This is an edited extract from The Weather Obsession by Lawrie Zion, published by Melbourne University Press.
When Olympic swimming champion Giaan Rooney was asked to fill in presenting the weather segment on Melbourne’s Channel Seven weeknight news program just before Christmas 2012, she was taken aback. She pointed out that she knew nothing about weather and that her credibility was in sport. “Don’t worry, just do the weather,” was the reply from the network. Six weeks later, the 30-year-old Rooney was invited to continue in the role, replacing the 52-year-old presenter and trained meteorologist David Brown, who had been presenting on Seven for 20 years.
As it turned out, Brown remained with the network and eventually went on to present the weather for Seven’s Sydney weeknight bulletin. But the switch from Brown to Rooney illustrates a dilemma that has never been resolved. Just who should present the weather on television?
Read more: How World War I changed the weather for good.
Commenting on Rooney’s appointment soon after the announcement, the Sunday Herald Sun’s Susie O’Brien wrote:
…the old adage that people like a mature man to tell them the serious news and a pretty face to tell them the weather still seems to apply. The real question is why we need a nice-looking woman who isn’t a meteorological expert to tell us the weather at a time when climate issues have never been more
important. The fact that we are still having these debates is a sign we have a long way to go. Sadly, I think we will continue to see women used as decorations on network TV for a while to come.
What O’Brien saw as an anachronistic decision needs to be understood in the context of the role of weather segments in television news bulletins, and the changing demographics of broadcast news audiences.
Weather presenters have long been a crucial component of any television news team, and are promoted as such. For many in the audience, they’ve also been the main conduit of weather information. Ten years ago 90% of Australians received at least some of their weather information from television. This has since fallen to 71%, according to a Bureau of Meteorology survey. But that’s still a lot of eyeballs. And with their segments usually perched at the end of bulletins, the extent to which weather presenters connect with viewers helps to determine whether their station can carry the valuable news audience over to the start of the next program.
When it comes to sheer numbers, TV news audiences may have generally held up well with older viewers, but younger viewers aren’t drawn to these programs to anything like the extent that their parents were. The result is that around half the audience is over the age of 50, and therefore more likely to go for the familiar than the experimental. So while the steady evolution of graphics means that weather reports look very different now from how they appeared in the early days of television, the format has remained more predictable than the weather itself.
We all know the ritual: What happened today? What will happen tomorrow? And beyond tomorrow? Across the country? If it’s a local bulletin the state and/or city forecast will precede the sign-off. As Channel Nine Brisbane news presenter Andrew Lofthouse has put it: “The weather reports are still one of the constant reassuring things that people can rely on.” This might partly explain why changes to who presents the weather attract so much attention within the media itself.
Despite an overall tendency to play it safe, what this actually means tends to fluctuate, with appearance, personality and specialist credentials all deemed to be relevant factors to varying degrees. As O’Brien put it in the context of Brown’s replacement by Rooney: “Presumably Channel Seven has tired of the serious approach and in the midst of falling ratings is going for the well-worn route of installing an attractive female to freshen things up.”
Hiring attractive women as weather presenters is a time-honoured global tradition. Writing about the history of TV weather in America, Robert Henson points out that it became clear in the 1950s that women could be accepted as weathercasters, as long as the focus was kept on clothing, hairstyle or anatomy. “So began the brief ascendancy of ‘weathergirls’, a term that speaks volumes about the differences in status between these women and their male counterparts in weathercasting.”
But while the weathergirl craze abated in the United States by the early 1960s, in Australia, where television had been introduced relatively recently, it was just beginning. In 1961, an item in the Bureau’s in-house publication, Weather News, noted that in Brisbane, “the majority of stations appear to favour the glamour-girl type of telecaster for weather presentations”, and that “Bureau staff have had the pleasure of indoctrinating and briefing two ‘Miss Australias’ and one ‘Miss Queensland’ in the short time that television has been operating in this State”. The background training included explaining the need for weather information to be presented seriously and faithfully, “and particularly for the more glamorous the need to submerge their glamour behind the prosaic highs and lows”.
In 1965, Melbourne’s Channel 9 hired model Rosemary Margan to present the weather. One evening in 1969, she appeared in a fur coat before stripping to a bikini during her live segment, sparking a steady stream of responses from viewers. In the 1970s, when searching for a replacement for the then pregnant Margan, the station hired the 15-year-old schoolgirl Kerry Armstrong, whose job application had led them to believe she was 22. While often appearing in short, tight garments, Armstrong, who went on to become a celebrated actor, did on one occasion break away from the standard weather script, when she informed viewers that “due to the drought, 1,000 head of cattle died. But don’t worry, beachgoers, it’s going to be another great day tomorrow with a top of 35 degrees”.
