As climate changes, so does weather news

By Joe Sheller | Guest Editorial

One of the biggest stories of the next decade, in local media and everywhere else, will also be one of the oldest stories.

As the old joke goes, everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Then again, as a species, climate scientists point out that we have done something about it — or more aptly, about the climate — and the news stories have been heating up as this change wreaks havoc on our lives.

Weather has long been fundamental to media. I’ve long been partial to getting my weather news from Channel 9, with its established weather lineup that includes Joe Winters, Kaj O’Mara and Justin Gehrts. They are faces and voices I find to be informed and informative.

I’m struck at how both local TV stations emphasize and promote their weather coverage — with ads for their live reports and weather teams. Channel 2 brags of having “weather first,” while Channel 9 emphasizes its zone forecasts.

As media consumers, the local TV emphasis on weather forecasting is becoming increasingly irrelevant as our media habits change and information sources evolve. If there is a tornado warning in Linn County, an app on my phone lets me know directly from the National Weather Service — my phone buzzes at probably the exact same second the message flashes on a screen at Broadcast Park. If I want to see the weather radar as I huddle in my basement, I can check the same device — I don’t need Channel 9 or Channel 2 to tell me where that scary-looking hook in the storm is located.

Yet the local weather forecasters are important media personalities, a longstanding tradition. It wasn’t that many years ago that local weather personalities doubled as other types of media figures. Growing up in far Eastern Iowa, coming home from elementary school meant turning to Channel 6 from Davenport to watch “Captain Ernie’s Cartoon Showboat,” starring the main WOC weatherman.

I’m old enough to recall the years when one device you wanted in your home storm shelter when the twister was coming was a transistor radio because you could listen for information from local stations where a person was relaying what they knew. Now that radio is satellite based and not always local, it’s not the medium we usually turn to first in a weather emergency.

Is TV weather forecasting going to go the way of radio? Will the road warriors and weather centers gradually be retired as we all learn to depend on our special weather radios and phone apps?

Change is one constant in media, and in climate, too. As global warming deniers love to point out, the weather is not a stable system.

But as fires rage in California and we thank our lucky stars that fall flooding in Iowa this year wasn’t too serious, most of us, I think, are ready to accept the consensus from the scientists.

President Trump thinks our West Coast can learn some forest floor raking habits from Finland, a land with a completely different climate and different trees. As for me, I gave a presentation this fall at Mount Mercy University about how media struggles and often fails to cover global warming, because long-term science trends lack the easily followed daily narratives that news media favor.

Local media are part of that picture, too, although The Gazette’s Todd Dorman has an ongoing focus on water quality as a key issue in Iowa. To mix metaphors, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Or, since it’s climate change that is the ongoing and future big media story, the hotberg?

Either way, Iowa has long been the land of corn, but the agriculture of our future and in- deed all of our industries will have to adapt to a rapidly changing and increasingly volatile weather world. Raking the forest floors may be the least of our problems.