Weather. Or Not.
Television meteorologists love snow. They love forecasting it, or trying to, even if they detest shoveling it or driving in it. This is perhaps why they're always smiling as they give word of our impending sore backs, spinouts, and slush-soaked shoes. “It's like having a favorite politician and trying to be unbiased when you deliver the news,” says New England Cable News weatherman Tim Kelley. “As snow lovers, we may tend to pump up those forecasts due to subliminal forces inside our heads. But we try to stay calm.” It does not take a lot of the stuff to trigger their endorphins, which further, though not completely, explains why CBS-4 early-shift meteorologist Barry Burbank was so chipper in the aftermath of last winter's first storm. Greater Boston got barely enough to measure on December 2, 2003, but the flakes that fell that morning came down
in a hurry. The snow squalls swept in from Vermont and New Hampshire in the middle of the night. Burbank, rugged of visage — wavy hair, broad forehead, chin suggesting a vocation involving badges or heavy machinery — tracked them all the way. Not long after he arrived at WBZ-TV's Soldiers Field Road studio at half past 3 in the morning, they showed up on the station's five-week-old, $1 million Doppler radar, appearing as a band of white glowing against the readout's green background. Inside the white line were splotches of bright blue indicating spots where conditions were nastiest. To scan the sky with his own eyes, Burbank had to look at another monitor: In a quirk of the profession, Channel 4's weather team, like most of its local counterparts, operates out of a windowless room.
When Channel 4's wake-up show went live at 5 o'clock, Burbank was ready with the play-by-play. The squall line hit the commuter arteries north and west of Boston around 6, just in time for the start of the a.m. rush, dulling headlights, blotting windshields, and generally bringing traffic to a standstill. Salt trucks, already finished with a prophylactic application, were sent out to coat the roads again, only to get stuck in the backups.
As suddenly as they'd come on, the squalls stopped. The snow melted. Whereupon the resulting moisture, unimpeded by the friction of steadily rolling tires, promptly froze into black ice. Motorists across the state suffered more than 500 fender-benders. The state police fielded nearly 1,300 emergency calls in three hours, twice the usual number; a lieutenant later declared the calamity “reminiscent of the Blizzard of 1978.” Back in the Channel 4 studios, Burbank beamed. “I was pretty happy that day. Everybody else wasn't. But I was.”
His bosses were undoubtedly equally pleased. With industry surveys pointing to weather coverage as the leading reason people tune into local newscasts, storms can be good for a station's business, particularly when its meteorologists nail a forecast their competitors missed or outperform them during live reports on the latest tempest — “weather porn,” as WBZ's Mish Michaels calls that kind of footage. And in Boston, the competition is more intense than a February nor'easter. The city's television market, fifth largest in the country, has more degreed meteorologists than New York's and a more fickle climate and finicky audience than just about anyplace else. For the past five or so years, its stations have been locked in a meteorological arms race, luring away marquee forecasters, expanding departments, investing in cutting-edge equipment, and flogging their weather-predicting prowess, it seems, during every commercial break.
“It's a very friendly competition. But they are aware that Viacom and CBS happen to be very invested in weather coverage,” says Michaels, referring to Channel 4's parent companies. “And they're jealous.” Mike Wankum, the chief meteorologist at WB-56, adds, “It's like football. Once we're inside the 20, it's every man, woman, and child for themselves. You want to have better forecasts.” Although few of his peers admit to keeping tabs on other stations, all are well versed in the miscues and shortcomings of their rivals. They prove equally eager to expound on their respective advantages and poke holes in the supposed benefits of any strategies or tools their own stations are either unwilling or unable to fund. So while Channel 4 offers Burbank's chronicling of the black-ice storm as evidence of the superiority of its First Alert Doppler, Channel 5 touts its Doppler Net and its StormTrak 5 Live Doppler, once the only one of its kind in Boston, and Channel 7 argues that its growing and decidedly low-tech weather-spotter network can be a better resource still. “Radar is a great tool,” says the station's chief meteorologist, Todd Gross. “But it can't tell you if the snow is sticking on the roads. It can't even tell you exactly how much rain fell. If you have spotters in every single location, they could fill you in on that.” Other stations' forecasters believe those boasts are hooey — that since every meteorologist reviews essentially the same raw data, the real difference-makers are experience and instinct.
There is one topic, however, on which the forecasters agree. “Because Mother Nature always has the upper hand, there's always going to be a bad forecast somewhere down the line,” Gross says. After this winter's first snow — when Boston and the South Shore got more of it than initially expected — their viewers likely would concur.
Anyone wishing to appreciate the challenges Boston's meteorologists face would do well to visit the Blue Hill Observatory, which sits atop a 635-foot-high bluff in Milton. Welcoming me to the building, Charles Orloff, the observatory's executive director, says, “Why don't we go up on the roof? That's a nice place to talk.” He has a voice that sounds like Gene Hackman's and the ruddy complexion of a man who doesn't hesitate to brave the elements. Leading the way, he bounds up two flights of green wooden stairs.
