From the first snowfall of the season to the latest flurry, TV viewers in the Washington area depend heavily on local weather anchors Doug Hill, Sue Palka, Bob Ryan and Topper Shutt because there's no such thing as a winter's solace in the nation's capital.
And this season, in which snowfall in December alone nearly equaled the area's annual average for an entire winter, viewers have depended upon them more than usual.
The weather anchors and their colleagues are mere mortals. While they work with many sophisticated technical tools, weather forecasting is still an inexact science subject to human interpretation.
"Nobody is going to be right 100 percent of the time," said Palka, the forecaster at WTTG-Channel 5. "It's not that kind of science."
In Hill, Palka, Ryan and Shutt Washington area viewers have a corps of weather forecasters with a whopping 71 years of combined experience in one of the most active and difficult weather markets in the country. The youngest in tenure is Shutt, a Silver Spring native who returned to the area in 1988. Palka came here in 1985.
In the middle of a winter that has seen a number of snow storms whip through the area, snarling traffic and disrupting school schedules, viewers demand accurate forecasts.
"People say if we can send man to the moon, how come we can't forecast the weather better," said Ryan, who has been at WRC-Channel 4 since 1980. "I tell them it's easier to send a man to the moon."
The local forecasters don't completely miss a storm very often and temperature predictions are subjective estimates. Accumulations are even trickier. And yet, at the end of the broadcast day, each of their station's news programs depend heavily on the reliability, likability and credibility of their meteorologists.
"It's a weather war in this town," said Palka.
On an average day, the four stations broadcast a combined 132 weather updates from 4:55 a.m. to 11:35 p.m.
"The weather is the single-greatest common denominator in life," said Fox 5 news director Catherine Green. "Weather affects you every day and has become more influential. And, there is more severe weather than in the past, which probably has something to do with global warming."
Since the infamous Blizzard of 1996, when it seemingly snowed for 40 days and 40 nights and justified the traditional hoarding of bread, milk and toilet paper, each station has made herculean upgrades to its weather presentation. Viewer demand has forced the improvements, which is why so many newscasts--including the national networks'--will sometimes open with the weather.
The local TV "weather war" escalated in 2000 when WJLA-Channel 7 lured Hill from WUSA-Channel 9 after 16 years and put him in charge of a staff and more than $1.5 million in new and updated equipment. His latest toy: Software that takes radar data and shows distinct rain/sleet/snow bands. Hill calls it the "snow machine."
"In the business today," he said, "if you don't keep up technologically you're behind the eight ball."
At Channel 9, Shutt has added two positions, sends a meteorologist into the heart of storms for live reporting and tracking, and has four exclusive webcasts daily. WTTG also has added to its staff, added a 5 p.m. news show and is planning upgrades of its weather forecasting equipment.
And there is Ryan. The dean of Washington weather anchors, he has a Skylab-like operation that includes four other meteorologists, 32 monitors, 500 on-site data-reporting stations, a smart and highly interactive Web presence, and the long-time commitment of management.
"The conventional wisdom, from many years of research, is that the weather is the major reason people watch TV news," said WRC's news director Robert Long. "It's number one on everybody's list. It's number one by a wide margin. That's a remarkably consistent finding, and not by one group of researchers. People just love to watch the weather."
In the Washington area, viewers love it so much that the forecasters are "elevated to cult status and magic ability," Long added. They have sustained remarkable longevity and popularity in a business prone to quick-trigger firings after bad ratings.
Each of the chief weathercasters is extremely popular, often besieged by phone calls, e-mails, personal-appearance requests and even input from co-workers.
"People want a personal forecaster," Shutt grinned. "Internally, someone will call and say, 'I'm going hunting this weekend. What's the weather gonna look like?' "
The answer, whether in casual conversation or on the air, isn't easy to give. The Washington viewing area is 180 miles in diameter and features topography that makes for an array of weather possibilities. With the Appalachian mountains to the west, the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay to the east and a piedmont in between, low-pressure systems from the south can sneak in. The combination of cold air, warm air and moisture is enough to form a thin boundary between rain, sleet, snow and ice. No radar or weather model can exactly predict such an atmospheric mix hours, or even days, in advance.
"It's a never-ending headache," Hill said.
