A Stormy History of Weather Reporting

Pete Gamlen
Pete Gamlen / Pete Gamlen

Over the years we’ve relied on talking sheep, girls in nighties, and glorified car salesmen to deliver us the weather. But behind the gimmicks, forecasters have always mattered. And today, we need them more than ever.

With a wide smile and an even wider tie, John Coleman was your consummate 1970s TV weatherman. Throughout the decade, he could be found cracking jokes and doing his signature little boogie in front of a hand-drawn weather map on WLS-TV in Chicago. His leisure suits, swooping side hair part, and booming voice made him a celebrity—first in the Midwest, and then, starting in 1975, as Good Morning America’s first weather forecaster. Coleman was a real-life Ron Burgundy in many ways, but he was no ditz. His best idea put him on track to become one of the most important weather journalists of all time.

Even while delivering two weather reports a day, Coleman wasn’t satisfied with weather’s place in the news. He didn’t think the short time devoted to weather on TV—typically 15 minutes a day—was enough. So, in his spare moments, he began hatching a plan: a national cable channel devoted to the weather 24 hours a day. It sounded like an impossible dream—or a ridiculous idea. But weather forecasters are used to the impossible. Every day, after all, we ask them to tell us the future. They sift through reams of data, applying the principles of physics, chemistry, and dynamics to predict the behavior of what is essentially layers of gas floating miles over our heads. Layers, mind you, steered by unstable jet streams that move 100 miles an hour or more.

While today’s weather reports are constantly improved by data culled from Doppler radar, precipitation-measuring satellites, and supercomputers crunching millions of weather observations worldwide, the atmosphere is ultimately chaotic and impossible to nail every time. We love to complain when the weather report gets it wrong, but we’d be lost without it. Coleman understood that better than anybody.

He also knew that, throughout the 300-year history of weather journalism, we’ve turned to weather reports for much more than data. We’ve always needed the human touch—trusted interpreters to explain the science, reassure us in the face of uncertainty, and entertain us along the way. Their story, which starts long before Coleman, is plenty entertaining itself.

The first weather report—some scholars consider it the first work of modern journalism—was issued by Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe. On November 24, 1703, Defoe was walking in his London neighborhood when he noticed a change in the air: “The Wind encreased, and with Squalls of Rain and terrible Gusts blew very furiously.” Tiles flew from the rooftops, tree limbs and entire trunks snapped, and chimneys toppled, one of which nearly crushed him.

For two more days, a 300-mile-wide storm—the largest and most destructive ever to hit the British Isles—swept from the southwest, violently flinging bricks and stones down the streets. When Defoe looked at his barometer on the 26th, the mercury was as low as he’d ever seen it. He assumed his kids had messed with the tube.

At the time, Defoe was a poet and pamphleteer. He was also fresh out of prison, convicted of satirizing religious intolerance. He had been fined, locked in an elevated public pillory—the old wooden chokey with holes for head and hands—and jailed for four months. Now bankrupt, he was desperate for paid work. On the morning of the 27th, when the worst of the storm had passed, Defoe looked over the destruction and saw salvation in a new genre.

While neighbors checked on friends and relatives, Defoe took notes, collected eyewitness accounts, and gathered grim facts. Hardly anyone had slept through the storm: “The Distraction and Fury of the Night was visible in the Faces of the People,” he wrote. He ventured to the Thames to witness the 700 or so ships that had been tossed in heaps. He estimated that the storm had drowned 8,000 people at sea, including a fifth of the Queen’s navy. It flattened 300,000 trees, destroyed thousands of homes and 400 windmills, and blew away countless church steeples, turrets, and lead roofs, including the one atop Westminster Abbey.

Of course, humans had been trying to divine the weather for thousands of years, and telling stories about it for even longer. The Babylonians could predict short-term weather by looking to the clouds. In Greece, skeptics rolled their eyes at the prevailing belief that rain was sent by Zeus and based their predictions on the four elements instead. Democritus was so good at predicting the weather he convinced people he could see into the future. Meanwhile, Theophrastus’s On Weather Signs gave us weather proverbs that persist to this day. (“When the sky has a reddish appearance before sunrise ... this usually indicates rain within three days, if not on that very day.”) They all understood that the more you know about the weather of the past, the better you can predict the weather of the future.

Until Defoe came along, most contemporary weather studies were just data from rain gauges, wind vanes, thermometers, and barometers. Few writers recounted action as it happened. Defoe did—and his timing could not have been better. Journalism was brand new. London’s Daily Courant had recently launched as the first English language daily newspaper.

With The Storm, Defoe combined his own eyewitness accounts with harrowing details mailed to him from sources all over England. He wasn’t just delivering facts. He was helping his readers understand the storm, how and why it happened, and what it meant for life itself—weaving atmospheric science with moral philosophy. “I cannot doubt but the Atheist’s hard’ned Soul Trembl’d a little as well as his House, and he felt some Nature asking him some little Questions,” he wrote. “Am I not mistaken? Certainly there is some such thing as a God—What can all this be? What is the Matter in the World?”

