Weather Report


Heidi Cullen brings environmental issues to the masses—and the couch potatoes.


By Paula Hendrickson



Heidi Cullen isn’t your typical climatologist. For one thing, she spends more time in front of a camera than in a lab. As host of Forecast Earth, a hit show on The Weather Channel (TWC) that began in October of 2006, Cullen has been bringing information on how climate change is affecting the weather. Recently, the channel announced it would be greening its broadcasting facilities and starting in January, Forecast Earth will be expanded from a half-hour to an hour, reflecting the network’s commitment to educating the public about environmental issues. Plenty caught up with Cullen to talk about TWC’s eco initiatives, and why weather forecasters should pay more attention to global warming.

 

How did you get involved with The Weather Channel?

When I was a research scientist in Boulder, CO, I worked for the National Center for Atmospheric Research. My plan was to be a research scientist — I’d studied ocean atmospheric dynamics, got my PhD at Columbia — but I got the call from The Weather Channel saying they wanted to start covering climate. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine doing TV, but I ended up taking the job. When I first started [in July 2003], there really was no place to look to [for climate coverage]. We took a really big range of issues — everything from drought issues to power outages to el Niño — and global warming was just one of the topics we’d cover in these minute-and-a-half reports.

How did Forecast Earth become a series?

Within my first couple of months at The Weather Channel, The Day After Tomorrow came out. After that, Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth and all this stuff with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) happened, so it became more obvious that we needed to cover climate in a bigger way. So the decision was made to have a half-hour show dedicated to it.

From your perspective, how important are the eco-friendly changes TWC has made in recent years – from programming to the new LEED-certified studio?

When I got to The Weather Channel I said over and over, “We need to connect climate to weather.” We can’t just have me, the climatologist, talking about global warming because people won’t feel like it’s connected to their daily forecasts. We have to do it accurately and objectively – we can’t cry wolf and link anything and everything to global warming.  We have to do it well and we have to do it with science driving the message. That’s why we’ve been having our meteorologists be part of the message as well. For most people, watching The Weather Channel is about figuring out if they need an umbrella or not. I’m hoping Forecast Earth shows you that there’s a whole other set of environmental decisions that are related to weather and climate that you didn’t necessarily think were there.

One of the great aspects of being at The Weather Channel was having serious discussions over the past several years that led to The Weather Channel saying, “We don’t want to just talk about it, we want to do something about it.” That’s a shift in values. Our CEO recently told me that the HD studio we’re building is going to be the first TV studio in the country using LEED criteria.

Which do you think will have the greater environmental impact: programming efforts reaching millions of people, or the new studio?

I hope both have a big impact. I hope the show gets kids interested in science because we need as many good scientists as we can get to do research on alternative energy and climate change. With the studio and everything we’ve been doing internally, I hope we’re leading by example. Having these discussions and walking through the decision-making is what it always was about for me: connecting climate to weather, then connecting weather to life.

The new facility will have lots of green elements, including special parking for hybrid cars. What’s your favorite feature?

The water conservation. This whole drought issue in the southeast has really gotten people to talk about the fact that you can’t take water for granted. The studio is going to have this underground storm water retention pond they’ll be able to irrigate all of the landscaping from. I wish we’d been doing it earlier, but the fact that we’re doing it now and making the investment is great.

Being a climatologist, do you think local weather forecasters pay enough attention to how climate change is affecting weather?

As a climatologist I think coverage or even just a mere mention of climate change is sorely missing in local weather forecasts. As someone working at a 24/7 weather network, I’m really sensitive to the demands on meteorologists – but I feel strongly that connections to climate must be a part of local weather forecasts. For example, we’re seeing more extreme heat events and warmer winters - showing people these changing statistics on-air would convey so much to the general public. And it’s just science, just facts—it’s very objective.

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