I'm a meteorologist working for the National Weather Service, and plastic_animals is correct about our primary mission. To elaborate:

All of the upper air observations in the U.S. is collected via weather balloons launched twice a day by the NWS. The satellites are also government owned, as well as stuff like wind profilers found in the central U.S. Most of the Doppler radars are owned by the NWS or DOD, although there are a few low power radars operated by local TV stations.

As for surface observations, most of the official data comes from automated observing sites (called ASOS or AWOS) located at airports. Quite a few of these are funded through the FAA, although some of the tiny airports are paid for by their local municipality. In recent years, more of the TV stations have been putting in surface observing sites at places such as schools. State highway departments will often have their own observations, with a focus on the actual temperature of the road.

Surface observations, usually of temperature and precipitation, are also collected on a daily basis from volunteers in the Cooperative Observer Network. Since this is daily data, it really doesn't get used in the forecast, but is useful for verification and climate tracking. There is also a newer volunteer network that is recruiting people to take close together precipitation measurements and send them in, called CoCoRaHS.

This data is all sent in to supercomputers run by the government in Washington, and go through several different complex models to predict the weather. The output from these models get sent back out to the forecasters, whether they be NWS, private sector, on TV, or whatever. Some places will run a local, smaller scale model on their own computers, and this trend will probably increase in the future, although for now all the global models are run by the big centers. (Canada and Europe also have their own global models).

The NWS will put out their own forecasts using this models, but the private sector will provide "value added" forecasts to anyone who is willing to pay for them. I worked in the private sector before coming to the NWS, and energy trading and utility companies would buy forecasts to try and figure out when it is going to be 104 in Dallas and they need to plan for the higher energy loads.

TV weathermen/women are sometimes meteorologists with their own degrees, sometimes not. It depends on the management of that local station. Even those without a met degree will sometimes get a "AMS seal of approval". Companies like AccuWeather will often provide services to TV and radio stations ranging from just graphics to make the presentations pretty, to a full pre-packaged forecast (this is most common in radio). Again, these decisions depend on local station management, but in general I've found that the TV mets in "tornado alley" often do things for themselves.

As for the Weather Channel, I'm afraid that I don't know too much about their inner workings. I do know they have their own staff of meteorologists to do forecasts, although it is most of the time not the people that are in front of the camera. I don't think anyone is employed locally, the Weather Channel just sends the data to your cable company from Atlanta.

As for warnings for tornadoes/severe thunderstorms/flash floods etc, the NWS is the official source of those. What happens is that there is a NWS meteorologist watching the radar and making the decision on whether to pull the trigger and issue a warning. Once the warning is issued, it goes out via the NOAA weather radio, web, NOAAport (or the old "weather wire") to emergency managers, TV stations, and the public. The local EM officials will make the decision to activate sirens and EAS, and they often have different criteria. Similarly, the TV stations will see the warning and make a decision based on their viewers whether to go with a crawl listing counties, live break-ins, etc. Private sector companies such as AccuWeather and WSI do not provide direct warnings to the public, as they don't want the liability. However, they can alert their clients if the severe weather will affect them or not. When I was in the private sector we would look at the NWS warnings, then call the railroad companies that were our clients and tell them if the warning affected their track.

As jquinby said, NWS offices are often happy to give tours if you call them ahead of time and ask. (You could show up at the door and ring the bell, but you run the risk of them being too busy or just not enough staff on hand to show you around). If you go to weather.gov and click on the map it will bring you to the page of your local office. The address and phone number will be at the bottom of the page below the maps.

I'm sure I'm forgetting something, but need to get to bed so I can work my shift tomorrow. If you have any questions, feel free to me-mail me. Hope this was somewhat helpful.
posted by weathergal at 8:53 PM on January 27, 2010 [68 favorites]

What a great thorough answer! I love the idea of going by the local NWS offices too, and I am just the kind of person who would do that. I would like to see some of this in action, as it were.

I really appreciate the insight!
posted by aabbbiee at 6:41 AM on January 28, 2010

NWS offers free Skywarn classes that teach you what severe weather looks like and how to report measurements (rainfall, snow accumulation, hail diameter, etc). The Level 1 class only takes a few hours and is valuable even if you don't want to be a storm spotter.
posted by djb at 12:49 PM on January 28, 2010

The output from these models get sent back out...

That's the part I write code for. We have various mechanisms, written in Scheme, Perl and (now) Java/C.

I've also worked directly on one of the global models. It's written in Fortran.

Just thought I'd share.
posted by skintension at 1:34 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've also worked directly on one of the global models. It's written in Fortran.

Ah yes, I worked on a regional model written in Fortran back during my stint in grad school. I struggled with it, so ended up going down the forecasting path instead.

Since I've outed myself as a NWS employee, I should probably state that my opinions here (and every other thread on Metafilter) are my own and do not represent the National Weather Service or the U.S. Government, blah, blah, more disclaimer stuff, blah. There, my ass is covered.
posted by weathergal at 3:46 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to go to Mizzou, and every day I got my forecast from the Atmospheric Science department. It's generally more informative and insightful than the forecasts given on the local news stations.
posted by zsazsa at 10:18 AM on February 3, 2010

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