Spin Cycle: How the media portrays climate change

Twenty years ago, brutal tornadoes tore through small towns in unprecedented numbers. By 1989, the beginning of an ice age was fast approaching. Today, hurricanes are forming faster than we can name them in the Atlantic Ocean.

two men sit at anchor desk
WPSU

Weather World hosts Fred Gadomski and Paul Knight prepare for a broadcast, which airs weeknights at 7:00 p.m. on WPSU.

Not so fast, say Paul Knight and Fred Gadomski, Weather World personalities and hosts of a special Sunday-afternoon Research Unplugged event titled "Spin cycle: How the media portrays climate change." In contrast to the media's hyperbolic—and, at times, inaccurate—assumptions about weather trends, Gadomski and Knight offered a more balanced and scientifically sound assessment to a crowd of over 100 in the packed Penn State Downtown Theatre. The event was co-sponsored by NOVA scienceNOW and WPSU for later broadcast on the Research Channel.

Knight and Gadomski, who have been with Weather World since 1976 and 1980 respectively, held the crowd's attention for two full hours with their trademark mix of information, stage banter, and weather witticisms.

On the heels of a catastrophic tsunami in Southeast Asia, two major hurricanes in the southern United States, and most recently, a devastating flood in the Middle East, the topic of extreme weather is a timely one. For the average viewer, the idea that "the sky is falling" may not seem too far off.

With the help of recent headlines and data collected over the past century, the forecasters rejected sensationalist theories, including Time Magazine's recent headline "Are we making hurricanes worse?"

One study revealed that the 1930s played host to not only hotter and more extreme summers than the current decade, but also to some of the warmest and coldest winter months on record. A similar cycle emerged in the late 1960s, which—compiled with other data—has led meteorologists and researchers to notice a cyclical pattern of climate change about every 30 years.

It is all too easy to misinterpret data, said Knight and Gadomski, pointing to the supposed sharp increase in tornadoes in the mid 1980s. Meteorologists now link this statistical spike to the birth of home camcorders, which captured these natural disasters on personal video for the first time, and the recently-perfected Doppler Radar System, two tools which allowed unprecedented documentation of these occurrences. While the number of tornadoes may have stayed the same, the number being noticed and reported jumped dramatically. In fact, observed Gadomski, it seems that strong tornadoes actually decreased during that decade, further discounting media reports from that era, claiming that "weather has snapped."

The crowd watched one such video, captured by a Penn State alumnus home to visit his family in 1985. By luck, he managed to film the approach and touchdown of a tornado as it whipped through his small town of Hermitage, Pa. ("There's nothing more dramatic than a good tornado video," quipped Knight.)

car drives on road by giant dark tornado
NOAA

While the number of tornadoes may have stayed the same in recent years, the number being noticed and reported has jumped dramatically, according to Gadomski and Knight.

In light of recent dramatic weather events, a popular question is whether our poor stewardship of planet Earth has thrown weather patterns into a spiraling chaos. Overblown media hype, answered Knight and Gadomski. They jokingly called this self-blaming trend in weather "ME-teorology."

However, since humans are "the only part of the climate system that can contemplate our effects, this brings a certain responsibility," Knight explained, adding that "it is still erroneous to believe that we, as humans, are solely responsible for climate change."

By its very nature, weather is dramatic and changeable, the duo explained. Gadomski pointed out that recent years have brought an average of 2.5" more rainfall than the norm, which could simply be a sign of the emergence of a new weather pattern, much like those observed over the past century.

Will this damp trend continue indefinitely, as dramatic media reports might suggest, leaving the earth covered in water?

"I doubt it," Gadomski said with a chuckle.

The pair wrapped up their analysis of weather and its reporting by refuting the notion that weather has entered a new era of radical shifts. Climate, they argued, is a very independent force, only partially affected by our stewardship (or lack thereof) of the planet. "We humans may be giving a gentle poke to climate change," said Gadomski, adding that we should view ourselves realistically as a small but integral part of the global weather system.

Fred Gadomski, M.S., and Paul Knight, M.S., are senior lecturers of meteorology and hosts of Weather World. Both are founding members of Penn State's Weather Communications Group. Paul is the state climatologist and can be reached at pgk2@psu.edu. Fred can be reached at fxg1@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 16, 2005