His Forecast Is Very Clear
In his slight southern drawl, Dan Satterfield broke the news during WHNT's five o'clock broadcast that temperatures were on the rise. "The confidence is very high," he added, standing in front of his green screen, motioning to a map visible only to his television audience. "You can bet the farm on this one."
A pair of news anchors chuckled from across the studio. Their station's popular meteorologist was predicting a pleasant "10-degree jump" for Huntsville, Alabama, during the first week of April, and they know that he doesn't shy from using similar language on-air to describe longer-term global warming trends.
At age 50, Satterfield recognizes that many in his audience are "climatically challenged," and his profession has the power to help those afflicted by science illiteracy. Only about 7 percent of all TV meteorologists work at stations with a designated science reporter, according to Kris Wilson of the University of Texas at Austin, who recently conducted a national survey of weathercasters. "People learn to trust weathercasters and like them, so whatever they say about things like climate change carries tremendous weight," Wilson says. "By choice or by default, weathercasters end up being the science experts."
However, a four-year undergraduate degree in meteorology, which not all weathercasters even hold, doesn't necessarily make one an expert on the complex workings of the earth's climate. "Weather and climate are two very different things," Satterfield says as he settles into his chilly studio office to recharge for the six o'clock show. Between newscasts, he sheds his suit jacket in favor of a black fleece vest emblazoned with a purple Antarctica pin.
From the beginning of his career in 1980, Satterfield focused solely on what his bachelor's degree in meteorology had trained him to do: tell people what to wear that day. And until the mid-1990s, he remained unconvinced that scientists could predict what the climate would be like in 50 years, given that he struggled to forecast beyond five days. (More than a quarter of the weathercasters Wilson surveyed believe that global warming is "a scam.") But repeated exposure to the "overwhelming evidence" of climate change, notes Satterfield, made him finally say, "Whoa, I need to start looking into this."
Satterfield bought some statistics textbooks and taught himself enough about standard scientific methods to read critically the peer-reviewed journals. He even went back to school for a master's degree in earth science. Then, for two weeks in 2007, Satterfield witnessed climate science in the making -- from the decks of a Russian icebreaker in the Arctic.
Upon his return to the newsroom, he began sharing what he had learned, fully anticipating a backlash from his conservative audience. Yet aside from a handful of complaints, the show's ratings and viewer questions suggested that people were listening. "Satterfield has a backbone," says Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. "He makes other meteorologists think, 'If he can do it in Huntsville, I can do it in Cleveland.' "
In addition to presenting longer specials, he frequently fits into his three-minute weather segments "something short but powerful that dispels a climate myth," he says. Following last winter's blizzard that buried Washington, D.C., and the subsequent buzz among climate skeptics, he showed viewers a world map depicting January's temperature anomalies. It was dominated by red dots -- above-average temperatures -- with only a few blue dots, including the one on Washington.
While people in the nation's capital complained about a record cold spell, Satterfield set out for even colder parts -- Antarctica -- on a National Science Foundation media expedition to report on state-of-the-art climate research. A picture on his office wall shows him standing at the South Pole, bundled from head-to-toe. The visible part of his face bears a wide grin. "I love the cold," he says. Then he sheds his fleece vest and suits up for the next broadcast.