Fearless TV weather forecasters air the planet's soaring carbon levels

Mark Kaufman

Mike Nelson's weather forecasts on May 7, 2019 included more than powerful storm fronts, thick fog, and flurries of snow. The veteran meteorologist's Denver television broadcasts, delivered three times a day, flashed the planet's current level of carbon dioxide — a potent heat-trapping gas — on the screen. This number, which is now flirting with a historically unprecedented 415 parts per million (ppm), is easily the highest it has been on Earth in at least 800,000 years, though it's likely carbon levels are now the highest they've been in millions of years.

Unable to avoid the atmospheric realities they scrutinize each day, a growing contingent of meteorologists are now looking well beyond the 10-day forecast, to Earth's troubling climate trends. They hold a powerful audience, as over half of Americans receive their news from television. But these forecasters are not simply referencing climate change; they're regularly providing viewers with the cold, hard, and perhaps unpleasant facts, like record CO2 numbers.

"It's important for us to get the right science out there," said Denver 7's Nelson, who then paused, and considered another reason why he's presenting CO2 levels. "I’ve been doing it, increasingly, since the birth of my grandchildren."

Mike Nelson's Climate Calander graphic, including CO2 ppm.

Image: THE DENVER CHANNE / Mike Nelson

Just last month, another veteran forecaster, Miami's John Morales, started presenting carbon dioxide numbers on air, too. Like Nelson, it's not something he constantly drills during live broadcasts, at least not vocally. But Morales now shows the numbers each day, and references them when he can. 

"The most important thing is that it stays front and center in people's minds on a daily basis," said Morales, between weather forecasts on NBC 6 in Miami. 

Though TV veterans, Morales and Nelson have altered their live reporting as they adapt to the changing climes. "Mike's been on the air for a long time," mused Morales. "We think similarly. We're old school. But we've just taken it upon ourselves." 

These veteran, and to some legendary, forecasters have an advantage that many climate communicators don't. They have profoundly reliable, trustworthy, recognizable faces that people have counted on for decades, through historic storms, drought, and flooding. "We are the scientists that the TV public sees," said Bob Lindmeier, a Wisconsin forecaster for over 30 years. "For most of them, we’re the only scientists they have any connection with," added Lindmeier, of ABC's 27 News.

Like Nelson, Lindmeier has another poignant reason — beyond being a responsible weather communicator — for educating his viewers and the local community about the planet's historically high carbon emissions. It's his granddaughter.  

"I’m concerned whether she’s going to be in a livable world," said Lindmeier, who started speaking about climate implications on the air about three years ago. "I couldn’t look her in the face 20 years from now if I didn’t do everything possible to help make this a livable world."

The up and coming forecasters

As Morales emphasized, it's not just the seasoned forecasters like Lindmeier who are connecting the dots between carbon emissions and weather for their devoted viewers. There's a younger breed of forecasters who can't ignore today's unfolding scientific and environmental realities, especially when they hit home in the form of worsening floods and long-term drought. It's these newer forecasters, who have been on the air for a relatively junior five years or so, that have the strongest spines when speaking about climate science that — while nearly mathematically indisputable — still stirs tensions in many U.S. communities, explained Morales. "Doing something like this takes courage. Kudos to them," he said, noting that it's easier for a veteran forecaster to broach topics like climate change.

Elisa Raffa, a KOLR Channel 10 meteorologist in Springfield, Missouri, is one of these forecasters. 

Raffa, though, has adopted a much different approach to on-air climate communication. Rather than regular CO2 numbers or climate signals, she has created entirely separate, in-depth news programs, delving into how changing climes have altered the local Springfield community. She reported a story, for instance, on how black vultures have crept northward as average temperatures have edged up. These voracious birds are now eating up live young cattle, and costing farmers. "I find people are interested and eager to learn about climate change, especially when it has some local ties," said Raffa, underscoring that these changes are unfolding now. "People think about polar bears and ice caps and problems for generations far from now, but we’re learning that’s not true."

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But when you don't have the long-term, earned credibility from the likes of Morales, it can be tough to break out of pure weather forecasting and offer viewers the climate perspective. "When I first started I was intimidated by the fact that I was not a veteran. I’m not John [Morales] or Mike [Nelson]," she said. 