Decades later, the “weather girl” tag has proved hard to shake, as current Melbourne Channel Nine weather presenter Livinia Nixon told The Age in 2010. “TV and radio are very much boys’ clubs; they’re industries that are still very, very male-dominated,” she says, acknowledging that a male who presents the weather is a weather man, whereas she is a “weather girl”. “I wonder at what point you lose the ‘girl’?” she asks, having presented the segment on Nine’s 6pm weeknight news since 2004. “What age do you have to reach to not be called a girl any more?”
What if the woman presenting the weather has a relevant tertiary qualification? Back at Seven in Melbourne, Giaan Rooney remained in the role of weather presenter until taking maternity leave, when she was replaced by model and television personality Jo Silvagni, who was in turn replaced in late 2014 by Jane Bunn – who, as it happens, is also a qualified meteorologist. Her appointment also attracted media attention. When Nixon was asked about her new on-air rival, she told the Herald Sun that she didn’t think this would lend Seven’s bulletin any more clout. “I think it’s fantastic that Jane’s a meteorologist – hats off to her for doing the hard yards – but I’m confident working in conjunction with the Bureau (of Meteorology),” she says. “I feel very confident relaying all the information we get from them. Their accuracy rate has gone up over the years.”
Did Nixon, who had replaced the veteran weather presenter Rob Gell on Nine in 2010, have a point? A trained meteorologist of either gender might make the weather segment seem more credible to some, but would they enhance the substantive quality of information that is delivered? Historically the Bureau has insisted that provision of its information comes with a requirement that the media doesn’t mess with the message. TV stations can and do use the services of private weather companies to provide graphics, but the actual forecasts are still meant to be broadly consistent with the Bureau’s. So whichever nightly news channel you watch, won’t the next-day forecast be essentially the same?
With this and others questions in mind, I went to Melbourne’s Seven studios in Docklands to meet Bunn. After completing a Bachelor of Science at Monash University and a Graduate Diploma in Meteorology, Bunn worked for the Bureau in Sydney before turning to presenting the weather on television. “I loved the forecasting part of it but hated it when the message was being changed in the
media by people who got their terms muddled, so I decided I wanted to present it,” she tells me, citing an incident where a forecast of “fine and mostly sunny” was abbreviated to “mostly fine”. “You can have trust in what we are saying because that message might be jumbled up elsewhere. You’re better off
getting your weather from a meteorologist than a presenter because you know it’s as good as it can be.”
But Bunn doesn’t simply recite the Bureau’s forecast. Before her main segment goes to air at 6.55pm she checks the forecast models from Europe and Australia, which are updated after the Bureau releases its late afternoon forecast, to see if there are developments that might require some additional interpretation. She also analyses those same models to take the Bureau’s seven-day forecast one step
further, providing viewers with an eight-day outlook.
For all her specialist knowledge, however, Bunn’s appearance has also been a talking point both in social media and in the gossip columns. “Jane Bunn had the farm boys panting when she was the weather girl on regional television,” began one Herald Sun story, before conceding that “she doesn’t fit the weather girl stereotype”. Bunn accepts that her image is to some extent constructed by others. When I bring up the subject of how she is characterised in social media, she points out that other people have considerable input into how she appears before the camera. “I’ve purposely made it so hair and make-up and wardrobe decide what I actually look like – and that allows me to concentrate on my craft which is forecasting.”
As well as presenting all the usual weather details, Bunn has the scope to discuss seasonal forecasts and weather news in her segment, which provides her with the opportunity to embed her meteorological knowledge in her reports. Despite such individual touches, however, weather presenters in Australia, including Bunn, stick far more closely to the official forecasts than their American counterparts. In the United States, it is commonplace for local TV stations to hire meteorologists to present the weather, and many of these develop their own forecasts, which may be based on National Weather Service (NWS) data, or on those of other private providers whose predictions may also differ from those of the NWS. And television has long been a much more popular source of weather forecasts than the NWS. A 2006 survey of more than 1,400 Americans found that 72% of them caught a local TV forecast at least once per day, but less than 20% obtained daily forecasts from NWS websites, with just 4% tuning in to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio each day.
It might be just as well that Australia has not gone down this track. As American data journalist Nate Silver has noted in the American context, “the further you get from the government’s original data, and the more consumer facing the forecasts, the less reliable they become. Forecasts ‘add value’ by subtracting accuracy.” This is particularly the case with precipitation predictions. Non-National Weather Service forecasters, it turns out, tend to overestimate the probability of rain. There is a logic of sorts to this “wet bias”, says Silver. “People don’t mind when a forecaster predicts rain and it turns out to be a nice day. But if it rains when it isn’t supposed to, they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic.”