Once on the observatory roof, Orloff motions toward an apparatus whirling above his head. It resembles a miniature helicopter propeller, with round bowls hung sideways on the ends of the blades. It's called a contact anemometer. It measures wind speeds. “It's similar to the type used to record an 186-mile-an-hour gust during the 1938 hurricane,” Orloff says. Since the facility opened in 1885 — it's the oldest continuously operated manned weather observatory in the United States — it has also seen 101-degree heat, a freeze that reached 21 below, and 24-hour periods marked by nearly 10 inches of rain and just less than two-and-a-half feet of snow. Although local conditions don't vary that wildly on any given day, it can certainly seem as if they do.
When the sky is clear, you can see from the observatory to the Atlantic Ocean, which in New England is influenced both by the cold Labrador Current to the north and the warmer Gulf Stream to the south. To the west loom Wachusett Mountain, the Monadnocks, and the Worcester hills, which trap winter storms and can add five degrees to balmy summer highs as westerly winds slide down their slopes. Orloff points out how some other quirks of the neighboring terrain complicate forecasters' jobs. “See the airstrip visible to the southwest? That's the Norwood airport,” he says. It sits down in a valley, and cold air tends to hunker in there. It usually has much lower temperatures than the surrounding area.” The belt of green just below? The Neponset River Valley, running up to Dorchester Bay. “A front settled down there last February. You could see a roll of clouds where the warm air was passing over it. It was snowing like the blazes on one side of that line. On the other, up here, we had just a little bit of mist. I stood up here and took pictures.”
What Orloff had been photographing is what's known in the trade as the rain-snow line. More than any other variable, it vexes Boston's weathercasters. “The joke is that it sets up through the McDonald's in Bedford,” says Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, which keeps its headquarters in a handsome townhouse on Beacon Street in Boston. “It makes this an exciting and wonderful place to be a meteorologist. But it also means that in any given snowstorm, you can essentially hit the forecast on the head and have half the viewing area think you were wrong, because what they felt wasn't quite what you said,” based on the available information. “If you miss the line by just a couple of miles — which is a terrific forecast — there are people in some communities that are really mad at you.”
The exact coordinates of the rain-snow line depend on where temperate air seeping inland from the ocean collides with an incoming Arctic air mass. And on how much snow already covers the ground, whether a storm system drifting offshore turns back and batters Boston with its tail, and a host of other factors gleaned from the weather maps and the increasingly sophisticated computer models meteorologists consult, which reliably point them toward the correct calls. That is, when the model they're consulting isn't dead wrong.
“They handle each winter differently,” says Fox 25 meteorologist A.J. Burnett (no relation to the author). “One model will keep taking storms down to our south, repeatedly, even though the storms are coming right at us. After a couple of times, you say, 'You know what, that model has a bias,' and you learn from that. It takes a couple of snowstorms to figure out what each model is going to do.”
Even when meteorologists have compensated for the glitches in their models and determined just how a storm will behave, the limitations of television force them to omit the kinds of qualifiers and precise details that would insulate their broader forecast from complaints of inaccuracy. “Time constraints prevent me from getting specific about each town,” says NECN's Tim Kelley, whose predictions have to cover all of New England. “Which is exactly what people want to know. People are obsessed. They want to know, Are we getting 4 inches, or 5? When forecasting rain, no one asks if it's going to be .4 inches or .5, which is essentially what they're asking you to predict.” In response to those demands, Kelley has developed a hedge he finds helpful. “If you believe there's going to be 6 to 12, it's best to just predict 9 inches. Because if you only get 6, people will say, 'But you said a foot!'” Then there are the days on which no forecast could be long enough to clearly convey all the permutations, when the precipitation boundaries are so mutable they seem rendered by Etch A Sketch. “Sometimes you will run into situations that are just so complex that after the whole storm occurred you think back and say, 'Now, here's what I would have had to forecast to have been correct. It would have been, 'Rain beginning in the late afternoon, mixing with snow from Boston northward, then changing back to rain, then changing back to snow, all rain on the Cape . . . ' says Channel 5's Harvey Leonard. “You could never deliver a forecast like that. Nobody would be able to understand it.”
One thing that doesn't help meteorologists better divine what the atmosphere holds in store down the road is having their own Doppler radar. That's because Doppler radar is not, strictly speaking, a forecasting tool. The machines employ radio- or microwaves to detect approaching storms and calculate the speed of the winds and precipitation they carry. They're great for picking up the makings of a tornado; no good for telling you whether Sugarbush will have fresh powder this weekend. And while in this market Channels 4 and 5 can boast that their own radars give them unique looks at ominous clusters of cumulonimbus, the other Boston stations all have access to the network of radar towers run by the National Weather Service, whose closest Doppler stands at its Taunton outpost. “We all get Doppler radar updates every five minutes,” says Bernie Rayno, who holds the fancy title of expert senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com in State College, Pennsylvania. “Honestly, it's more of a marketing thing.”
