Air Apparent; How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather / Edition 2

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Weather maps have made our atmosphere visible, understandable, and at least moderately predictable. In Air Apparent Mark Monmonier traces debates among scientists eager to unravel the enigma of storms and global change, explains strategies for mapping the upper atmosphere and forecasting disaster, and discusses efforts to detect and control air pollution. Fascinating in its scope and detail, Air Apparent makes us take a second look at the weather map, an image that has been, and continues to be, central to our daily lives.

"Clever title, rewarding book. Monmonier . . . offers here a basic course in meteorology, which he presents gracefully by means of a history of weather maps." —Scientific American

"Mark Monmonier is onto a winner with Air Apparent. . . . It is good, accessible science and excellent history. . . . Read it." —Fred Pearce, New Scientist

"[Air Apparent] is a superb first reading for any backyard novice of weather . . . but even the veteran forecaster or researcher will find it engaging and, in some cases, enlightening." —Joe Venuti, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society

"Monmonier is solid enough in his discussion of geographic and meteorological information to satisfy the experienced weather watcher. But even if this information were not presented in such a lively and engaging manner, it would still hook most any reader who checks the weather map every morning or who sits happily entranced through a full cycle of forecasts on the Weather Channel."—Michael Kennedy, Boston Globe

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Editorial Reviews

Scientific American
Clever title, rewarding book....a basic course in meteorology, which [Monmonier] presents gracefully by means of a history of weather maps....Contemporary meteorology, Monmonier says, is "arguably today's single most map-intensive scientific enterprise."
Offers a history of the weather map. Traces debates among weather scientists, explains strategies for mapping the upper atmosphere and forecasting disaster, exposes efforts to detect and control air pollution, and tracks the interaction and mutually dependent relationship between technology and weather forecasting. Includes b&w maps and color images, plus a list of web sites. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Scientific American
Clever title, rewarding book....a basic course in meteorology, which [Monmonier] presents gracefully by means of a history of weather maps....Contemporary meteorology, Monmonier says, is "arguably today's single most map-intensive scientific enterprise."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226534220
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 324
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Air Apparent

How Meteorologists Learned to Map, Predict, and Dramatize Weather

By Mark Monmonier

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-53422-7

Chapter One

Weather Channels

American weathercasting began on October 14, 1941, on WNBT-TV, an
experimental station (later WNBC) serving at best a few thousand viewers
in New York City. Hawking Botany Wrinkle-Proof ties, a cartoon character
named Woolly Lamb introduced the forecast by singing, "It's hot. It's
cold. It's rain. It's fair. It's all mixed up together. But I, as Botany's
Woolly Lamb, predict tomorrow's weather." The forecast that followed
consisted of a single screen with several lines of text, but no map. As
far as I can tell, the distinction of telecasting the first weather map
belongs to the British Broadcasting Corporation, which for a brief period
in 1936 transmitted to far fewer viewers simple weather charts with
isobars and pressure centers as well as temperature, sky conditions, and
precipitation for a handful of unnamed cities in the British Isles and the
adjacent continent. As Woolly Lamb presaged the weathercaster's role as an
entertainer, the BBC experiment demonstrated television's ability to
deliver timely weather maps to a massaudience. Although World War II
interrupted the new medium's development, postwar prosperity stimulated a
new industry in which news programs with weather reports became a standard

Weathercasting's first full decade could be called the turbulent '50s.
Annual sales of millions of new receivers made television attractive to
advertisers, whose lucrative support triggered intense competition at
local and national levels. With no immediate consensus on how to report
weather, broadcasters experimented with formats ranging from terse Weather
Bureau reports read by the station-break announcer to mini-lectures by a
long-winded meteorology prof from the local university. Where weather was
an especially fickle antagonist of farmers or travelers, larger stations
hired their own full-time meteorologist, typically a weather service
retiree or war veteran. National networks did likewise, following the lead
of CBS, where John Clinton Youle reported the weather each weekday evening
on the Camel News Caravan. More common, though, was the performer selected
less for meteorological savvy than for an engaging personality, good
looks, or fondness for comic costumes-an umbrella and slicker for rain, a
bathing suit and beach ball for summer sun, and the mandatory parka and
snowshoes for anything from light snow to a raging blizzard. Alarmed by
ill-informed weather clowns and air-head weather girls, the American
Meteorological Society established its Seal of Approval program in 1957 to
promote understanding and reliability, if not decorum.

Since 1959, the AMS has certified over 900 weathercasters. Requirements
are rigorous-too rigorous for many wannabe's without a degree in
meteorology or earth science. In addition to core courses in atmospheric
science and mathematics, applicants must submit videotapes of on-camera
reports for three consecutive days. The Board of Broadcast Meteorology-its
members are working weathercasters-evaluates submissions in four areas:
technical and scientific validity, informativeness, explanatory value, and
communication skills. In addition to informing viewers about "recent,
current, and anticipated weather conditions locally and nationally," seal
holders must explain the processes that produced these conditions. Lapses
following certification are taken seriously: if a seal holder "clearly
fails to conduct himself or herself in a manner that reflects the dignity
and honor of the profession or ... fails repeatedly to adhere to the
four criteria," certification can be revoked or suspended.

