In Severe Weather, Experts Look to You for Ground Truth
Amy Freeze is a Certified Broadcast Meteorologist for WABC-TV in New York City.
After a forecast is delivered on TV, all you can do is wait. The confidence for a forecast grows when there is confirmation — when someone provides proof that the atmosphere is behaving as expected.
Meteorologists traditionally wait for storm-spotters outside the area to offer reports that the storm is on track. But now it’s getting easier to verify that even earlier. That’s because the weather-watching generation has taken to Facebook and Twitter to report real-time evidence.
An overwhelming “ground truth” was found on social media during Sandy. Users responding as the Superstorm was happening let forecasters instantly know the impact of the surge and the intensity of the wind. According to Pew Research, 25% of the 20 million tweets during Sandy were photos and video. The initial pictures illustrated the reality of what had been forecasted, allowing for more clarity and more certainty as the storm continued.
At WABC-TV, tweets about information, the use of photos, retweets and the #SandyABC7 hashtag all helped in making it our biggest social media success story to date. Our Eyewitness News Facebook page saw a jump of around 15,000 followers to more than 66,000 followers today.
But the public wasn’t just turning to the station’s social profiles to get up-to-date information. Every anchor and reporter also saw a rise in Twitter followers, some by more than 1,000 followers.
The relationship between the forecast data and real-time reports has never been more in-sync. Seeing the storm on the radar is only a depiction of machines and mathematics. Forecasters expect variance. Until someone sees it or feels it, it’s still just data on a computer screen.
Social media closes the gap significantly. We now have it “as it happens,” which is a lot faster than waiting for the National Weather Service (NWS) Spotter Network to file with the office, process the data, then wait for its release in time for (hopefully) the TV broadcast.
Even the NWS accepts reports via online submissions, chat and Twitter. This new, two-way street creates better weather warnings and less uncertainty.
However, there are challenges with mass social media reports. Data overload and over-filtering can get technical. Instagram became a resource during Sandy with 1.3 million hashtagged photos. But the filters can often alter the reality of situation, and fake photos quickly spread throughout the web. Plus, safety is always first, and caution is far more important than risking life and limb to “tweet it out.”
But for those who are responsibly and legitimately becoming an eyewitness to weather, these storm reporters are my new best friends. So, it’s important that we’re able to find your images and updates.
How to Get Journalists to See Your Weather Photos on Twitter
If you snap a great photo of a looming storm or want to report the conditions in your area, here are a few ways to make your content stand out so that news organizations and meteorologists like myself will see it.
Send it to your local broadcast station’s meteorologist via Twitter.
#Hashtag with the Storm Name.
Don’t forget to include the time and place it happened.
Include the word “weather” in order to make searching easier.
Find the hashtag that your local news station is using and add it to the photo. For example, at WABC we use #weatherABC7 for all storms.
Any measurements with instruments are helpful: temp, wind, snow amount, rain intensity and sky coverage.
Scientifically, ground truth aids in the interpretation of what’s happening through remote sensing like radar. If someone reports the surge made it into a neighborhood that is located at 8 feet above sea level and it’s still intensifying, forecasters can apply that information to make the weather report more accurate going forward.
In extreme weather, I check the radar, then I search Twitter, then I look out the window. That’s how important your reports are. And as winter storms approach, we will be looking to you, the weather-spotting generation, for the ground truth.