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An obsession with weather


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An obsession with weather


The forecast is in: It looks like Americans are becoming mesmerized by meteorology.



By Josh Drobnyk

Of The Morning Call


As a child, Nicole Kershner would mimic television meteorologists by scribbling the forecast on her miniature chalkboard. While at Dieruff High School in Allentown, she penned a 20-page paper on thunderstorms.


''I've been a weather nerd forever,'' said the 19-year-old sophomore meteorology student at Penn State University. ''As a little kid I would watch The Weather Channel and everybody thought I was weird. I love weather. It is always there. It controls how you dress, what you do. There is always something happening.''


That something is mesmerizing to more people than just Kershner. Her weather-watching habits are symbolic of a growing craze among Americans, helping to catapult The Weather Channel to cable television fame, carry weather coverage to the front of the nightly newscast and significantly boost enrollment in meteorology programs across the country.


There's a word for such behavior: obsession.


''Once upon a time, the weather happened without much fanfare,'' said Ed Edelman, whose personal weather-station business, Ambient Weather, brought in $4.5 million in revenue last year.


That time has clearly passed. Gone are the days when viewers had to wait until the end of the nightly newscast to get the forecast. Consumers have become more sophisticated, demand more information and want it faster than ever — and that's just as true for weather as anything else.


Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist who has studied environmental psychology, points to several factors influencing people's weather obsession, but he said it starts with the media and technology.


''The fact that we have a dedicated weather channel and we have technology now that can tell us about the weather in all corners of the globe has been a big factor,'' Farley said. The recent release of books and movies focusing on weather's perils has contributed to the craze, he said. ''The technology is making the weather so much more accessible to us.''


People, Farley said, are fascinated with the uncontrollability of the weather. Coupled with technological advances that have made unimaginable disasters look more real than ever and the media's ability to bring footage of tornados, hurricanes and other storms directly to viewers' televisions, weather watching has completely changed.


''Weather is the power that we don't have control over yet,'' Farley said. ''We're able to fly, we've gone to great depths in the ocean, we've gone to the moon. But we've not gotten control of the weather. It is a fascination with that part of our world that we don't fully understand. It is a side of our world we haven't conquered yet.''


Ramping up newscasts


Weather, it seems, is conquering more than people's psyches. Increasingly it is taking over television newscasts, and for good reason, according to Susan Schiller, vice president and news director at CBS 3 in Philadelphia.


The station's weather department, led by Chief Meteorologist Kathy Orr, has doubled in the three years since Schiller arrived, and she estimates that weather leads the station's news coverage nearly half the time.


''We've definitely made weather a top priority next to breaking news,'' Schiller said. ''Unlike breaking news, which can happen multiple times a day, weather is the constant factor that unifies everyone. … It just permeates people's lives.''


As commuting and in turn, traffic, become more of a factor for viewers, weather takes on increasing importance, Schiller said. Combined with better technology and scientific knowledge, stations can provide better weather coverage.


''Television is a visual medium, and weather always has the picture component to the story,'' Schiller said. ''If you can show people what is going on, it is going to make for better television. I don't think we are creating the demand. I think the demand is there. When there is a major weather story, viewership goes up.''


The same is clearly true for the 24-hour AccuWeather Channel, where Lehigh Valley residents can get immediate forecasts and information on school closings.


The 4-year-old station, which shares its team of three meteorologists with its parent, Channel 69, touts itself as the ''nation's first 24-hour channel dedicated to local weather.''


Meteorologist Matt Broderick said Channel 69's increasing focus on weather feeds a real need, particularly during winter, but it also has to do with competition.


''It is certainly something we give more time to,'' Broderick said of Channel 69's weather coverage. ''Based on what [other] media outlets do, you have to keep up.''


The Weather Channel


But when it comes to media and weather, few outlets can compete with The Weather Channel, which is in 97 percent of cable households.