For many stations, an AMS seal holder on the news team was once a mark of
distinction, especially where competing stations lacked the society's
implied endorsement. Now though, the specialized formal training required
for certification is of little interest to a station manager who can pay a
technically adequate but engagingly relaxed performer appreciably less
than a card-carrying meteorologist. Small wonder then that a 1985 survey
revealed that none of the managers of small-market stations considered the
seal of approval "very important," while almost half rated it "not
important." Among respondents at large-market stations, which often face
keen competition, 20 percent rated the seal very important, but 39 percent
strongly disagreed. As evidence that stations managers don't confuse
competence with certification, the qualifications most valued at all
levels were, in order, knowledge of weather, personality, and broadcast

Many of today's weathercasters began their careers in college. Prestigious
research-oriented meteorology departments at Penn State and Florida State
University offer at least one course in broadcast meteorology, while
smaller schools like Mississippi State University and Vermont's Lyndon
State College run media-tailored meteorology programs for undergraduates
eager to combine science and show biz. At Mississippi State, for example,
students in broadcast meteorology supplement an atmospheric science major
with required courses in TV production, acting, and voice and
articulation. At both MSU and Lyndon a well-equipped lab linked to the
college television station helps students develop forecasting and
presentation skills. Even so, the college laboratory is no substitute for
the TV newsroom. A few lucky graduates land positions at the Weather
Channel, but most fledgling weathercasters begin their careers in
low-paying jobs at small-market stations, which have the greatest

These days competence in weathercasting implies skill in computer graphics
as well as an understanding of atmospheric images. It's been that way for
nearly two decades-even longer at large-market stations better able to
afford new technology. In the 1985 survey, for example, the most prevalent
graphics were satellite images, used at 46, 51, and 96 percent of the
small-, medium-, and large-market stations responding. Color
radar-pre-NEXRAD, of course-was a close second, with corresponding
adoption rates of 40, 56, and 79 percent. Less common, except at
large-market stations, were computer-generated maps, with rates of 29, 37,
and 80 percent, respectively. By the late 1990s, though, any station
wanting lively graphics had them: a gift of powerful, low-cost personal
computers and fierce competition among software vendors and service
bureaus eager to cover every corner of a specialized but profitable

If today's TV weather maps are largely automatic, their counterparts in
the turbulent '50s were purely manual. With tiny labels and complex
symbols, faxed images from the Weather Bureau were unsuitable even for
close-ups, and had to be redrawn and simplified. As stage props with a
sparse geographic framework of state boundaries, weather maps were
huge-about four feet high by five feet wide, typically. The weathercaster
stood in front of the map, just to the side of where he or she needed to
add symbols or point out features. The more cartographically industrious
presenter might draw up several charts in advance and clip them to an
easel in sequence (first in front, last in back) so that the drawing just
discussed could be quickly ripped off and discarded. Some stations
attached maps to panels that could slide up and out of the way on vertical
tracks, like windows. (Sets were small, and unless the program director
provided a second camera, space and equipment discouraged moving about.)
Gary England, who broke into weathercasting in the early 1970s, described
his first live broadcast at an Oklahoma station that mounted maps on
miniature Ferris wheels:

The metal weather maps on the large
four-sided drums somehow looked
larger that night. Each drum weighed
180 pounds but felt much heavier.
Every time I turned a drum, some the
letters and numbers would fall off or
would assume a crazy tilt and have to be
rearranged. It was frustrating those days,
the norm.

Some presenters drew in their map symbols on camera: an impressive act to
a home audience unable to see the thin red lines penciled in as guides.
Skill as an illustrator was a marketable asset for the weathercaster who
could quickly sketch clouds, lightning bolts, or a radiant "Mr. Sun."

Competition for ratings inspired clever embellishments. Artistically
challenged performers could polish their presentations with a metal-backed
outline map and a set of magnetic stick-on symbols representing highs,
lows, fronts, clouds, and suns. Moved about carefully, these symbols
provided a crude but sometimes instructive animation. But when coated with
material responsive to a rotating source of polarized light, apparent
movement within selected symbols mimicked falling rain or diverging solar
rays. Equally ingenious was the boundary map painted on a large sheet of
plate glass or Plexiglas: a solution that not only intrigued viewers with
the picture of a map drawn from behind but also got the performer's hand
and arm out of the way of the map's most immediately relevant symbols.
When I first saw this ploy, I wondered how the weathercaster trained
herself to print letters backward on a map with New England on the left
and California on the right. Quite a feat it seemed, until I realized how
easily video electronics could reverse left and right.

