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Meteorologists making links between weather, public health.


ON A FRIGID morning this February, Detroit meteorologist Paul Gross was on heightened alert. A snow storm was bearing down on Motor City.

It had been Detroit's second stormy winter in a row, said Gross, executive weather producer at WDIV-TV. Snow can wreak havoc on a commuter city like Detroit, notorious for its lack of an organized and reliable mass transit system.

As always, Gross was concerned for the health and safety of his viewers, and decided to include a public health warning in his weather forecast that evening. Once, several years ago, a viewer thanked him for advice she said saved her life.

"It was a severe stretch of winter weather, and I was out reporting live on the conditions," Gross said. "One particular morning, the temperature was well below zero and I explained that salt, which had melted snow the previous night, was now no longer effective and icy patches were developing, especially at intersections. So I told people, 'if you are the first car stopped at a light, when the light turns green, don't just go. Look right and left and make sure there is no car skidding through the intersection trying to stop on the ice.'"

Later that day, a woman e-mailed Gross with stunning news: His warning had saved her life that day. The traffic light turned green. Remembering his words, she put her foot back on the brake. At that instant, a truck came skidding left to right through the intersection on the ice. The truck would have hit her broadside and probably killed her had she proceeded.

The paradigm of broadcast meteorology is changing, Gross said. Science and environmental issues are becoming increasingly important to viewing audiences eager for information about how to improve their health and the health of the planet. Aware that TV meteorologists can play a key role in raising viewers' awareness of such information, the American Meteorological Society encourages them to think beyond their daily forecasting responsibilities and assume the added role of "station scientist." It is a position for which broadcast meteorologists are ideally suited, as they are often the only person at the TV station with a science background, said Gross, chair of the American Meteorological Society's Station Scientist Committee.

To facilitate the evolution of broadcast meteorologists into highly trusted station scientists who can convey a broad range of environmental and public health information to their viewers, the American Meteorological Society and the National Environmental Education Foundation are partners in a program called Earth Gauge. Based on the approaching three-day forecast, Earth Gauge provides weekly e-newsletters to meteorologists in every major U.S. media market. The free material contains simple facts and viewer actions tips, including public health tips tied to the local forecast.

The information makes it easier for broadcast meteorologists to talk about the links between weather, the environment and health, Gross said.

"It is really our responsibility to provide this information and put it in the proper perspective for our viewers," Gross told The Nation's Health. "To some TV meteorologists, Earth Gauge is a godsend because it gives them the ability to provide this information without doing a whole lot of work. Sometimes, it's just a matter of a sentence."

Television viewers have long relied on broadcast meteorologists for important weather-related health information, including UV index values, air quality alerts and seasonal health tips related to asthma and allergies. The Earth Gauge initiative seeks to elevate that piece of a weather forecaster's job by providing the tools needed to best "tell the story" to viewers. Earth Gauge information creates the link between current weather conditions and an array of weather-related environmental and health topics that run the gamut from air and water quality alerts to frostbite prevention, skin cancer awareness, hurricane safety tips and the impacts of climate change on health.

Earth Gauge information is disseminated in about 100 media markets around the United States, and more than 175 local broadcast meteorologists receive the information. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, local television meteorologists reach more than 208 million U.S. television viewers. Through a partnership with the Weather Channel, the Earth Gauge initiative reaches 91 million households daily.

Because broadcast meteorologists are a trusted source, television viewers often heed their advice and predictions, according to Sara Espinoza, MEM, program manager for weather and environment at the National Environmental Education Foundation.


"They are accustomed to conveying complex science topics to the public," she said. "They are also well known by the public and prominent communicators, which puts them in a very good position to convey this kind of information."

Earth Gauge tips might include advice on the best time of day for allergy and asthma sufferers to exercise, where elderly people without air conditioning can seek shelter during a heat wave, or the importance of encouraging children to walk or bike to school on nice days. If there is an ice storm in Chicago, Earth Gauge might send a message about protecting against carbon monoxide poisoning during the winter months, Espinoza said, noting that there might be a very different message that day for viewers in Los Angeles.

"We try to make the message as targeted as possible," she said

Each tip eats up only about 30 seconds to 40 seconds of airtime. Brevity is important because executive producers typically allot only three minutes to a weathercast, said Wendy Marie Thomas, MS, a meteorologist at the American Meteorological Society.

"The issue is, in these economic times, when newsrooms are cutting back and want people to do more, how can we get the extra 30 to 60 seconds to get this information out?" asked Thomas.

Broadcast meteorologists who wish to further sharpen their knowledge--and thus the knowledge of their television viewers--can also sign up for online courses offered through the National Environmental Education Foundation in partnership with the Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training. The free classes count for credit under the American Meteorological Society's continuing education program for certified broadcast meteorologists. Some of the courses, such as "Weather and the Public's Health," provide information on the impact of weather events and climate change on Americans' health and safety.

As WDIV's Gross sifted through Earth Gauge tips in Detroit, he said the story of the woman whose life he helped save following a snow storm is never far from his mind.

"It reaffirmed for me that the information I provide has an impact on people's lives," he said.

For more information on the Earth Gauge initiative, visit www.earthgauge. net.
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Title Annotation:Today's weather forecast calls for health
Author:Johnson, Teddi Dineley
Publication:The Nation's Health
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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