In this week’s episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Jason Samenow, weather editor for the Washington Post and one of the leaders of the Post’s Capital Weather Gang. They discuss the intersection of climate change and weather, with a particular focus on how meteorologists communicate with the public about climate change in a scientifically rigorous way and how that communication has evolved alongside climate science. Samenow and Hayes also talk about the increasing number of extreme weather events occurring both globally and in the Washington, DC, area.
- The motivation behind the original Capital Weather Gang blog: “Historically, weather information was more of a one-way conversation. You would watch the weather on the news. You would read about weather in the newspaper. And I felt like blogs had a really great potential to make weather more of a conversation. When you think about it, weather is one of the top conversational topics. In society, we all love to talk about weather.” (3:27)
- Weather forecasts have to acknowledge climate change: “[Meteorologists] can’t really tell a weather story responsibly without putting it in a climate-change context. You’re not telling the whole story if there’s an extreme heat event of a magnitude of which we’ve never seen before, and you don’t talk about the past, and you don’t talk about how different this is from what we’ve seen in the historical record. You have to connect the dots. If you don’t do that, you’re not being a responsible journalist and telling the whole story.” (10:39)
- Climate change makes extreme weather more likely: “In the last decade—in the last five years in particular—we’ve seen an acceleration in the warming and in the number of these extreme weather events that we’re covering. It just seems like more and more records are being broken. Here in the DC area, I can think of a laundry list of various temperature records we’ve set in the last decade, the last decade being our warmest on record. We’ve had seven of our 12 hottest months on record. We’ve had most of our warmest years on record. We’ve had many of our hottest days on record.” (13:17)
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Kristin Hayes.
My guest today is Jason Samenow, weather editor for the Washington Post and one of the head honchos of the Post’s Capital Weather Gang. Jason attended the University of Virginia, where he earned a degree in environmental science with a focus on atmospheric science. He then went on to earn a master’s degree in atmospheric science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before joining the Post, Jason worked for a decade as a climate change analyst for the federal government, monitoring, analyzing, and communicating the science of climate change.
I’m not going to lie: the Capital Weather Gang are basically celebrities to those of us who live in the Washington, DC area. They are tremendously informative, educational, witty, and timely in their analysis and information. They also have a killer Twitter feed, and I couldn’t be more pleased to be talking with Jason today about the intersection of climate change and weather, with a particular focus on how today’s weatherpeople communicate to the public about climate change in a scientifically rigorous way. Honestly, I’m probably going to fangirl a little bit along the way, too. So get ready. Stay with us.
Jason, it is very exciting to welcome you to the show, and I am so grateful that you were able to join me.
Jason Samenow: Thanks so much for having me today, Kristin.
Kristin Hayes: So again, I imagine you need little to no introduction for many of our DC base listeners. But for those who are farther afield, can you tell us a bit more about your background and how you ended up where you are today?
Jason Samenow: Sure. So as you mentioned in your very kind introduction, I’ve been interested in weather since I was very young, starting at around the age of 10. And I knew at that time that I wanted to pursue a career in meteorology, no doubt about it. So I went ahead and I went to the University of Virginia, where I focused on environmental science and atmospheric science. Then I went to graduate school at University of Wisconsin-Madison. And again, at Madison, I focused both on meteorology and on climate change.
When I graduated, I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go in, whether I wanted to focus more on traditional weather forecasting or do more climate change work. And it turned out that I applied for a job at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a climate change science analyst. They made me an offer and, being from Washington, the lure of staying in Washington and near friends and family were quite appealing.
I decided to take that EPA job, but I wanted to stay active in weather forecasting. For that reason, while I was at EPA, as a side hustle, so to speak, I started a website called capitalweather.com, which was a DC-area weather portal, which I, at first, just shared with friends and family. I would post weather discussions on there when there were big storms coming up. But over time, I decided that this could evolve into something bigger, and at the time blogs were becoming a big thing. I thought weather would be a great topic for a blog, because a blog is a two-way conversation, where you’re posting information and then you’re having readers react, share comments, and so forth.