Yet, her unique, quality, and somewhat unconventional climate programming is working. "She’s the most junior person in the station, but she is creating long reporting opportunities," said Edward Maibach, a climate change communication expert at George Mason University. 

"She’s been so applauded for doing this in a red state like Missouri," added Morales.

The importance of numbers

Amid a disconcerting political climate wherein the Trump administration has publicly fostered climate science misinformation, any accurately disseminated climate information is valuable. But there are few stats so stark as Earth's accelerated carbon dioxide levels. They're now exceptionally high. For the past 800,000 years (at least), CO2 didn't reach over 280 ppm. Today, we've already jumped some 135 ppm, and counting, above that geologic marker.  

Things are way beyond normal, and the 800,000-year climate record is indisputable. Scientists, like those at NASA, directly measure CO2 levels from ancient air trapped in ice cores.

"With a reliable 800,000-year record, it's hard to argue," said Lindmeier, noting that carbon levels skyrocketed when humans began the mass burning of fossil fuels. "The cause and effect is clearly obvious."

Skyrocketing CO2 levels.

Image: scripps institution of oceanography

Today, researchers measure carbon dioxide levels in real time. These are the regularly updated numbers broadcast by Nelson and Morales. Beginning in 1958, a young scientist named Charles Keeling began to take CO2 measurements from the lofty, pure air atop Hawaii's towering Mauna Loa. Carbon dioxide concentrations have been assiduously recorded ever since, and Keeling's son, climate scientist Ralph Keeling, now heads the carbon dioxide recording program at the Scripps Institution for Oceanography. He's pleased the continually rising CO2 numbers are getting prime time, weekday broadcasting.

"It's great to educate people about the numbers — the numbers matter," said Keeling, noting how truly out-of-the-ordinary today's CO2 levels have grown, and continue apace. "There is something alarming about the incessant aspect of this. It’s pretty unusual in the course of history and the course of human civilization — it's pretty weird." 

"And the consequences are not small," Keeling added.

These consequences are now visible in local U.S. communities, like Denver, Miami, Springfield, and Madison.

"[Climate change] makes things that much worse," said Nelson, referencing the well-predicted extremes to the hydrological, or water, cycle. "Your drought is going to be drier, your flash flood is going to be wetter."

CO2 levels since the year 1700.

Image: scripps institution of oceanography

Wisconsin, for example, was recently hit with some "staggering," rains and record flooding. This isn't surprising, as a warmer atmosphere holds more water. It's simple physics. For every 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, the air can hold 7 percent more water. "That has led to an increase in extreme weather events," said Madison's Lindmeier.

Both the nation and greater planet are expected to experience an increase in pummeling weather. The planet, while certainly growing warmer, hasn't nearly caught up with the exceptional amount of carbon saturating the skies. Significantly more heating is already locked and loaded. (The last time CO2 was this high some 3 million years ago, the seas were likely well over 30 feet higher). What's more, modern civilization will almost certainly blow through its most important climate goal — to curb warming at under 3.6 degrees F above 19th-century levels. And global society probably won't even hit its peak carbon emissions for another decade.

Temperatures compared to average. Blues show below average temperatures.

Image: nasa

Temperatures compared to average. Yellows, oranges, and reds show above average tempertures.

Image: nasa

While a dour reality, it could be all the more reason for people to grow increasingly climate savvy, and supportive of efforts to slash society's carbon emissions. "Ignoring the problem is certainly not going to be the right thing to do," said Nelson.

Some respected meteorologists, at least, are doing their part. "There’s been a switch in broadcast meteorologists accepting the science and being willing to speak out," said Lindmeier. 

George Mason's Maibach noted that, since 2012, there's been a 33-fold increase in the rate of TV forecasters' reporting on climate change — though it's likely even more. "We’re pretty sure we’re undercounting — we’re quite impressed with the increase in on-air reporting," he said. 

Still, Nelson encourages more weather forecasters to spread the scientific word, perhaps by displaying the planet's skyrocketing carbon dioxide levels on the air. Or whatever means they choose. 

"Embrace the fact that you're a scientist," he said.

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