El Niño has arrived, it’s getting stronger, and it’s not about to go away soon. And already there are rumblings that this could be a big one. El Niño in Australia means warmer temperatures, and sometimes, but not always, drier conditions.
In 2014, some climatologists thought a big El Niño might have been on the cards. Ultimately, after some vigorous early warming in the Pacific, conditions only touched on El Niño thresholds. This year, with an event already established, climatologists are suggesting the odds are rising of an El Niño rivalling the record events of 1982 and 1997.
So what’s all the fuss about, and how are conditions different from last year?
Tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures are still rising
El Niño events are identified by equatorial Pacific Ocean temperatures. At the ocean surface, an El Niño is when these are sustained at about 0.8°C warmer than average. As we speak, temperature anomalies are exceeding twice that value.
In fact, we have just experienced twelve consecutive weeks with temperatures more than 1°C above average in all five of the key El Niño monitoring areas. The record was previously held by the 1997 El Niño, when this widespread warming lasted eight consecutive weeks.
But no two El Nino’s are exactly the same. Despite this warming in the tropical Pacific Ocean, in the Indian Ocean temperatures are far warmer than they were in 1997 (or 1982), which may mean different impacts for Australia. But more about that later.
Sea levels are dropping north of Australia
When sea surface temperatures in the central equatorial Pacific get warm enough, the atmospheric circulation shifts and the usually strong trade winds reduce, sometimes even reversing.
The direct consequence of the changing wind pattern is that the sea level in the western equatorial Pacific is no longer “piled up” by the trade winds. Low sea levels north of New Guinea (shown boxed) are strongly correlated with Nino3.4, which is the index that relates best to Australian climate.
At the peak (December) of the 1997 El Niño, the sea level in the western Pacific dropped nearly 30 cm. It is only August and already the sea level is nearly 25 cm below normal to the north of Australia.
Likewise, in the eastern Pacific, sea levels have risen by similar amounts as the weakened trades allow water to shift east. This half-metre difference in the normal sea level between the east and west is a classic strong El Niño signature.
A drop in sea level often means less water flows past Indonesia and down Australia’s west coast — weakening the Leeuwin Current and reducing the likelihood of coral bleaching in Western Australia.
Computer models are predicting a strong event
Climate forecast centres around the world are keenly monitoring the development of this year’s El Niño. Why? Because for some time, all the top dynamical (i.e., physics based) climate models have agreed that there is more warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean to come.
The current (late July) average forecast is for continued warming peaking at a Niño 3.4 value of +2.7°C by December. Such a value would put 2015 alongside the big El Niño events in 1982 (+2.8°C) and 1997 (+2.7°C).
The atmosphere is kicking the El Niño along
Reinforcement by the atmosphere is an essential part of El Niño development – as you can see in our Understanding ENSO video.
Last year the ocean began generating an El Niño but the atmosphere wouldn’t come to the party. This year the atmosphere is clearly responding.
Two exceptionally large westerly wind events have already occurred in the western equatorial Pacific this year, giving this El Niño a significant boost. Another wind event is forecast for August to kick the system along even further and add to the strength of this El Niño.
What does this mean for Australia?
Of the 26 El Niño events since 1900, 17 have brought widespread drought to Australia. In the big El Niño of 1982, drought devastated the eastern half of Australia and drove the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires.
In contrast, the even stronger El Niño of 1997–98 brought more localised drought, with key rains in May and September meaning winter crops did reasonably well in most areas. Other years, such as 2002 and 1996, when weaker El Niño’s occurred, the drought was more severe.
For Australia, it’s not the size of El Niño that matters, it’s how it interacts with other rainfall drivers – such as sea surface temperatures around the continent and in the Indian and Southern Oceans, as well as random ‘weather noise’ – that governs the eventual rainfall over the continent.
What can we expect?
A significant El Niño event is currently underway, and there’s a chance it could rival the big events of 1982 and 1997. While this may increase the chance of drought and higher temperatures in eastern Australia, many other factors influence potential impacts.
We are already seeing that in the August–October Bureau of Meteorology seasonal outlooks, with the warmest June ocean temperatures on record in the southern Indian Ocean keeping the strengthening El Niño at bay by putting more moisture into the mid-levels of the atmosphere and changing weather patterns.
So what’s the final 2015 El Niño prediction?
The 2015 El Niño is already significant, and a big El Niño certainly remains a possibility. Widespread strong impacts haven’t (yet) raised their head for Australia and indeed, such as in 1997, may never do.
But managing El Niño is all about managing risk. The southern spring is the time when dry weather, frosts and heatwaves can hurt farmers and many others the most. And that’s when El Niño events, which raise the odds of these impacts, like to bite hardest.
The authors will be one hand for an Author Q&A between 12:30pm and 1:30 pm on Tuesday, August 11. Post your questions in the comments section below.