Historically, weather information was more of a one-way conversation. You would watch the weather on the news. You would read about weather in the newspaper. And I felt like blogs had a really great potential to make weather more of a conversation. When you think about it, weather is one of the top conversational topics. In society, we all love to talk about weather—small talk or more substantively.
But anyways, with the help of several contributors and contacts I had at the time, we converted capitalweather.com into a blog-style website, where we would post forecasts each day and encourage our readers to comment, share storm stories, share their observations of the weather. And it started to take off, and this was through a lot of hard work, but we built an audience. We asked other blogs to link to us. We got noticed by Washingtonian magazine, who featured us as one of the best blogs in DC, and the Washington Post eventually noticed us as well.
In 2007, they reached out to us and asked us if we wanted to basically become their weather team. And of course, we were very eager for more exposure. We couldn’t turn down that offer. We entered a deal with the Post to blog for them, starting in 2008. That was originally set up as a three-year deal. When that three-year deal ended, I was kind of out of crossroads. This was in 2010. Would I continue to do this while I had a very busy career at the EPA? And, honestly, it was a lot of work having a full-time day job and also a very successful side venture with the Post. And the Post decided to offer me a full-time job with them so we could keep this going and build on it.
So, I left the security of an excellent government job in a place I loved working to do Capital Weather Gang full-time at the Post. I’ve done that since 2010; I’ve been at the Post for almost 12 years now. And it’s been a great ride.
Kristin Hayes: That is fantastic. I will say you mentioned the two-way conversation piece of this and how that’s something you were trying to encourage. I find that, in general, comments sections on news sites are sort of rough. It’s not the most welcoming part of the news experience. The comments on the Capital Weather Gang site are just as joyous as the reporting itself. It’s really a wonderful community, and it’s clear that part of the mission has kept going as it’s gone to the Post.
Thank you for that background. And it’s wonderful to have someone who does straddle both the worlds of climate and weather, and that’s really the focus of our conversation today. Obviously, I guess I would characterize it as, climate and weather are closely linked, but they are not the same. And so maybe we can start with a foundational question of how you would characterize the relationship between climate and weather.
Jason Samenow: Sure. Climate is basically just the average of all weather, and there are a couple of good sayings or metaphors, which help people better understand the differences between the two. One of them, the saying is, “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.” Again, linking to the idea that climate is the average of all weather. And then here’s a metaphor that Marshall Shepherd, who’s a professor of atmospheric sciences at University of Georgia, is fond of. I believe he may have come up with this. He says, "Climate is your personality. Weather is your mood."
Again, what you generally expect is what climate gives you, but what you get at any given time is the weather. So, the weather is very changeable. You might live in a hot climate, but you get cold weather. You might live in a cold climate and get hot weather. But, basically, when you average it all together, that’s what climate defines. And then, what’s happening at any given point in time—that’s the weather, if that makes sense.
Kristin Hayes: Absolutely. I think that’s a really helpful distinction, and I’m sure that gets at some of the challenges that we’ll talk about—about communicating those differences, too.
But another kind of baseline question for you. You’ve obviously been a weather aficionado for quite some time and have been engaged in both climate communication and weather reporting for decades of an entire professional career. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make you sound old, but it’s a wonderful and extensive career doing both of those things. So I wanted to ask, can you say a little bit about how the field of meteorology (if I can ask you to speak for the field) has approached talking about climate change over the years? Is it something that you talked about from the outset, and how has it changed?
Jason Samenow: It’s undergone a lot of change, especially the last five to 10 years. If you go back to, say, between 2000 to 2010, meteorologists didn’t really talk about climate change much at all. I think there were a couple things going on there.
Number one, there was some skepticism among meteorologists about how big of an effect climate change was having on the weather and also how big of an effect human activities were having on the weather and the climate overall. A decade ago, there was a considerable contingent of meteorologists who just weren’t convinced yet that climate change was profoundly impacting the weather. I think that has changed a lot in the last 10 years, as we’ve seen—as some of our weather statistics have been skewed toward more and more records, whether it’s extreme precipitation events, whether it’s heat waves. The data has just become a lot more compelling that something is fundamentally changing about our background weather conditions.