What gets forecasters in the most trouble is what affects, interests and fascinates viewers the most--accumulations. The quantitative precipitation forecast (QPF), or how much precipitation in melted inches will fall, is one of weatherdom's most elusive numbers.
"That is still the area that is the most difficult element to forecast," said Ryan. "The models and everything else we rely on don't do a good job of handling the QPF."
Consider the events of Jan. 5, when a typically fast-moving system inexplicably stalled over the area and dropped 2 to 5 inches of snow instead of the predicted light dusting. Or a couple of years ago when schools and government offices closed on the prospect of a 31-inch snow storm that drifted north instead. Nary a flake fell here.
"Trying to say what Mother Nature is going to do, exactly what the atmosphere is going to do, exactly how the atmosphere is going to behave and exactly how all of that translates to what the weather is going to be in your own back yard is impossible," said Hill.
Impossible at times, maybe, but the tools available to the forecaster have taken a huge leap. Long gone are the days of a TV weather forecaster walking back-and-forth in front of a giant national map, using just one daily satellite image and hand-drawing different systems, clouds and temperatures on plexiglass with colored markers.
Today's weather is a broad and skilled interpretation of National Weather Service data, dozens of computer models of atmospheric conditions, satellite tracking of systems, and knowing your market's geographical quirks and weather history.
Sometimes the weathercasters simply look out a window.
"If we were doing this two or three hundred years ago and had as much skill as we have today and got nine out of 10 forecasts right," mused Ryan, "we would be burned at the stake as witches and warlocks."
But in these modern times, the weather wizardry is presumed--and relied upon. Not only are schools and government offices affected, but so are airports, road crews, commuters and businesses.
"I had a man call in once and say he lost thousands and thousands of dollars on a business decision based on our forecast," Hill said. "I'm sorry about it. I was heartsick about it. I take my obligation to the public very seriously. But viewers need to realize there are limits to what we can do and you shouldn't make a life's decision based on what one person says."
"When we miss," Palka added, "we take our licks. It used to really eat me up."
After the Jan. 5 snow, a Dulles Airport official was quoted in a Washington Post op-ed piece saying, "if you did your job that poorly, would you still have your job?" And even the forecasters' own colleagues remind them. Channel 9 morning news anchor Mike Buchanan chided meteorologist Hillary Howard with, "still shoveling those flurries?"
"It's not as though I wave my hands and--poof!--here's my forecast. And it's not an art form," Ryan said. "It's a combination of the best tools we have, relying on the local vagaries here in Washington and my experience. . . . It's not any more different than a doctor. I'm doing an analysis, conducting a number of tests, and here's my considered opinion."
Said Palka: "There's a power greater than ourselves in charge."
But logic doesn't stop the grousers.
"I got a voice mail from someone who said, 'Maybe I should be a meteorologist and be right half the time. You're just pitiful,' " Shutt recalled. "At least he left his phone number and I called him back and asked, 'Where did you see it wasn't going to snow? We had been telling you for six days it was going to be a snow event.' He said, 'I don't know.'
"And that's the problem. People hear 'snow!' and they stop listening."
"They zone out," Palka agreed. "Then, we're all tarred and feathered with the same brush."
The four weathercasters call this phenomena "weather panic," and in all of their years of meteorology none has seen a region so gripped with anxiety as Washington. The immediate area averages only about 16 to 23 inches of snow per year--13 inches fell in December--but even the prediction of minimal accumulations will prompt people to abandon cars, take a personal day, close schools and do ridiculously silly things.
"Every year there is some kind of emotional reaction in our area of people rushing to the grocery store and buying far more food than they can eat in a couple of days," Hill said. "The fact is, people do not get snowed in around here that often."
"It's an interesting case of mass psychosis," Ryan said in an equally mystified tone.
Shutt uses a Bread-O-Meter graphic for snowfall totals to poke fun at the panic. He once did a story from a grocery store during a snow panic, picking up a loaf of bread, roll of toilet paper and then tossing them back.
"Why do people do this?" he wondered. "Let's get a roast. Something we can eat for three days."
Because of the panic potential, the weathercasters are extremely careful in the words and presentations they use on-air. Do not confuse "possibility" with "probability," or "might," "could" and "should" with "button down the hatches."
