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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 06/06/2011

Tracking twisters via Twitter

As with all of the other tornado outbreaks during this epic season, I was glued to my Twitter stream last Wednesday watching severe thunderstorms developing from western Massachusetts to northern Maine. The tweets from the weather sources I follow – TV meteorologists, online weather outlets, and news organizations – rapidly grew more urgent after about 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. As during the previous outbreaks, it was through Twitter that I found out every tornado warning from almost the moment it was issued, not a television station, radio network, NOAA Weather Radio, or any other news source.


Doppler radar image showing the telltale “hook echo” of the tornado as it tracked towards Sturbridge, Mass. (Ryan Hanrahan/NOAA)
I was able to follow the storms’ path through bite-sized morsels of information streamed out in 140 characters or fewer, as three tornadoes touched down in Massachusetts, including one EF3 twister that tracked for nearly 40 miles across the state. For me, the Springfield tornado erased any lingering doubts that Twitter is a top tier source for breaking weather information – and that it is profoundly changing the role of the television weathercaster.

For a small case study of sorts, I brought up my twitter feeds using Tweetdeck, pointed my Web browser to the latest radar loops and warning displays, and also streamed live video coverage from WCVB-TV in Boston. That station is dear to my weather geek heart, since I interned with one of their TV meteorologists when I was in high school and college.

Glancing from my laptop screen to my computer monitor; from Tweetdeck to radar loops and warning text – and then to the TV livestream, I found myself wondering: have I just replaced a TV meteorologist with a self-curated stream of weather information? And if I have, how many others have too? And what does that mean for the future of broadcast meteorology?

I found that in many cases during the Massachusetts tornadoes, Twitter beat the TV anchors and weathercasters by several minutes, which can mean the difference between life and death when a tornado is involved. On Twitter, I had already seen images taken by witnesses, showing the tornado on the ground in Springfield, before it appeared on the news. On TV, the meteorologists and news anchors were referring to it as a “possible tornado.” Via Twitter, I found out exactly how intense the circulation was on radar, via a tweet from AccuWeather meteorologist Henry Margusity (@WeatherMadness).

And it was via Twitter that I received the message that the tornado was on a collision course with I-84 near Sturbridge, Mass, a key route between New York and Boston. Ryan Hanrahan (@ryanhanrahan), a meteorologist for Hartford’s NBC affiliate, tweeted: “I can’t express the seriousness of the storm heading toward Sturbridge just south of Mass Pike near 84. Tornado ON THE GROUND.”

That tweet took on added meaning to me two days later when I drove across the damage path, and saw the trees that were snapped just above their base, and homes and businesses that were demolished alongside the highway. The sight of a mangled metal highway sign, marking the Sturbridge exit, will stick with me for a long time.

Many TV meteorologists are using Twitter to cultivate viewers, spread their forecasts, gather on-the-ground reports, and, cover breaking weather news. Many of the most reliable and up-to-date Twitter reports come from TV meteorologists like Brad Panovich (@wxbrad) of WCNC-TV in North Carolina, and Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) of The Weather Channel. Locally, Bob Ryan of ABC7 (@BobRyanABC7) has become more active on Twitter recently, and many others are on there as well. I don’t know to what extent this is translating into a ratings boost, but I’m sure it can’t hurt a broadcaster to raise their profile online as well as on air.

Much as a news reporter’s job is shifting to being an expert at constructing coherent narratives from the many sources of information out there – from Twitter and Facebook reports to official government press releases, a TV meteorologist’s job is also taking on more of a hybrid role. In the old days (as in, five or 10 years ago), the TV meteorologist was the main source of weather information in a local market. Now there are many more places to turn, most especially online (ahem… can I get a shout out to CWG, anyone?).

As the media landscape has diversified, there are evolving opportunities for meteorologists who are adept at using social media to extend their weathercast beyond the two or three minutes allotted to each of their segments, and combining different sources or “streams” of information on-air during breaking weather events.

The best example I’ve yet seen of this “mashup” function, which was performed by a veteran broadcaster, no less, was James Spann’s (@spann) coverage during the Alabama tornado outbreak in late April. No doubt others are following his lead. My suspicion is that those who don’t – and at this point if you’re just adopting Twitter or getting on Facebook, you’re already rather late – will be left behind.

Here at CWG, we have divided our Twitter feed into two accounts – @capitalweather for routine forecasts, weather news, updates and posts, and @dcweatheralerts for only the most urgent weather alerts.

By  |  10:20 AM ET, 06/06/2011

Categories:  Freedman, Thunderstorms, U.S. Weather, Latest, Capital Weather Gang

 
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