As meteorologists have seen that, they’ve become more open to talking about it and also more convinced themselves that this is really happening—that climate change is in fact influencing our weather on a day-to-day basis. And, of course, there have been really important efforts by some nonprofit organizations to help meteorologists better understand climate change: organizations like Climate Central, who started a Climate Matters program to educate broadcast meteorologists about climate change and also to make resources and information available.
So, those meteorologists could talk to their viewers about the changes, which have been ongoing. And there’s been research, which has shown that the work that broadcast meteorologists have done has actually changed the attitudes of some of their audiences. Climate Central should really be applauded for that work. Especially in the last five years, when we’ve seen overwhelming evidence with record highs vastly outnumbering record lows, with these extreme precipitation events becoming more frequent, I think it’s become really clear to broadcast meteorologists—in the meteorology profession overall—that things are changing in a really serious way.
They can’t really tell a weather story responsibly without putting it in a climate-change context. You’re not telling the whole story if there’s an extreme heat event of a magnitude of which we’ve never seen before, and you don’t talk about the past, and you don’t talk about how different this is from what we’ve seen in the historical record. You have to connect the dots. If you don’t do that, you’re not being a responsible journalist and telling the whole story.
Maybe five or six years ago, I wrote an op-ed perspective on the Capital Weather Gang, basically saying that if you’re a meteorologist and you’re not putting current weather records and current weather events in historical context and discussing how these events connect to climate change and understanding the peer-reviewed literature, I think you’re doing a disservice to your audience.
I wrote that, and I think another big advance in the field has been these attribution studies, which have been done, which help scientists and journalists better understand the effect that climate change is having on these extreme weather events and how climate change is making these extreme weather events so many more times likely. Within a few weeks of any major weather event happening, these reports come out from the worldwide attribution project, which quantitatively tell us how much of an effect climate change is having.
Kristin Hayes: I have about a million follow-up questions for you. I’m going to try to reign them in here.
I want to follow up on that question of extreme weather events. Even in the time that you’ve been at the Capital Weather Gang with the Post, I can think of a number of really intense moments in DC weather history that have happened in this decade. There’s been Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse. There was the derecho. There was Superstorm Sandy. These large-scale, really extreme, out-of-the-ordinary weather events. And you guys are not just looking at DC, but you’re really covering weather around the globe.
I want to dive into that. Many of us have either a lived, but anecdotal, experience or an intuitive sense that the weather’s been getting more extreme. But you guys—it’s your job to really look at the underlying data and understand, from a more scientific lens, what the trajectory of that extreme weather looks like. What can you tell us about what you, as someone who studies this for a living, has seen about their trajectory of extreme weather events?
Jason Samenow: It’s kind of crazy. But especially in the last decade—in the last five years in particular—we’ve seen an acceleration in the warming and in the number of these extreme weather events that we’re covering. It just seems like more and more records are being broken. Here in the DC area, I can think of a laundry list of various temperature records we’ve set in the last decade, the last decade being our warmest on record. We’ve had seven of our 12 hottest months on record. We’ve had most of our warmest years on record. We’ve had many of our hottest days on record. We’ve had some of our hottest days so early in the year and so late in the year. I keep a list of this. There are 30 bullet points with all of these various heat-weather extremes that we’ve established just in the last decade.
They continue to pile up, and it’s not just the heat. It’s also the heavy precipitation events. We think about the two Ellicott City floods. I think those were in 2016 and 2018. You had two 500-year flood events in, basically, three summers. And then in July 2019, DC had its heaviest downpour in recorded history, in which three to four inches of rain fell in a single hour. And you saw similar events like that in New York City last year with Hurricane Ida, when their flood systems were overwhelmed. They saw about that amount of rain in just a short amount of time. It was not only severe flooding, but lives were lost. That was a severe event there. So it’s happening, not just in the DC area, but all over the country, really, in terms of these more extreme precipitation events.
