Is global warming too hot for weather report?

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE and PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 22, 2008 - 1:10 PM

Metro meteorologists Paul Douglas and Mike Fairbourne take sides on climate change, but other forecasters say they avoid the topic.

Mike Fairbourne and Paul Douglas worked side by side for years as meteorologists at WCCO-TV. But they couldn't have been further apart on the issue of global warming.

Douglas, who was dismissed last month in a cost-cutting move, has become a prominent speaker about the mounting evidence of human-caused climate change. Fairbourne, his predecessor and successor, once signed a petition opposing measures to combat climate change, and says he regards global warming as based on "squishy science."

Predictions of whether arctic ice caps will disappear don't typically come up during the TV forecast on whether it will rain this weekend.

"Broadcast meteorologists tend to avoid deep discussions on long term climate changes as that is really not our field of expertise," Claire Martin, chief meteorologist with CBC News in Canada and chairwoman of the International Association of Broadcast Meteorologists, said in an e-mail.

That hasn't kept local forecasters from taking a stand on the issue of predicting the global climate. Most of them are landing on the side of the skeptics.

KSTP-TV meteorologist Dave Dahl, in his regular afternoon weather spots on KSTP Radio (AM 1500), reads the record high and low for the day, illustrating extreme temperatures that are often many decades old. "More proof of global warming,'' radio host Joe Soucheray typically responds with sarcasm. Then Dahl chimes in with an affirming comment, such as "crazy" or "you got it, Joe."

Dahl did not return phone calls for this story.

KARE 11 meteorologist Belinda Jensen said the weather experts there regard global warming as an evolving theory, likewise not their area of expertise. She and her colleagues at KARE 11 all feel that human enterprise may only be partly to blame for global warming.

A multi-part series two years ago on global warming effects in Minnesota was done by a news reporter, not a meteorologist, Jensen noted. She added that the station does not prohibit any of the weather professionals from talking about global warming, but they don't.

"When it comes to our job here as meteorologists at a news station, I don't think that's our job," Jensen said. "We try to tread lightly and be smart in what we say," she said.

KMSP-TV (Fox 9) meteorologists anchored a half-hour special on global warming's effects in Minnesota last year that, said meteorologist Ian Leonard, was one of the station's most-watched specials. But as in the KARE 11 special, they let climate researchers explain the dynamics. Leonard said Fox network policy would not let him otherwise comment on the issue.

Jensen and Douglas, as well as Leonard, pointed out that forecasters might shy from global warming because they deal with short-term weather, not long-term climate.

Douglas has often brought his Power Point presentation to community groups with polar explorer Will Steger to explain the crisis. He said he is merely explaining the research that climate scientists around the world have assembled.

Meteorologists, as interpreters of the atmosphere, "have an ethical responsibility to present the state of the science, whatever that is," Douglas said.

Fairbourne said he has not changed his mind significantly in the approximately eight years since he signed a petition stating that there is no scientific evidence that gases released by human activity will lead to catastrophic global warming, and that remediation efforts would be harmful.

Though Fairbourne has been certified by the American Meteorological Society, that petition is at odds with a more recent statement by the AMS on climate change. The AMS states that there is "adequate evidence" that earth systems are warming and that "humans have significantly contributed to this change."

Those who want to get into global warming give-and-take with experts can do so on the Accuweather.com website, (www.startribune.com/a4414) which encourages debate and maintains a climate change discussion forum.

"It's best if we have intelligent, logical debate," said Ken Reeves, director of forecasting operations. Meteorologists are invited, too. "We don't say they can't speak their minds. I think that would be stifling."

The AMS, by the way, is going to take up the subject of forecasters discussing global warming when it meets next month in Boulder, Colo.

Bill McAuliffe 612-673-7646 Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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