By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
Local television news forecasts have expanded in the past few years to include more information than just whether or not you’ll need an umbrella and galoshes. Increasingly, meteorologists are embracing environmental information and forecasts in their segments, and Baron Advanced Meteorological Systems has become a trailblazer in such forecasting.
“The interest from both the meteorologists and public has increased,” said John McHenry, chief scientist for BAMS, a division of Baron Services. “Among the stations they want to include such information, particularly in the summertime, when the weather is often stagnant, as it gives them something else to display and talk about. Air quality has become a public health issue. The viewers want to know more about what they’re breathing as well.”
The BAMS Environmental Modeling Center in Asheville, N.C., which was the first group to introduce air-quality forecasts into TV weathercasts, provides data about ozone levels, air particles and acid levels that can be integrated into segments. Launched in 2004, the center also provides data focusing on the benefits of emissions reductions.
“It really shines for air quality,” said Brad Huffines, chief meteorologist for WAAY-TV in Huntsville, Ala., who also appears frequently on CNN. “We do air-quality forecasts every day on the five o’clock newscast. People assume that a place like Huntsville is a smaller city, in the country, and our air must be good. But we get the emissions from more urban and industrial areas such as Atlanta, and to a lesser extent Nashville and Birmingham blowing here.”
Mr. Huffines also uses BAMS for modeling clouds and precipitation, as well as temperature forecasts. BAMS information can be integrated into a weathercast using the VIPIR integrated weather display system.
Adding air-quality information to a segment appeals to viewers who have been educated by health and even fitness professionals to be concerned about such things as ground level ozone, which energizes air pollutants. Ozone is created when the sun reacts with ground-level pollutants created by automobile emissions or industry.
The physical reaction to breathing in ozone and air particulates can be described at its worst to the equivalent of a sunburn on the lungs.
“We offer the BAMS data because it helps our viewers decide their course of action,” Mr. Huffines said. “Especially those with breathing difficulties. People with asthma or emphysema. Athletes may alter their workout schedules because of the air quality-they may decide to work out indoors for the day because of the air [particulate] levels.”
With a team that has, for the most part, been together for 20 years, BAMS has a client list of TV stations that tops 150, and also provides data for government programs, research organizations and for emergency-management agencies. One of its clients is NASA.
BAMS scored a success in the meteorological systems market in August 2005, when it launched the first continental U.S. system model to incorporate both ozone and particulate matter. These CONUS air-quality forecasts are updated twice daily.
Specific products include MAQSIP, the Multiscale Air Quality Simulation Platform; the BAMS Wind Machine, which produces high-resolution maps including terrain features; and other models with environmental data.
BAMS began as an arm of the state of North Carolina. When the state decided not to further fund the center, Greg Fishel, chief meteorologist for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, who was a fan of the data and had become friends with Mr. McHenry, put the crew there together with Baron Services in Alabama, which purchased the unit in 2003.
“I’m a nerd and I admit it,” said Mr. Fishel. “My training is in meteorology and science is my first love, but air quality is not my expertise. Here were a group of people who had found a way to give us more accurate data in that area as well as other areas. It seemed important they continue their work.”
Long-Term Data Use
BAMS represented an improvement over earlier systems that provided air-quality forecasts by using higher-resolution data, Mr. Fishel said. Mr. McHenry touts BAMS’s research, graphics and delivery.
“We’re not just talking about air issues such as pollution,” Mr. McHenry said. “Air problems can be natural as well-ozone, haze, fine particles, particulates from aerosols. Over time these can cause emphysema-like problems, not to mention an increased level of heart attacks in an area. People need information to make decisions how this will affect your health.”
Arming viewers with that information helps them understand the benefits of reducing air pollution.
“My goal is to have people change their habits based on the air quality for their long-term health,” Mr. Huffines said. “If you’re gardening or exercising or doing outdoor activities, do them before noon or after 4 p.m. on the bad air-quality days because the ground ozone issues are at their worst in those afternoon hours. Exercise indoors during that time.”
Mr. McHenry sees more long-term and analytical uses for the emissions data, which he says can be factored into “what if?” scenarios.
“It’s a case of `What if coal emissions are reduced by 20 percent?”‘ he said. “What would that mean to the air quality and the quality of life? We like being a leader in communicating air quality to the masses. … If particle levels are high on a long-term basis, you’ll find more people developing health issues that we used to associate mostly with coal miners.”
Though Mr. McHenry does want to “muster more public support for improved regulations,” he insists that BAMS is not political: “We just provide the information.”
McHenry said he hopes the data is being used to stimulate public response and action.
“I don’t think the content of the models themselves is as important as getting the public to ask good questions,” he continued. “This is a complex science, but we think of what we do as a public service approach to a consumer approach. We make accessible a lot of technology.”