Over the next century, new technologies would make the weather report a part of our daily lives. By the mid-1800s, thanks to the telegraph, the first government meteorology chiefs could share weather information at lightning speed, helping citizens and ship captains prepare for disasters. In Victorian England, the idea of “forecasting” was controversial. Some considered it akin to voodoo. But Americans had no such qualms: By 1860, 500 weather stations were telegraphing weather reports to Washington.

When that network crumbled during the Civil War, a frustrated astronomer named Cleveland Abbe established a private system of daily weather bulletins. Culling reports from volunteers across the country, Abbe and a team of telegraph clerks transferred the data onto maps. They added special symbols, showing wind direction, areas of high and low pressure, and marking “R” for rain. With the publication of their first bulletin on September 1, 1869, the daily weather report was born.

Newspapers—like Niles’ Weekly Register, the most popular publication in the nation before The New York Times debuted in 1851—had already been devoting ink to the weather. But Abbe’s weathercast made it a must-read: For the first time, Americans had access to statistics on the days to come. The public saw that predictions could save crops, ships, and lives. Abbe, just 30 at the time, became known as “Old Probabilities” or “Old Prob,” and his work rippled out. Before long, a petition from the Great Lakes region—which suffered 1,914 shipwrecks in 1869 alone—urged Congress to establish a national weather service. Congress approved.

Americans couldn’t get enough of the predictions—or the infographics that came with them. The New York Times began running a weather map in 1934, and the next year, the Associated Press started to transmit a national map to member papers. Early maps were more complex than today’s, showing isotherms and areas of high and low pressure. Over the course of the next century, the maps were dumbed down to carry little besides temperature—and, of course, rain. Americans still loved their weather data, but something was shifting in the air. The daily forecast was about to become a source of not just information but entertainment too.

The same year the Times launched its weather map, Jim Fidler, a student at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, took to the air as “radio’s original weatherman.” He wasn’t the first person to read the weather. In 1900, the U.S. Weather Bureau set up the first radio weather broadcasts at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. But Fidler was different. He was a personality.

When a handful of experimental television stations began broadcasting in the early 1940s, radio forecasters like Fidler were quick to the screen. From the start, it was an oddball enterprise, writes weather journalist and his- torian Robert Henson. A New York City weathercast that debuted in 1941 and lasted seven years starred an animated sheep named Wooly Lamb, who introduced each segment with a song. Sonny Eliot in Detroit turned the weather into a variety show, making forecasts like “The storm is as suspicious as a dermatologist with acne.”

In 1952, the FCC inadvertently encouraged even more cheeseball TV when it opened up competition for local licenses. Most major cities expanded from one station to two or three. Now, vying for audiences, news managers found the weather report was the easiest to liven up. No gimmick was too outlandish. Nashville poet-forecaster Bill Williams read the weather in verse. In New York, a puppet “weather lion” gave one nightly forecast; a sleepy bombshell in a nightie gave a midnight forecast as she tucked herself into bed.

So began the love-hate relationship between real meteorologists and weather forecasters with little science background. The American Meteorological Society tried to rein in the antics. “Many TV ‘weathermen’ make a caricature of what is essentially a serious and scientific occupation,” complained Francis Davis, a physics professor and Philadelphia weathercaster, in a 1955 TV Guide piece titled “Weather Is No Laughing Matter.” The Society wanted everyone to have scientific credentials. A young forecaster named David Letterman never got the memo. Delivering the weather in Indianapolis, Letterman joked about “hailstones the size of canned hams” and, Henson writes, cited statistics for made-up cities.

Beauty also trumped know-how. Raquel Welch got her start doing morning weather in San Diego as a “Sun-Up Weather Girl.” Diane Sawyer landed her first job out of Wellesley in 1967 as “weathergirl” for her hometown TV station in Louisville. Sawyer wasn’t allowed to wear glasses on camera and couldn’t tell whether she was pointing to the West or East Coast on the map.

The profession wasn’t so much a platform for experts as a stepping stone for TV-stardom hopefuls. Wheel of Fortune emcee Pat Sajak, Marg Helgenberger (of CSI fame), and comedian Gilda Radner all got their starts reading the weather. None were degreed meteorologists—nor was the Chicago weatherman John Coleman. But that wasn’t going to stop him from upending the weather report once again.

Though he lacked scientific training, Coleman knew that scientific cred would be as essential as verve. Setting out to build a brand-new weather genre, he wanted only trained meteorologists beamed into American living rooms. He also worked feverishly to develop new technologies to fit local forecasts and weather alerts into national programming. But first he had to find a deep-pocketed partner to bankroll his idea.