Founded in the early 1980s, the channel was initially given little chance of succeeding, and the station struggled to gain momentum in the early going, said Matt Boyter, the station's communication manager. Who, after all, would tune to 24-hour weather coverage?


More than 20 years later the channel has risen to become one of cable's longest-running networks. Its success has helped spawn dozens of other weather company successes. (Ambient Weather, with a four-person staff, boasts that it was listed as Inc. Magazine's 141st fastest-growing private company last year, selling weather products primarily to what its founder calls ''weather enthusiasts.'')


So what drives viewers of the channel?


A few years ago the network was conducting focus groups to learn more about what viewers wanted.


''We said imagine that NASA developed computer models that accurately predicted weather 100 percent of the time,'' Boyter said. ''Across the board, they said that would be the worst thing ever. They said the best aspect of weather is that it does change. People love the mystery of weather.''


Value of forecasts


Of course, there also are those for whom knowing the weather has a more practical purpose.


At the break of dawn every day, 51-year-old Jim Heisler slides out of bed and logs onto the Internet to study the weather forecast. He doesn't have formal meteorology training, yet he finds himself predicting how high- and low-pressure systems, occluded fronts and the occasional El Nino — terms that not long ago were confined to the back rooms of weather forecasters — will affect his life days down the road.


Heisler is in the pallet business, and the winter frosts can make or break a season of logging because of state regulations that say when you can and can't cut down trees. It all affects pallet pricing.


''I look to see the three-day forecasts, to see if there are any storms coming, to look at weather trends,'' said the Wind Gap resident. ''These are important to me from a vocational point of view.''


And then there are those for whom the prospect of nasty weather comes as good news.


Jennie Hall, a 35-year-old Bethlehem elementary school librarian, checks the weather on the Internet as many as 15 times a day. When there's the prospect of snow and a potential school closing, she said, she'll walk into the faculty lounge and teachers will be glued to The Weather Channel.


''We are worse than the kids,'' Hall said. ''I wake up to talk radio and listen to the weather. I check it on the TV and then check it on the Internet.''


But Hall and Heisler admit their interest extends beyond practicality.


''It's fun to check every day; it's fun to know,'' Heisler said. ''When you get down to the basics of weather it can get very complicated, but you can look at the basics and make predictions with a high degree of success over a 48-hour period.''


Meteorology programs growing


More and more, people like Hall and Heisler are taking their hobby to the next level. Throughout the country, undergraduate meteorology programs report their numbers to be higher than ever.


Penn State's program, considered to be one of the best in the country, has grown about 20 percent in a decade, and that's modest compared with others.


The meteorology program at Millersville University in Lancaster County, another top one, has nearly tripled in size in 15 years, from 55 students to 132, said Richard Clark, chairman of the school's earth sciences department.


''We saw this surge in 1997 and 1998. We used to call it the 'Twister' effect,'' said Clark, referring to the 1996 tornado movie. ''[Our growth] has pretty much followed the national trend.''


Oklahoma University, which boasts the country's largest class of meteorology students, doubled its program size in eight years.


''We constantly have to tell people that there are no jobs in storm chasing,'' said the program's director, Fred Carr. ''There is an increase all over the whole country. Just about anybody that I talk to has had enrollment increases at the undergraduate level. … There has been a greater awareness of the whole field.''


Whether all these meteorological hopefuls can hack the academic rigors is another story, and many programs still see attrition rates higher than 50 percent. But if they can, there is a slew of new jobs awaiting them.


Chad Kauffman, head of the California University of Pennsylvania's meteorology program, said meteorologists' job prospects these days stretch across various industries.


Airlines hire meteorologists to forecast their routes, companies often want in-house meteorologists, and The Weather Channel, which used to rely on the National Weather Service, now hires its own batch of behind-the-scenes forecasters, Kauffman said.


He said the school's meteorology program enrollment has jumped 25 percent in four years.


''It is a great time to be a meteorologist,'' he said. ''It really is.''







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