Many times they won't mention the prospect of flurries to, say, the west, because "if you say light snow and somebody gets 3 inches, they'll grumble you weren't right," Ryan said.
"It's called shaping of the message," Palka said, "and we're all careful because once you say something, it's done. It's out there."
But then, sometimes they are roasted for what they don't say.
Local meteorological lore turns to former long-time Channel 9 weather anchor Gordon Barnes, who missed forecasting the Veterans Day storm of 1987. Forget the weather models; history says it simply doesn't snow 11 inches here in early November.
But it did that year.
Barnes called in sick the next day to avoid the bombardment of hostile callers--and angry station management.
"They don't usually forget, but they eventually forgive," Palka said. "If they didn't, none of us would have viewers."
Weather Warrior Update: A Roundup of Resumes
Chief weather anchor, meteorologist
Time at WJLA: Since December 2000.
Background: A native of Towson, served in the Air Force for Presidential Support Unit at Andrews Air Force Base. . . . Uniformed officer in Prince George's County Police Dept. , 1973-79. . . . Attended the University of Maryland on the side to hone broadcast skills. . . . With the help of Channel 9's Mike Buchanan and Channel 7's John Harter, went to WWBT-TV in Richmond in 1979 as weekend weathercaster and moved to main weather anchor three months later. . . . Went to WDIV-TV in Detroit in early 1980 as the 11 p.m. weather anchor. . . . Certified by American Meteorological Society in 1982. . . . Came to Channel 9 in 1984 as weekend weathercaster and moved to lead weather anchor 1987. . . . Switched to WJLA in 2000.
Local Emmys: 1989 at WUSA, nominated twice.
WJLA weather staff: Brian van deGraff (producer), Dave Zarhen (part-time), Kyle Osborne (NewsChannel 8).
Number of weather updates daily: 33, plus two video updates.
Radar: Live Super Doppler 7--real time updates within a few seconds from the transmitter in Bowie, Md.
Web site: www.wjla.com. The weather page includes local, regional and national links, airport information, temperature conversion calculator, earthquake monitor, and various radar and satellite image updates.
Chief weather anchor, AMS-certified
Time at WTTG: Since 1985; became chief weathercaster in 1987.
Background: A career-changer who was once a teacher and actress. . . . Graduate of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. . . . Moved with husband, Joe, to Richmond in 1983 and landed a job as weekend weather anchor at WTVR. . . . Moved to Washington, D.C., in 1985 and became weekend weather anchor at WTTG, advancing to chief weather anchor in 1987. . . . A self-confessed weather geek who has chased tornadoes, flew into the eye of a hurricane and hung out at the National Meteorological Center and National Weather Service offices. . . . Gained seal of approval from the National Weather Association. . . . National Weather Association Broadcaster of the Year in 1998.
Local Emmys: 1996, 1997 and 1998
WTTG weather staff: Tom Sater, Gwen Tolbart, Steve Rudin (part-time), Jeff Gilbert (part-time).
Number of weather updates daily: About two dozen, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Radar: National Weather Service Doppler, up to six minutes behind real time; upgrading soon to a live data stream.
Web site: www.fox5dc.com. Offers a five-day forecast and a link to a regional image (about six minutes behind) and links to Intellicast radar images, up to 20 minutes behind real time. Neat feature: a link to D.C. weather history.
Chief weather anchor, meteorologist
Time at WRC: Since 1980, all as lead weather anchor.
Background: B.S. Physics, M.S. Atmospheric Science (meteorology), University at Albany. . . . Research associate in physics at Arthur D. Little Inc., Cambridge, Mass., 1968-74. . . . Began TV career as a part-time on-air meteorologist during 10 p.m. news at Channel 56 in Boston, 1969. . . . Member of American Meteorological Society and American Association for Advancement of Science, having served AMS on various boards, committees and as commissioner of professional affairs; only broadcast meteorologist to be elected president, 1993 . . . . Most recently served on Board of Atmospheric Science and Climate of National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences.
Local Emmys: 10, including 2002
WRC weather staff: Clay Anderson, Veronica Johnson, Tom Kierein, Chikage Windler, Gene Broadwater (producer).
Number of weather updates daily: More than four dozen, beginning at 4:55 a.m. through 11:20 p.m.
