HOWEVER MILD OUR climate tends to be, Seattleites are anything but mild when it comes to our meteorologists. In the earliest days of television, weather reports were more entertaining than reality based. Seattle’s first TV weather forecaster was Bob Hale, a sign painter with chronic stage fright who drew rain clouds with a felt tip pen to depict the weather for KING 5. More than a decade later, he was succeeded by a cartoonist named Bob Cram, who once read a couple of books on meteorology, but mostly sketched weather systems as personalities with names like Onshore Flo and Big Hi.
By the late ’70s, KING got serious and hired an actual science reporter, Jeff Renner, who filled the role of weather anchor. He was still no expert though, and he had to go back to school to get his weather chops. In 1988 he completed a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric sciences at the UW, but it wasn’t enough to guarantee him job security. Then, as now, Renner delivered his forecasts with a kind of doofy sincerity, effecting a concerned smile and earnestly furrowing his eyebrows shaped like the f–holes on a violin. The honchos at KING must have thought he was a little too folksy for the kind of upscale broadcast they’d become known for. In 1989 they pulled Renner from the nightly broadcast.
Bad idea. KING was deluged with calls and letters over Renner’s absence, and, several stormy months later, he was reinstated and given a raise—and the news director was fired.
As with everything else on the planet, technological developments have dramatically advanced our understanding of weather and climate patterns. And techie Seattle has emerged as one of the nation’s leading centers of atmospheric research, propelling new scientists into the meteorological spotlight. Which is not to say that it’s always sunny in weatherland.
Generally, it can seem like all forecasters start with the same basic information and then tart it up with their own delivery and special whiz–bang graphics. But as David Laskin writes, Cliff Mass—indefatigable blogger, author, and radio personality—reports the weather based on the automated programs on his laptop while, over at Sand Point, Brad Colman and his team of meteorologists for the National Weather Service rely not just on empirical data but people who, in effect, look out the window and hold a finger to the wind. This may all sound arcane, but when extreme weather does roll in, methods matter and there are consequences to getting it wrong. Last December’s paralyzing snow was so damaging that it toppled not just power lines but powerful people (which may be why we’re about to vote on a new mayor).
So as we head into storm season, keep an eye on the sky and pay close attention to the forecasters. We’re all weather geeks here.