Beneath WRC-TV (NBC4) chief meteorologist Bob Ryan's sandy blond, made-for-television facade, lie some serious scientific chops. He holds a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's in atmospheric science, has published studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and is the only TV meteorologist ever to serve as president of the American Meteorological Society. With these bona fides, he is well suited to tackling the most controversial subject currently facing TV weathercasters: global climate change.
Last week he unveiled a new six-part online series of articles on the science of global change, which was published on the station's Web site and 'teased' on air. The articles mark a significant step towards providing viewers with climate science information in a manner that is easily understandable, engaging, and most importantly, politically/policy neutral.
Keep reading for more on Bob Ryan's viewpoints on the science of climate change...
Although Ryan and some of his colleagues around the country do occasionally address climate change, many broadcast meteorologists are quite skeptical of climate science, and some present a politically skewed view when they do report on it, if they cover the matter at all. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the politically charged nature of the issue, as well as the lack of familiarity with climate science among many meteorologists.
Ryan's series, which reads like an introductory field guide to climate change, lays out the main scientific findings as well as some of the societal implications of a warming planet. While there are some portions that are a little confusing or wonky, such as how scientists differentiate between natural and man made climate change, the series is refreshing in its conversational tone and careful consideration of scientific uncertainties.
Ryan said the series came about from listening to viewers, who are eager to learn more about climate change.
"For many years, when I have talked at schools and groups about weather and climate, the question of climate change and global warming always comes up. Concerns and questions about our climate are now almost more of a daily topic of conversation rather than, "How's the Weather?" Ryan wrote.
In an interview with CWG, Ryan said he fears the public is growing more confused about what scientists know about climate change, and what their findings mean for society. "With what seems like increasing polarization of views and politics, I felt the science was (and still is) getting muddied or being selectively "cherry-picked" resulting in confusion for many people, especially young people," he stated.
"I wanted to try and write something that would attempt to show people, again especially students, how we might objectively look at the subject, and try and follow a scientific method, rather than just a political process to seek understanding."
In his series, Ryan starts off by explaining the scientific method, and peppers the text with examples of some of the great discoveries in climate science such as the iconic "Keeling Curve" of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.
In the past, Ryan has argued that TV meteorologists have a professional responsibility to discuss the science of climate change, without letting their personal, political or religious views color their reporting. Via email, Ryan again emphasized this point, and said the likelihood of upcoming national debates over climate policies makes it even more critical that TV meteorologists cover the topic.
"We all have political views on what should, or should not be done, but we should be able to keep that separate from what the science and current scientific research is telling us," Ryan stated. "If we have reached some political conclusion first and then look at science to find weaknesses in some studies or cherry pick some study to support our political view, we shouldn't be representing science, meteorology or climate science."
He continued, "If some TV [meteorologists] either 1) don't know anything about the science or 2) have a political, economic or some other "agenda" then they would better serve the public by not saying anything."
Ryan's new articles are clearly in keeping with his view that climate science is now part of a TV meteorologist's beat, and must be covered within a scientific framework. However, a sustained commitment to covering climate science on air as well as online will go much farther towards fostering a well informed public.
A well crafted "tome" of climate science information may well be beneficial for those who decide to invest the half hour or more of time required to read through it, but far more people could be reached via the television newscast and through shorter, more targeted online video pieces. One wonders what barriers are standing in the way of such coverage.