A media storm: Why the way we talk about the weather has changed forever

Predicting the weather is no longer a mug’s game - it’s a social one. David Kenny, the king of US weather forecasts talks to Geoffrey Macnab.

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The Independent Online

Superstorm Sandy is likely to be looked back at as the first major storm to hit the United States in the age of social media.

What has become apparent this week – as roofs are blown off houses, gigantic cranes are split apart and flooding hits New York – is that Twitter and Facebook, tablets and mobile devices, are helping to save lives. It is also clear that the level of meteorological information we now all have at our fingertips is infinitely more sophisticated than it has ever been before.

This is the point of view pushed this week by David Kenny, chairman and chief executive of The Weather Company, which owns The Weather Channel. "We can't stop it," he says of freak weather, "but we can certainly get people to move more quickly."

With just a touch of smugness, Kenny explains that The Weather Company saw superstorm Sandy coming. It's all very well being able to communicate with more than 100 million Americans, but you need to make sure that you're not having any Michael Fish moments. (The BBC weatherman never quite lived down his blithe assurance to the nation 25 years ago that we didn't need to worry about storms a few hours before the worst gales in centuries hit the South of England.)

"The story begins a week ago," Kenny says. The Weather Company's army of forecasters knew by then that the perfect storm was a very real possibility. They started issuing their first warnings. "By Friday, it was pretty clear we were right."

In 1987, the British public was relying primarily on BBC and ITV broadcasts about the "Great Storm".

New Yorkers in 2012 have far more choice. Old media still plays its part. The flagship Weather Channel "goes into every home in America", Kenny says proudly. "We have many ways to get the message out."

In the run up to Sandy, downloads of The Weather Company's apps on mobile devices shot up sharply. "People are preparing that, if they lose power, this is the way that they are going to be able to stay in touch."

During the superstrom, cable and satellite companies have agreed to allow The Weather Channel to be "live streamed" to mobile devices. Meanwhile, the firm has collaborated with Facebook on "My Friend's Weather", a service that allows friends and family affected by "breaking weather news" to see who's at risk and to alert them to the danger. Through Google, The Weather Channel's TV coverage has been available directly on YouTube. There are also the company's own weather sites, weather.com and weather underground. Meanwhile, Weather Channel savants are tweeting incessantly, warning America about every little quirk of the storm.

You can't blame Kenny for using Sandy to thrust weather forecasting in the digital era right in our faces. As he acknowledges, a big storm like this is just what is needed to put the company in the spotlight. The business, owned by NBC Universal and private-equity groups Bain Capital (co-founded by Mitt Romney and The Blackstone Group), isn't a charity bringing Americans forecasts out of a sense of public service. Then again, Kenny says the number of tornado-related deaths has "fallen precipitously" in the last two years. Weather forecasting saves lives – and it doesn't seem like a business you'd go into out of a cut-throat desire to make money.

Grumbling about the weather is one of Britain's favourite pastimes. Weather affects everyone. Alongside your health and your favourite football team, it's a staple of daily conversations the world over. Certain celebrities are known to be weather obsessives. (It's no surprise that Woody Allen frets about the elements and is constantly checking global forecasts.)

For neurotics and for those who simply like to have a good chat about high pressure, low pressure and precipitation, these are golden years. We have more raw data about the weather at our fingertips than at any other time in human history.

"I don't know if it's a change in the human need but I do see a greater level of engagement in weather stories," Kenny says.

Weather, Kenny says, is one of the most popular categories on smart phones. Half of all owners of smart phones check the weather on it every day. "The smart phone is also very connected with social networks which means that people are talking about the weather more and sharing it with each other. I think that conversation just naturally leads to more interest." The public is growing more aware of climate change. This, in turn, stimulates more conversation about weather patterns.

Of course, there is a huge difference between low-level murmuring on whether the sun is going to shine this weekend and the reaction to a huge storm like Superstorm Sandy convulsing the East Coast of the US on the eve of a presidential election.

Hurricane Sandy is bound to have an impact on everything from commerce to transportation, from insurance to the way people vote – or even if they're able to vote at all.

The difference now is that the Americans are better prepared.

But Kenny doesn't rub his hands with glee whenever a storm like Sandy comes along: "It's mixed feelings. There will be suffering from this. No one likes to see people lose their homes and businesses and communities facing real hardship. On the other hand, we live for the challenge of always having the best forecast… we feel tested and we feel we are rising well to the occasion."