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Meteorologists Get Help With Science From Earth Gauge

Facts at Your Fingerprints

A growing number of TV meteorologists have a secret weapon in their arsenal: Earth Gauge, a free environmental information service from the National Environmental Education Foundation, in partnership with the American Meteorological Society. Its goal is to help local meteorologists expand their role as de facto station scientist by providing easy access to environmental tips, climate facts and the latest scientific studies.

"We came up with this notion to provide simple environmental information that's tied to three- to five-day forecasts," said Deborah Sliter, NEEF's VP for programs. "A lot of the information we send out isn't focused on global warming, per se, but I think the public debate about global warming and climate change has made the general public more attuned to the environment. So including information related to their day-to-day weather makes the environmental connection more natural."

"Every week they put new information on their Web site and in their newsletter that makes my job a lot easier," said Anthony Yanez, morning meteorologist at KPRC-TV in Houston. "What I love about it is it's always related to what's going on with the weather." He regularly includes the information in weather quizzes.

When Tropical Storm Erin was barreling down on Texas, Earth Gauge's timely fact was about how pavement increases rainwater runoff 16 times more than unpaved surfaces. "Anyone can look at a radar and say, 'Look, it's raining,' but to be able to explain that, for us in Houston, if you get more than two inches of rain an hour you're going to flood, ... as a station scientist you have to be able to relate that and give viewers more than, 'It's raining hard,'" he said.

Meteorologists can use the information however they like, and that's not always on the air. "To fully explain everything [about the Earth Gauge content] you need a solid 30 seconds," said Kelly Bates, weekday morning meteorologist at WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I. "The average weathercast length in my morning show is 1 minute 45 to 2 minutes, so to eat 30 seconds, minimum, would cut the time I have to do the actual forecast. Our weekend morning forecasts are 31/2 minutes, which fits nicely."

Jim Jaggers, AMS-certified broadcast meteorologist at WREG-TV, Memphis, is more likely to include Earth Gauge facts in the daily weather trivia he compiles for a local newspaper than in broadcasts. "It's good to have facts and ideas and information in my head to use in a toss from an anchor or a toss back to an anchor after a weathercast, or to use during severe weather coverage," he said.

The information really helps during school visits. "I like to be as up-to-date on my science and environment as I possibly can," he said, noting school kids are well-informed about the environment. "I'd hate to be the one asking them for answers -- I like it to be the other way around."

Credibility is crucial to Earth Gauge's success. "When meteorologists are getting information that's credible and science-based, from government agencies and other legitimate resources, and that meets the needs of both the weather reporter and the viewer, they're likely to use it," Ms. Sliter said.

Most of the 100-plus meteorologists (in 65 media markets) subscribing to Earth Gauge use the information two or three times a month; about a dozen stations use it weekly. The Weather Channel generates two to three mentions per day.

"The University of Rhode Island's contribution to the Earth Gauge report makes it extremely local and user-friendly -- not only for us to assemble for broadcast, but for the viewers to understand," Ms. Bates said. "It gives it a little more credibility and oomph to be tied to the university."

Aware that the American Meteorological Society wanted to promote the concept of meteorologists as station scientists and was in the process of revising certification requirements, NEEF approached AMS about including courses about weather and the environment.

"We thought if we're going to increase the overall knowledge of broadcast meteorologists about the link between weather and the environment, then maybe there can be an opportunity to provide them with materials that relate to their continuing education," Ms. Sliter said. The Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training has partnered with NEEF and AMS to create online courses. "We could develop online courses independent to the AMS, but it wouldn't have as much impact, because now they're promoting these courses as part of their continuing-education requirements," she said.

Mr. Jaggers took a course about watersheds. "They took a topic that most people would turn around and run from as quickly as they could and turned it into a really interesting visual presentation that was easily understandable not only to me and my peers, but also to the television audience," he said.

"We're trying to infuse environmental content at several levels in the meteorological community," Ms. Sliter said. "One, by providing simple information through Earth Gauge that they can use on a day-to-day basis when it's convenient for them, and secondly, to try to influence or change types of continuing-education courses offered to them and have it be part of their professional development."

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