Meteorologists learn to deal with the unpredictable
Matt Lanza finds it liberating to not pretend to have all the answers.
He spent the early part of his career as a TV meteorologist in upstate New York, fielding a seemingly endless stream of angry comments from viewers upset with even the smallest errors in his weather forecasts.
“People just hear what they want to hear,” said Lanza, who eventually moved to Texas and is now one half of the team behind SpaceCityWeather.com.
For Lanza, and other Houston meteorologists, keeping the public informed as weather becomes increasingly unpredictable is a growing challenge.
“That’s our bread and butter,” Khambrell Marshall, the longtime meteorologist for Houston TV station KPRC, said of his relationship with viewers. “You can’t lose the trust of the people.”
He is enthralled by weather and spent most of last week at his station’s headquarters in west Houston, working 14-hour days as ice and snow covered the region in a historic storm.
By early Monday, when much of the state’s power grid was coated in ice or malfunctioning, he realized the weather would be the least of the region’s problems.
“It really wasn’t dawning on us how big of a deal it was initially until, across the board, we were getting reports from (Centerpoint Energy) and
others that they were going to have to do rolling blackouts,” he said.
Dozens of people ultimately died in the storm, which was severe enough to warrant a federal disaster declaration from President Joe Biden last week.
“It was heartbreaking,” Marshall said. “That’s the word I would use to describe the last few days. Heartbreaking, from the standpoint of watching people suffer because of cold weather we never experienced before.”
It’s still unclear the degree to which climate change played a role in the disaster, he said. Regardless, meteorologists expect that unpredictable weather will continue to be the norm.
That means more uncertain weather predictions that they fear could fray trust in weather experts and keep many in harm’s way because they don’t understand the potential damage and severity of future storms.
“There’s a big debate in meteorology right now, and that’s basically: How much do we think the general public can handle in terms of uncertainty?” said Nicholas Bassil, director of research and development for the University at Albany’s climate science center.
When Lanza and Eric Berger, a well-known area meteorologist, launched SpaceCityWeather five years ago, they did so with a focus on “hype-free” forecasting. They wanted to explain the weather in ways that their friends and family could digest. And they wanted to create a space for those willing to nerd out and dig into the weeds of weather.
It’s emblematic of a broader shift in the way that meteorologists are approaching their jobs, and one they hope will continue to resonate with Texans as the state continues to face increasingly unpredictable and severe weather as a result of climate change.
“We’re trying to be nonsensationalists,” Berger said. “We’re OK with saying, ‘Here’s what we know for sure, here is what we don’t, and here is what we hope to know more of.’ We try not to deal in absolutes too much.”
Though the science that informs their work has never been more precise, those in the field these days have to combat a bevy of misinformation, including that from mobile apps, which can often be misleading.
It means less room for error, particularly along Texas’ perpetually battered coastal areas.
And yet, there’s some cause for optimism, Berger and Lanza said. They believe there is an appetite for level-headed and in-depth weather reporting, particularly in Texas.
Their website brought in roughly 1.5 million visits when it first launched a half-decade ago. One hurricane and two major floods later, the site’s traffic has increased by more than tenfold, and the duo has become wellknown in the area for their levelheaded weather forecasts.
In storm-battered Texas, that matters.
“Weather is not easy,” Lanza said. “It’s not simple. Weather events are not necessarily straightforward around here, and the worst outcome is not necessarily something that’s an unlikely outcome anymore.”