And of course, even this summer with the heat waves, we’ve been covering a lot, in recent days, the extreme heat in Texas. They’re having one of their hottest summers on record. Houston had its hottest July day on Sunday. It was 105 degrees. We’re covering it everywhere, and it seems like my job has gotten busier and busier in recent years just because there are more extreme events happening.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has tracked this uptick in billion-dollar weather disasters. Last year, I think, was the second-busiest year on record for those. Those costs are escalating, and obviously it’s not all climate change. Some of the increase in costs of extreme weather events is due to the fact that there’s a growing population, and there’s more infrastructure. There’s more property in harm’s way, especially with all the building along the coasts and the impacts that hurricanes have.
But climate change is in there, too, because these events are becoming more intense. There have been attribution studies that showed events like Hurricane Harvey produced a lot more rain than they would have had it not been for the warming temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. And of course, we’re concerned about hurricane season this year because the water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Atlantic are so warm. It’s relentless in terms of the trajectory we’re headed on and what we’ve already seen just in the past five to 10 years.
Kristin Hayes: This is another great lead-in to a question that I wanted to ask you about research and what areas of research are most impactful for you as a meteorologist. I’ll put this in context by saying that when I was growing up, my impression of a weatherperson was basically some combination of Al Roker and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day—not a super academically rigorous picture, no offense to either one of those wonderful humans. But I was just less aware, let me put it that way, of meteorology’s academic underpinnings.
So I wanted to ask: What fields of research would you say are most impactful, most important for your line of work? Or to phrase it another way: How much do meteorologists need a grounding in climate science these days to be able to effectively do their jobs?
Jason Samenow: It’s an interesting question. I should link back to the question you asked me earlier about how viewpoints among meteorologists have changed about climate change. I think a decade or two ago, some of the more veteran meteorologists in the field, especially on television, may not have had much of a climate-change education because, when they were in college, climate change was barely an emerging issue, and we didn’t have a strong understanding of it at that time. Their skepticism may have been as much about a lack of awareness and education as anything.
But the younger meteorologists, those who were trained in the last one to two decades—their training has included climatology, and their professors are well-educated in climate science. Some of them are publishing their research on climate science. So a lot of the younger meteorologists are much more open to talking about climate change and are much more informed about the research because the field has advanced a lot in the past few decades. That’s why you’re seeing an increasing number of meteorologists who were previously reluctant to talk about climate change on air, whether it was because of their lack of education or their personal attitudes about it. That’s changed as public attitudes about climate change have changed and their understanding has evolved.
In terms of the areas of research, which are really helpful for today’s meteorologists, it cuts across the spectrum from severe-weather research, better understanding of tornados, severe thunderstorms, heavy precipitation events, and snowstorms. And this climate change research is all being done at universities across the country.
And what I spoke about earlier—the attribution research, which helps connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather—that’s a whole emerging area of academic research and their studies, which come out on that all the time, have been of tremendous value for those of us who do try to connect the dots and make that part of our reporting and are helping to educate the public about it, so that they can better understand weather through the lens of our changing climate.
Absolutely, there are tremendous advances being made. There’s important work being done, and this is a growing area, but we need it all, and it’s incredibly helpful.
Kristin Hayes: We’ve talked about a number of things that make your job easier. Maybe I can ask you for a second about what you still find to be the most difficult reporting challenges to navigate when you’re talking about the relationship of weather to climate change. Is it some of these big-picture relationships? Is it making sure that you’re being accurate when it comes to attribution? What do you still struggle with?
Jason Samenow: In climate change and extreme weather, there is some nuance, and there are some weather events or many weather events that, even without climate change, would’ve been extreme. We had severe weather and extreme weather well before greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increased 50 percent. If you look at the early part of the climate record in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were severe hurricanes back then. There were heat waves in the Dust Bowl, which were severe.
There is maybe this tendency for our audiences to think, "Oh, humans, we’re causing everything." And that’s not really the case. A good analogy I’ve heard is that it’s like the steroid era in baseball, where the home-run numbers were inflated, and there were all these new records being set with Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. But it’s not like sluggers weren’t hitting home runs before that—Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and players like that. But the numbers got supercharged because people were taking these performance-enhancing drugs.
By adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, we’re juicing the atmosphere, or injecting the atmosphere with more fuel, to make heat waves more intense, to make heavy precipitation events more extreme. So you have to use metaphors like that and try to educate people to say, "Look, these events are natural, but we’re making them worse."
It’s not to say climate change causes extreme weather, but it enhances it. So we need to do a good job explaining that. There are some events that are more clearly linked to climate change, at least their intensity, and there are some that are not. Sometimes it’s a challenge to differentiate between those that have a stronger climate change link versus those that do not.
We look at tornadoes sometimes, for example, and tornadoes are one of the thornier issues, because the understanding of how climate change may or may not be influencing tornadoes is hard to understand. There are a lot of nuances there. So you have to go into a great deal of detail to try to explain that. That challenges you as a journalist.
The more complicated the issue is, and the less cut and dry the answers are, the more you have to try hard to be clear. It’s hard to sometimes convey these messages on Twitter, where you’re limited to 240 characters, or in a headline. And sometimes people don’t read past the headline, or they’ll only see your tweet. They won’t dive down and read the fine print. So I think your job as a journalist is to try to draw people in and get them to keep reading and engage them in the topic so they want to learn more. Those are some of the types of challenges we deal with.
Kristin Hayes: I’m going to go back, for just a second, to my introduction, where I said that you guys are basically celebrities to those of us who live in the DC area. I stand by that 100 percent. To illustrate my point, I will note that when we were looking for a bio for you, our wonderful editor, Elizabeth, found a picture of a young man, a boy, who had dressed up as you for Halloween and was so excited at the idea of being a Jason Samenow when he grew up.
So, I want to ask, in that vein of someone who is a role model for budding meteorologists, what advice would you have for those young kids out there? The 10-year-olds of this generation who want to think about becoming meteorologists and reporting on the weather, but want to do that with a scientifically rigorous attitude?
Jason Samenow: That’s a great question. And it’s funny because my own son, who’s 11 years old, for better or for worse has got the weather bug, and he’s actually more into weather than even I was at the same age. It’s just kind of crazy. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree there.
If you’re interested in weather at a young age, it’s great. Obviously, it can be a very rewarding hobby if you choose it to be that, or it can be a rewarding career if you want to take it that far. But for anyone who’s seriously interested in the issue, learning as much as you can at a young age obviously will put you at a great advantage in terms of being ahead of the pack once you get into your courses in high school and college.
You’ve got to be strong in math and science to do well in meteorology because it’s steeped in the hard math and in physics. You’ve got to be at least competent in those subjects. You don’t have to be a star, but you’ve got to be able to get through the math and through the science. So do well in math and science.
And obviously, if you want to go into the communication side of things, the ability to write and write well is really important. If you want to go on TV, the ability to speak well and to present yourself well is really important. I think reading books—there are tons of resources available now for young weather enthusiasts and older weather enthusiasts. There are even weather camps you can go to. I think Penn State offers a summer weather camp for weather enthusiasts in junior high and high school or middle school age. And also, there are tons of resources online, and you can actually learn how to analyze the weather models online. There are websites and great resources out there for educating yourself.
When you get into college, you want to make the most of it. Take good classes, engage yourself in possible opportunities, whether that’s volunteering for a professor to help them with their research or getting involved in internships. There are any number of things you can do, but I think if you’re interested in writing and communicating, getting engaged in social media at a young age is really important. Learning from others and paying attention to professionals who are doing a great job and learning from them and following their lead. Those are a number of things you can do to set yourself up to either be a weather professional, or a lifelong weather enthusiast, or a hobbyist.
Kristin Hayes: Awesome. I’m going to end on a total host prerogative question, where I’m just going to ask you to geek out on cool weather phenomena for a minute. So before we really close with our regular feature, I wanted to ask: What is the coolest weather phenomenon that you have ever had the pleasure of covering?
Jason Samenow: It’s a great question. Having been involved in weather reporting for, basically, almost two decades now, I’ve kind of covered it all—every type of extreme weather, cool clouds. But I might go back to a personal story in a second.