In that regard, WBZ-TV and WCVB-TV are taking full advantage of their investments. “It appears to me that Channels 4 and 5 are in a kind of Doppler war, where they each believe they have the best,” says Kelley. “'My radar's more powerful than yours!' Oh my goodness. It sounds almost dirty or something.” The American Meteorological Society's Keith Seitter understands the Doppler hype. “Saying you have your own radar,” he observes, “means you must be more serious than the other guy.” In markets where fewer forecasters can claim the distinction, stations flaunt his organization's Seal of Approval in much the same way. The program, set to be supplemented this month with a more stringent Certified Broadcast Meteorologist designation, evaluates meteorologists on their educational backgrounds and presentation skills. The accuracy of their forecasts, however, is not taken into account, just as it's not among the criteria required for the Emmy Awards many of the city's weathercasters have won.
Coming up with objective measures of meteorologists' dependability, it turns out, is a slippery task. Rayno maintains that he and his peers, “are right 95, 96 percent of the time,” which seems plausible, so long as by “right” he means “more or less in the ballpark.” Backing up his claim, the National Weather Service says that on the East Coast, more than 9 out of 10 of its predictions regarding winter storms hit the mark. But these figures cover the entire area from South Carolina to Maine.
Wanting harder numbers on the prognosticating abilities of local meteorologists, Boston magazine commissioned a study by highly regarded experts: the members of the weather club at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Natick. The group scrutinized the market's major stations on 10 randomly selected days earlier this winter, awarding two points each to the forecast closest to the official high and low temperatures, as well as every pinpointed prediction of daytime and nighttime precipitation and overall condition of the sky — sunny, partly cloudy, and so on. When the totals were tabulated, Channel 4 came out on top with 66 points out of a possible 120, followed closely by WB-56 with 64. Channel 7 finished third with a score of 62. Channel 5, NECN, and Fox 25, tied at 60, rounded out the rankings.
Meteorologists can get a bit defensive when put to those sorts of tests. “People will say they have the most accurate forecast. What are they going by?” says Kevin Lemanowicz of Fox 25.
“Your forecast might be 100 percent right for one town. A few towns over, a thunderstorm pops up, and that reflects on your name. There is no set standard,” observes his colleague, Cindy Fitzgibbon.
“Ultimately, the people are going to be telling you whether your forecasts are right or not,” Lemanowicz says. “If they start writing to your bosses, emailing the station about what a horrible forecaster you are, then you've got issues.”
If viewers really are a meteorologist's best judge, Boston's forecasters are fortunate that their audience includes just one Gerald Selvin. Spry and bespectacled, Selvin is an ophthalmologist by training, but his passions lie in the clouds. He is what the uninformed might call a weather geek. Among fellow enthusiasts, the preferred term is weather “weenie.” “If you speak with some of the pros, they'll know what you're talking about,” Selvin says, “They may not dignify the term, but that's basically who we are.” In the Brookline townhouse he shares with his wife, five-year-old daughter, and several overstuffed bookcases and overgrown plants, he spends hours each day pouring over weather websites and posting messages on online meteorological bulletin boards. Rather than watch local forecasters, he makes his own predictions. His family never packs the wrong clothes when they travel. “I've been known to go out of my way to look at which direction a weathervane is pointing. It's a little sick,” he says. “Most of the people I work with, my family, all the people near and dear to my heart, they see this as kind of an oddity.”
These days, there's a little weenie in all of us. “You started seeing in the 1990s a fairly significant transformation in the way people thought about forecasts. It's happened gradually enough that people don't even realize it until you point it out,” Seitter says. “Two decades ago, you would never have imagined you would sit on a Wednesday and watch the forecast on TV and decide whether you were going to have a picnic on Saturday. People stand in the grocery line and say, 'Well, they never get it right.' But the fact is that people are making very detailed plans based on forecasts, in a way they didn't before.”
The city's meteorologists recognize the increasingly central role they play. “Expectations have gone up along with our accuracy,” Harvey Leonard says. “Now, if you get six inches of snow, when two to four inches are forecast, a lot of people are going to go, 'How could something like that possibly happen!' You have an awful lot of pressure, because people are expecting that you're going to get it just about exactly right all of the time.” So they dutifully endeavor to master new technologies and deepen their understanding of the vagaries of the local climate and, especially this time of year, prevent their private enthusiasm for bad weather from getting the better of them.
Todd Gross, for one, has taken drastic steps to counteract his admitted tendency to root for snow. “I had that problem, and I solved it in a very unique way,” he says. “I developed a whole bunch of snowmaking machines. I bought one, and I made one, and I learned how to make some more. And when it doesn't snow, I go home and make it. Feet of it. For the kids or whatever. It really did help me psychologically. I know that sounds silly, but it's true.”