Internet Weather Poseurs, Begone

Part of the Lower Manhattan skyline seen behind a pile of snow on Feb. 13, 2014.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s hard to know where to go to get a decent weather forecast on the Internet these days.

In just the last few months, we’ve had a nonexistent New York City snowstorm, a ”sideways tornado” in Baltimore, and faux hurricanes headed for New Orleans. Even the once-venerable Weather Channel has gone off the rails recently, earning acclaim for transforming into a leading source of clickbait.

Because of these and other reckless antics and Facebook farces, 2014 will almost assuredly go down as the year of the Internet weather hoax. Last month, Gawker’s Dennis Mersereau, king of weather-hoax debunkery, wrote a surprisingly useful tutorial of the genre.

But take heed, all you who threaten us with your barometric bluffs and atmospheric ambuscades: The National Weather Association has just the thing. At this year’s annual meeting, which is currently taking place in Salt Lake City, the NWA announced a new certification program for purveyors of Internet weather blogs and webcasts: the NWA Digital Seal of approval.

Immediately, the meteorological community rejoiced:

To qualify for a NWA Digital Seal, you don’t have to have a degree in meteorology. If you’ve been writing about the weather or making Internet videos for awhile and pass a 100-question test, you can submit a portfolio of your work to the NWA. If the NWA considers you a trusted source of weather content, you’re in. Traditional TV meteorologists aren’t eligible.

By email, the very first NWA Digital Seal holder, Bill Murray (not to be confused with the actor who once famously played a meteorologist on the silver screen), told me the achievement is a validation of a lifelong education in the weather. “Weather on the Internet has a huge noise to signal ratio now and I believe that the NWA Digital Seal is a positive filter,” Murray told me. The other two inaugural Digital Seal holders are Mike Mogil, whose weather photography was enshrined on a U.S. postage stamp in 2004, and Jason Samenow, weather editor of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.

Josh Larson, a Denver-area meteorologist who helps run the site, is eager to apply. “I feel it is doing the public a service,” he told me by email. Still, he has reservations: “The seal is only as good as the job the NWA does communicating to the public what it means.”

The NWA (not to be confused with the ‘80s hip hop group of the same name, or the U.S. government’s National Weather Service, where all your official forecasts come from) has been certifying broadcast TV meteorologists for many years. Now, with television becoming less and less popular source of weather information—checking the weather is the No. 1 mobile activity, according to one recent survey—the new move by NWA could help separate the sunshine from the storms, so to speak. There are signs that the American Meteorological Society, the NWA’s older and more well-known cousin, may also eventually follow suit.

As Samenow put it in an email: “When it comes to online weather info, it’s a bit of a wild, wild west out there. I hope, that over time, the digital seal can help establish some order, directing the public to the best sources of credible information across platforms.​”

My bold prediction is that the NWA’s new program won’t do much to tamp down the plethora of misleading weather content, but at least we’ll know where to look first for the fact check.