But some of the clouds that are really cool, that I love to write about, are lenticular clouds, or flying saucer–shaped clouds, which form over mountains. The mammatus clouds, which form in the wake of severe storms, are these pouchy, bulbous-shaped clouds, which are awesome to see, especially in the sunset sky. And there’re also clouds called Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds, which are wave-shaped clouds, which look like an ocean wave crashing over the sky. Those are really cool.
But in terms of the coolest weather phenomenon I’ve had the pleasure of covering—what got me into meteorology to begin with was my love of snowstorms. For me, it would have to be the extreme Snowmageddon winter of 2010 here in DC. That’s what really put the Capital Weather Gang on the map. But when I think about what made it so amazing to me was that it was February 2010, and we’d had the first of two blockbuster snowstorms. The first was Snowmageddon. And I think that was something like February 4 and 5, and then just three or four days later, we had a second blizzard, which the Capital Weather Gang called “Snowverkill.”
What was incredible to me about that storm was—I remember going outside, we were winding up coverage of it on Capital Weather Gang. And I decided I needed to get out in this to experience it for myself, because these were the most extreme conditions I’d ever seen in Washington, DC. We had about 35 to 40 inches of snow on the ground. There was zero visibility. The snow was drifted up as much as five, six, seven feet high. It was a totally foreign landscape. I remember walking out of my house—I lived in Friendship Heights—and I walked out to Wisconsin Avenue, which was deserted. A total ghost town. I remember seeing the snow drift stacked against the cars. The streets completely devoid of any activity, and just walking down the middle of Wisconsin Avenue with the snow blowing sideways, the snow drifts eight, nine feet high. Just again, I may never see another scene like this in Washington for the rest of my life.
For me, that was the coolest weather experience that I’ve ever covered, and I was able to witness it firsthand. We cover weather all over the world, but seldom do I get to experience something extreme in my own backyard. And that was extreme, especially for this area.
Kristin Hayes: Was it ever! I think there are weather moments that really stand out, and that is one of them. And you actually got paid to go out in the snow and check it out, so that’s even better.
Jason Samenow: Exactly.
Kristin Hayes: The best job of all time. Well, Jason, this has been fantastic. I am going to close with our regular Top of the Stack feature. I feel like you already, even in the course of recording this, went through about nine resources or more that our listeners would be totally interested in. Maybe we can capture some of those as well, but is there some other good content that you’d want to recommend? What’s on the top of your proverbial stack?
Jason Samenow: I just recently encountered a Substack, or a newsletter, about tropical weather written by Michael Lowry. He is a broadcast meteorologist for—I think it’s WPLG down in Miami. And he previously worked in the National Hurricane Center. He’s worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He worked at the Weather Channel, and he’s a really good communicator and a great meteorologist, and he does an excellent daily column on tropical weather. It’s called Eye on the Tropics. And if you google “Eye on the Tropics Substack,” I’m sure you’ll find it easily. He does a great job with the newsletter. I read it each day, and we try to draw from some of it and cite it in some of our tropical weather updates. He just started this about a month ago; he does a great job with it. I thought I’d give folks a heads up about that.
I guess in some ways he’s competition to us, because we also write about tropical weather, but, as I said, he does such a great job, and we cite it. I definitely think it’s worthwhile if you’re interested in following what’s going on with tropical storms or hurricanes, and we’re just about a month away from the peak of hurricane season. So I imagine his audience will be growing as people come across that, and he’s doing a great job.
Kristin Hayes: That’s a great shout-out. I’m actually going to do another host prerogative today. I very seldom throw in my own Top of the Stacks, but, just today, I have fallen in love with a new song that I’m also going to recommend to our listeners. And it is in fact called “The Weather.” It’s by a band called Lawrence. If you listen to the acoustic or gospel version, you will have a wonderful musical experience about the weather, as well. Lots of great follow-up opportunities from this podcast.
And Jason, I just want to thank you again. It really has been a pleasure. I will be reading out there in the Washington Post reader land. So thank you for all that you do.
Jason Samenow: Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed the discussion.
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