Science

Southern Living Retracted an Essay After It Drew the Ire of Meteorologists

The weather experts are really tired of people getting mad at them.

A tornado touches down near a field.
Nikolas Noonan/Unsplash

“There was no warning. No sirens. No weather radio alerts,” read a Southern Living article titled “Flowers in the Storm.” The Birmingham, Alabama–based magazine published the piece on Jan. 26, the day after an EF-3 tornado carved a 9½-mile path through Central Alabama, destroying buildings and killing at least one person. While the piece might have meant to help readers process the alarming destruction, it also aired the erroneous claim that there were “no television meteorologist barking ‘You need to get to your safe place NOW.’ ”

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James Spann, chief meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, was quick to refute it. “This narrative discredits the entire weather enterprise,” he wrote on Facebook. “A tornado watch was issued 4 and a half hours before the tornado, and the warning allowed 8-10 minutes for people in Fultondale to get in a safe place.”

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Southern Living has since removed the story from its website and has told Spann it plans to publish a follow-up piece explaining how meteorologists issue storm warnings (the magazine did not reply to Slate’s request for comment). The article’s author, Steve Bender, has apologized for his words in a Facebook post, explaining that they sprang “out of the helplessness we all feel when it seems the weather singles us out and there is nothing we can do to prevent it.” Mistakes happen, and this one was swiftly corrected. However, the tone of the article is all too familiar to on-camera meteorologists, who say they face baseless contempt as they report on urgent and inclement weather.

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While some people get mad when they miss weather warnings, others get mad when they do hear them. In April 2019, Atlanta meteorologists felt the public’s ire firsthand when they cut into the broadcast of the final round of the Masters golf tournament with live updates on a round of severe thunderstorms and possible tornadoes moving through the area—updates that could have also affected the Masters, hosted just east of Atlanta in Augusta, Georgia. Viewers took to Twitter to complain, including one user who commented: “The only touchdown I care about is in football. Go back to #TheMasters.” Others went so far as to issue death threats.

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Spann, too, has taken flak for TV interruptions, such as when he cut into an NBA game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day 2015. “The first email I got after I went off-air read, ‘You should have been aborted by a coat hanger,’” he told me.

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While people have long criticized forecasters for the occasional inaccurate forecast, the meteorologist-public relationship hasn’t always run this hot and cold. According to Spann, who has been in broadcast since the late-1970s, viewer vitriol has worsened through the decades as social media has become more prominent, and our society more polarized. “I think it has always been there,” he said, “but now it’s so easy to lash out with the digital communication that we have. Back in the day, they’d have to leave you a voicemail message or send snail mail. And usually by the time you write a letter, you calm down. Now you can type a 10-word tweet and it’s out there. I also think there’s increased anger in the country.”

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Another likely contributor is our culture of individualism—our preference for personal freedoms, even if those freedoms could lead to self-detriment. The COVID-19 anti-masker movement is one such example, as a 2020 paper titled “Individualism During Crises” points out. Individualism can hamper collective action, the authors write, as well as affect risk taking. And risk taking, according to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction on how people respond to tornado warnings, influences how people rely on, understand, and trust tornado alerts. For example, the study finds that men tend to expose themselves to greater risk than women because of traits including high self-belief and a fear of external influences undermining their authority. This leads to a distrust of tornado warnings, failure to take shelter, and dismissal of the alerts entirely, write the authors. And if an individual is more inclined to depend on their own instincts over a meteorologist’s, they’re probably going to view the weatherperson’s advice as a nuisance. Ultimately, this mindset may increase the potential for being killed. Though there could be a number of contributing factors, U.S. natural hazard statistics show that more male lives (generally double or more) than female have been claimed by severe weather every year since at least the 1990s.

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Understandably, a weather alert can feel like an unnecessary inconvenience when it seems like the disaster has little chance of affecting you personally. But the Federal Communications Commission is more responsible for this interruption than your meteorologist; it requires broadcasters and cable operators to make certain emergency information accessible via television. The trouble with that is network affiliate stations often broadcast over multistate regions, meaning that TV watchers who are not in harm’s way have their evening interrupted by weather warnings, too. As meteorologists like Jamie Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, note, that’s no reason to shoot the messenger. “We have viewers complaining already, ‘Just go back to the show,’ ” Simpson exclaimed while interrupting an episode of The Bachelorette to update residents on multiple tornado watches and warnings in May 2019. “No, we’re not going back to the show folks! This is a dangerous situation, OK?! Think about if it was your neighborhood. I’m sick and tired of people complaining about this. Our job here is to keep people safe and that’s what we’re going to do.”

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Spann echoed Simpson’s sentiments. “The bottom line is it’s selfishness,” he told me. “We live in a culture that’s all about ‘me.’ ‘I don’t really care about a guy that might be five miles over that’s got a life-or-death situation. I’d rather watch The Bachelor.’ ”

As a science writer with a background in meteorology myself, I share Spann and Simpson’s feelings. The fact that the public cannot collectively pay calm attention to TV weathercasters without getting upset is frustrating to us weather scientists, given the fact that we take on the arduous task of predicting the future—a dynamic future that’s constantly changing—for the sake of protecting others’ lives and property. If it weren’t for our love of the science itself, such public outrage might very well dampen our desire to issue forecasts.

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This outrage is also a bad sign for how we’ll collectively cope with the increasing effects of climate change. One of those effects, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, is likely an increase in the number of convective or severe thunderstorm days, especially over the Eastern U.S. A separate study predicts average annual tornado impacts could double in the year 2100, due to increasing population and increasing tornado frequency. Extreme precipitation and extreme heat events are also projected to become more frequent and more intense as a result of global warming.

If these projections for future weather patterns hold true, we’re going to need to listen to meteorologists more intently than we do now. If you won’t take your local meteorologist’s word for it, maybe you’ll take Bachelorette star Hannah Brown’s: “Too funny, thanks Dayton, Ohio for the love, but be safe,” she tweeted to outraged fans in an effort to cool tempers during a severe weather outbreak. “Naders [tornadoes] are no joke.”

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