Among the many electronic gimmicks that enliven today's weathercasts, none
is more fundamental than chroma key, which integrates electronic maps,
singly or in sequence, with a human interpreter. The concept is quite
simple: the weathercaster stands in front of a large screen coated bright
blue. A camera trained on the screen captures an image, which the chroma
key unit splits into two layers: bright blue and everything else. For the
blue layer the system substitutes a radar or satellite image, a
computer-drawn forecast map or animation, a "title graphic" with numbers
and simple symbols describing temperatures and sky conditions for next few
days, or an outside shot of flowering shrubs or falling snow. Assuming
none of the weathercaster's clothing is the same vivid blue, the
"everything else" is the map's narrator, whom viewers perceive as standing
in front of the display, as in plate 14.

Chroma key requires careful staging. Marks taped or painted on the floor
indicate preferred positions for camera and reporter. To avoid pointing at
Minnesota when describing a storm centered over Kentucky, the
weathercaster cautiously eyes a monitor just out of camera range. Just
above the monitor a prompter screen displays the script the weathercaster
composed earlier while analyzing the latest data and selecting appropriate
images. Another video prompter mounted above the lens makes it easy to
remember lines and look at the camera.

Weather graphics follow an established sequence, with tomorrow's weather
as its climax. According to Robert Henson, author of a comprehensive
history of television weathercasting, the succession of "current weather
conditions, previous highs and lows, current map, forecast map, and local
forecast" was not only well entrenched by the mid-1950s but "carried such
strong inherent logic that only the most daring of programmers altered
it." Although recent modifications include a state or regional map that
follows the national map and complementary views from GOES, NEXRAD, and
fly-through animation software, the typical sequence remains a blend of
chronology and cartographic scale: the coherent conflation of
past-present-future with continent-region-place.

Geographer Jim Carter, who examined television weather presentations by
local stations and national networks, noted the prevalence of forecast
maps with three different themes: high temperatures, low temperatures, and
the juxtaposition of fronts and areas of precipitation. Equally common are
dynamic maps called loops, in which a rapid sequence of snapshots pauses
for a moment at the most recent frame before starting over again.
Typically a "satellite loop" of GOES cloud-cover images recapitulates the
past 12 to 24 hours at the national or continental level, and a "radar
loop" of NEXRAD images covering the last four to six hours describes
developing thunderstorms or passing fronts. To make certain viewers see an
important feature or relationship, the weathercaster can cycle through the
sequence several times as well as pause at an especially revealing frame.
Local stations make effective use of regional radar loops, while
weathercasts from the major networks as well as the Weather Channel and
CNN (Cable News Network) favor the national radar loop, a composite of
smaller-scale images from individual radars.

According to Carter, television weather reports provide a "unique viewing
environment" in which familiar base maps and predictable graphic sequences
as well as a personable narrator make complex information intelligible to
nontechnical viewers. Equally important is the diversity of formats,
tailored to time of day as well as to market size. Morning weathercasts,
for example, are shorter and less detailed than their evening
counterparts. According to Tal White, the morning and noon weather anchor
at WWBT-TV in Richmond, Virginia, morning viewers have a "fast-food
mentality": eager to eat and run, they "listen rather than watch." By
contrast, evening viewers have the patience and leisure to watch three to
four minutes of weather-even more when a storm threatens or severe recent
weather warrants a fuller explanation. Because morning viewers tune in at
different times, White's a busy guy: "From 5:30-7 a.m., I do five full
[90-second] forecasts, five 45-second quick forecasts, [and] four weather
teases ... From 7-9 a.m., I do four live Today cut-ins [and] four
prerecorded Today cut-ins." Cut-ins are important to local viewers because
network morning shows like NBC's Today offer little more than a short
satellite loop and a fleeting glimpse of the national forecast map-less
than a quarter of a weather slot in which the amiable Al Roker walks
outside, looks at the sky, and chats with tourists.

The Weather Channel (TWC), a 24-hour cable-only service, must meet a
different challenge: grabbing "grazers" who flip channels when the
networks break for commercials. Because viewers are most likely to graze
three minutes before and after the hour and half hour, TWC runs a
six-minute, uninterrupted summary of national and regional weather in
these slots. Summaries include a satellite loop, which the weathercaster
can halt-often with a close-up-to point out a significant feature, as well
as a national-radar loop covering the past 90 minutes. Forecast maps show
weather predictions for the next three to five days, while carefully
tailored graphics warn of severe weather (plate 15) and recapitulate
notable storms (plate 16).


Excerpted from Air Apparent
by Mark Monmonier
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. Seeing and Forecasting
2. Seeing and Understanding
3. Weather by Wire
4. Looking Up
5. Looking Ahead
6. Downwind Dangers
7. Looking Down
8. Looking Around
9. Spreading the News
10. Weather Channels and Web Sites
11. Hindsight As Insight
12. Managed Myopia
Appendix: Web-site Addresses

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