Most venture capitalists were skeptical; even those who loved weather reports figured 24 hours’ worth was too big a risk. Finally Coleman found his patron in Frank Batten, a Norfolk, Virginia–based mogul who had made a fortune turning Landmark Communications (primarily a newspaper company) into one of the nation’s largest media conglomerates. Batten had a personal attraction to the subject matter: He’d been gobsmacked by weather since age 6, when he and his uncle rode out a ferocious storm, the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933, in the family’s oceanfront cottage on Virginia Beach.

Batten and Landmark invested $32 million, and the Weather Channel launched on May 2, 1982. It was a rocky start. Early technology garbled local forecasts. Critics dismissed the channel as a joke. Newsweek called it a “24-hour-a-day exercise in meteorological overkill.” In its first six months, viewership was too low to qualify for Nielsen ratings. In its first year, the channel lost $10 million. While Coleman was a brilliant weatherman, Batten felt he was a poor CEO; a bid to oust him escalated into an epic legal battle. By 1983, the board and Batten were ready to shut the project down. Coleman eventually settled with the company, handing over his 75,000 shares of stock. The Weather Channel was insolvent at the time, so Coleman, for all his efforts, walked away empty-handed.

Even though Americans didn’t sit around watching the channel—not yet—they liked having it around, and cable operators knew it. Ultimately, the operators saved the channel by agreeing to subscriber fees. Starting in 1984, the fees coincided with the huge growth in cable TV through the mid-1990s. The channel also started selling spectacularly goofy infomercials: a “Heat Wave Alert” for Gatorade, a “Cold Wave Alert” for Quaker Oats, and “Weather and Your Health”—sponsored with no apparent irony by the fake-bacon condiment Bac-Os.

Still, viewers weren’t yet won over. Coleman was gone, but his policies lived on. He had banned live broadcasts from the field because the technology was poor and expensive, so forecasters had to stay inside. The lack of pizzazz became obvious only in hindsight. As video equipment became better and cheaper, the channel’s meteorologists began flipping the formula: They got out into the rain, while viewers stayed dry in their living rooms. The role reversal proved incredibly appealing. Reporting from the field was a “sea change in our understanding of the emotional connection” people have with weather, said then-president and CEO Deborah Wilson.

In 1992, reporting on Hurricane Andrew from his Baton Rouge hotel room with rain gushing in, meteorologist Jim Cantore, who’d spent six years stuck behind a desk, expressed a love for storm drama that infected viewers. “It was awe- some, the wind and the rain,” he remembers.

Viewers were hooked—the Weather Channel streamed into the homes of 50 million Americans during Andrew. Soon viewership swelled to 96 million. By 2008, when the channel was acquired by NBC, it was a $3.5 billion powerhouse built on the same premise Daniel Defoe had discovered 300 years before: The most riveting weather reports come from people who venture outside to see and feel the conditions in real time.

In its March from Defoe’s ruminations to telegraphs to TV to smart phones, today’s weather report has grown not only more convenient but more accurate. Thanks to cutting-edge forecasting models, our four-day rain outook is as precise as the one-day forecast was 30 years ago. Satellites and supercomputers have sharpened predictions for tropical storms; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration nailed Hurricane Sandy’s southern New Jersey landfall five days out.

Lately, digital giants like Verizon have tried to push out the human forecasters at the Weather Channel, arguing that apps make them irrelevant. Just the opposite is true: Massive amounts of digital data make human interpretation more crucial than ever before. We see it in our compulsion to talk about the weather in the spaces between other conversations—often with strangers. We see it in our need for the science to tell us more. We want the forecast to tell us which coat to wear, but also to explain by the hour how the weather will act tomorrow, and what this brutal winter says about next year— and the next 50 years.

Climate change is not only the weather story of our time, but the story of our time. Just as the great storm of 1703 swept in at the dawn of newspapers, so anthropogenic climate change and its impacts are coming into focus during another profound shift, from print and TV to ubiquitous screens. While some of the weathermen of yesterday—Coleman among them—are outspoken climate-change deniers, professional meteorologists generally agree with the scientific consensus that Earth’s warming is unequivocal—and unnatural. “It is clear from extensive scientific evidence,” say the men and women of the American Meteorological Society, “that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half-century is human-induced.”

Today’s revolutionary weather reporters are those who see it as their role to educate audiences on weather and climate science. These include Columbia, South Carolina, WLTX chief meteorologist Jim Gandy, who airs a segment called “Climate Matters,” and Mashable’s Andrew Freedman, who explains major weather stories in the context of the changing climate. This new generation of reporters can explain the science and, equally important, our shared role in the future well-being of the planet.

The history of weather reporting is at turns funny and fraudulent. But underlying the talking sheep and girls in nighties, our need to understand has always been serious. We’ll continue to rely on interpreters like Defoe and Abbe to document the storms and to help us see our place in the larger swirl of the atmosphere. They ask us to consider—and discuss—the same questions Defoe asked more than three centuries ago: “What can all this be? What is the Matter in the World?”

Adapted from Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Copyright © 2015 by Cynthia Barnett. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. For a complete source list, see Rain’s Notes section. To purchase, click here.