Radar: Digital Doppler XT--real-time data including Washington's first street-level mapping and storm-tracking capability, and new software to distinguish between rain, sleet and ice and snow.
Web site: www.nbc4.com. Users can sign up for weather alerts via e-mail and download a "weather bug" that gives customized weather reports for your Zip code.
Chief weather anchor, meteorologist
Time at WUSA: Since August 1988, lead weather anchor since June 2000.
Background: A native of Silver Spring, Shutt came home 14 years ago from being weekend weather anchor at WFMY in Greensboro, N.C. . . . Was weather anchor at WTVK in Knoxville, Tenn., from 1984-87. . . . A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., began his television career as a weather producer and substitute anchor at CNN in 1981. . . . Studied meteorology at the University of Tennessee and the University of North Carolina-Asheville, earning the American Meteorological Society's Seal of Approval in 1987. . . . Occasional fill-in as weathercaster on CBS's "The Early Show."
Local Emmys: Nominated in 2002
WUSA weather staff: Hillary Howard, Tony Pann, Howard Bernstein and Keith Marler (producer).
Number of weather updates daily: 27, plus four exclusive webcasts.
Radar: Live Doppler 9000--real time within a few seconds.
Web site: www.wusatv9.com. Site includes exclusive weather webcasts, live ticker with up-to-date weather data.
TV Weather-Viewing Tips
Because of the varying meteorological conditions due to the proximity of mountains, bay, ocean and valleys, forecasting weather in the Washington, D.C., region is one of the most challenging in the country. A look at things you should know about your weathercast:
* Big Little Secret: The National Weather Service sends up its weather balloons and does atmospheric tests at 7 in the morning and evenings. It generally takes two to three hours for all of the data to be compiled. As a result, your weather forecast does not generally change much from the noon news until the 10 to 11 p.m. news, or overnight.
* Warning Sign: The most dangerous weather systems are low-pressure cells that develop off the Gulf of Mexico, come up through the Carolinas and collide with cold air. But the trickiest are weak systems that settle off the Carolina coasts, drawing moisture and cold air.
* See No Evil, Hear No Evil: The local TV weathercasters use key words in their forecast. Pay close attention to them. They are: might, could, maybe--and most of all, probability (likely storm) and possibility (slim chance).
*The Odds: Some weathercasters won't report a percentage possibility--like a 30 percent chance of snow or rain--for a storm. They feel it locks them into a specific forecast.
* But How Many Inches? Weather patterns are actually fairly predictable. It's the accumulation that perplexes forecasters. That's because atmospheric data is updated just four times daily, leaving forecasters vulnerable to late shifts in a storm.
* Pay Attention! Because of a 180-mile in diameter viewing audience, the forecast can often be a broad-brush attempt to cover as many areas as possible. While it might be raining in Clinton, it could be snowing heavily in Laurel, even though both are in Prince George's County.
* The Line: The rain and snow line of a winter storm in our area is almost always within 20 to 50 miles of the District. Because of the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay and the way storm systems can be pushed and tugged by the bodies of water and air temperatures, forecasting the amount of snow or rain can have great variations with quick changes, even within the Beltway radius.
* Respecting Dew Point: The dew point measures humidity in the air, just as temperature is the way to measure heat in the air. The dew point is the temperature at which the humidity is 100 percent, or the temperature that "dew" or frost (if below 32 degrees) would form. The higher the dew point, the more moisture in the air and the more humid the air. A dew point temperature of 50 is quite comfortable, dew point of 65 is getting fairly humid and anything over 70 is oppressive.
* Must Be DiGiorno: According to a survey by frozen foods manufacturers, frozen pizzas are the No. 1 food of choice for a snow storm, not bread and milk.
Meteorologists rely heavily on the Web for atmospheric models, road temperatures and other critical data when forming their forecasts. Some sites favored by the four chief meteorologists at Washington's TV stations:
* Road conditions and temperatures:
* National Weather Service Forecast Office:
* National Centers for Environmental Prediction:
* U.S. Weather Pages:
* Florida State Dept. of Meteorology Weather Utility:
* Unisys Weather Data:
* Ohio State Atmospheric Services:
* Weather sites for kids:
Local TV Stations' Sites
* WRC-Channel 4:
* WTTG-Channel 5:
* WJLA-Channel 7:
* WUSA-Channel 9