Picture it. Denver, circa 2008. A snowstorm. Flurries swirl wildly, blanketing roads and cars and rooftops — not to mention the weather reporter sent into the thick of it to do a live standup for the morning news. Was she freezing? Sure. But also exhilarated. This is why she became a meteorologist.

On any given day, for several years, that reporter was Crystal Egger ’00, whose longtime fascination with weather inspired her to make a career of it. She would eventually ascend to the big leagues — The Weather Channel, where she covered Superstorm Sandy, the Joplin tornado and many other major weather events — before bowing out of broadcast to launch a weather and climate data consulting firm.

 

“As a meteorologist in the field, I was always outside a different ski resort, or on the side of the road getting pelted with 75 mph winds, or up in the helicopter,” recalls Egger of her early days on air, which included four years with a [FOX31 News] station in Denver. “I was in the elements every day, usually up by 1:30 a.m. to get to my destination in time for the morning show — and it was an incredible experience.”

It’s not many people whose weather obsession compels them toward meteorology, but it’s a whole lot of us who are captivated by and — show of hands, please — preternaturally preoccupied with all things weather. What gives?

“For one thing, there’s the universal nature of weather, and how it can unite us when everything else seems to be pulling us apart,” says Egger. “We are all affected daily by the weather. It affects our clothing choices, our plans, our travel, our mood. It’s the everyday impact, I think, that piques everyone’s fascination with weather.”

 

Crystal Egger on location

Crystal Egger on location for the Weather Channel (courtesy photo)

Of the top 100 Google searches in the U.S. for 2023, as of Nov. 1, weather is the most searched keyword that is not a social network, or Amazon, or Google itself; it’s No. 5 on the list. Globally, weather ranks No. 4, amassing greater search volume worldwide than even Google.

Half of Americans (50%) say they read, watch or listen to the weather forecast for their local area at least daily, including 20% who say they get it multiple times a day, according to a 2023 poll by YouGov. The U.S. Department of Commerce in 2019 found that the majority of Americans check the weather forecast 3.8 times per day, equating to 301 billion forecasts consumed per year.

Meanwhile, a 2023 study of digital weather information published in the journal Informatics counted 5,993 weather apps for the Apple iPhone alone as of the researchers’ press time — “a nearly sixfold increase in the 1,000 apps for weather that existed in 2009.”

SHARING IS CARING

Which is all just to say: There’s no questioning our insatiable interest in weather information. Cognitive psychologist Mary Hegarty has studied what we do with it.

Specifically, Hegarty has examined how people understand and make decisions based on weather maps. She has found, in general, that a weather map’s design, and how the visualization of information therein is explained, can affect how well people interpret them.

“In extreme weather conditions, such as a hurricane, emergency managers and regular people have to make quick decisions, e.g., about whether to evacuate an area or stay home,” says Hegarty, a distinguished professor of psychological and brain sciences at UC Santa Barbara. “The consequences of making the wrong decision are huge, as we saw in Katrina or in many wildfires. Under time pressure, people might fall back on their intuitive understanding of the graphics, even if they know better.”

“In my life I have been seriously affected by the weather,” adds Hegarty. “I lost my house in the (Montecito) Tea Fire (of 2008), and I had a car totaled in the ’90s when the creek next to my apartment building overflowed in heavy rains. The variability of the weather is just a fact of life and something we all share. I am struck by the fact that when we strike up a conversation with someone we don’t know — as I did on a walk in my neighborhood last week — we almost always start by talking about the weather!”

 

 

True that. And it’s a good thing, according to Andy Merolla, a UCSB associate professor of communication.

“Weather is a clear, shared topic that we can all riff on without having to work that hard,” says Merolla, who studies the link between interpersonal communication and wellbeing. “It’s something all people can comment on because it’s that shared experience. It’s really important for social life to have these ready-made topics. It’s like having an on-ramp to an interaction that could lead to deeper discussion.

“Our social interactions both reflect how we’re doing and how we’re feeling — our general wellbeing — but also they can contribute to it,” adds Merolla. His research on “social biomes,” a collaboration with Jeffrey Hall at the University of Kansas, illuminated the link between everyday conversations and subjective wellbeing. “There is a strong body of research that says these opportunities to connect with people in everyday life really matter.” Picture it. Santa Barbara. Present day. An introvert walks into a bar. Her friend is late. She sits down solo to wait. Accidentally catching eyes with another patron, she nervously blurts out: “What a gorgeous day. It’s so beautiful here in Santa Barbara.” “Yes it is,” replies the patron, “and a lot different from where I grew up in the Midwest.” “I grew up in the Midwest!” exclaims the introvert. “Where are you from?”

There’s Merolla’s on-ramp in action, courtesy of shared experience, by way of that most ubiquitous of small talk: the weather.

panoramic photo of a storm at sunset

A SENSE OF INTRIGUE

But is it the fact that weather affects us all — literally everybody, everywhere — that makes it so fascinating? Or is it also, perhaps, the fact that it’s completely beyond our control? As accurate and advanced as forecasting has become, there remains an unpredictability that begets intrigue and builds anticipation, like an episode-ending cliffhanger. Of course, in these days of binge-streaming, the next episode starts in seconds and as for the weather? Well, there are those 6,000-some-odd apps for that. Open, refresh, repeat.

“The tech continues to improve, with more satellites in space to help us get pictures of what’s happening, how the oceans are working, and more lead time than ever in forecasting events,

 

The real-time availability of weather information has us turning to our phones to check temperatures and storm warnings and maps, informing our outfits, our vacations, our party plans and photo shoots — not to mention our supply chains, our agriculture and even what teams to bet on at the sports book. Really. This is the Old Farmer’s Almanac on steroids, all the steroids.

“The tech continues to improve, with more satellites in space to help us get pictures of what’s happening, how the oceans are working, and more lead time than ever in forecasting events,” says Egger, the meteorologist and co-founder of Monarch Weather and Climate Intelligence, which provides businesses with weather and climate data to help mitigate risk. “We’re using supercomputers and AI to get all the data and answers for a forecast. As we tell the companies we work with: Weather is not just small talk; it’s big business.

“Things are so much different now,” she adds. “It’s not our grandparents’ climate anymore.

THE WET ELEPHANT ...

And, there it is. The wet elephant in the mudroom: climate. Extreme weather events — from flooding and bomb cyclones to hurricanes in California — are increasingly frequent, and climate scientists say they’re likely to just keep coming. As a result, broader conversations about climate are starting to supplant our good old-fashioned, innocuous chitchat about weather.

Does that change how we talk about it? Or who we talk about it with? Does it change how we respond to it?

“How does a recent experience of extreme weather affect beliefs in climate change and personal behaviors?” wondered Michelle (Shteyn Ph.D. ’21) Handy when she first started her UCSB graduate research in social psychology. She had moved to Santa Barbara from New Jersey in 2017, only months before the start of the Thomas Fire and subsequent devastating debris flows in Montecito.

“Going through that event made me really interested in how it was affecting people’s beliefs in climate change and how that experience was changing the way that they see the world, and I continued that line of research throughout graduate school,” she explains. “Construal level theory says that if something is far away from us, it’s fuzzy and abstract, but if it gets closer, we view it more concretely and it has implications for behavior. Applying that to climate: If there is extreme weather, does that make it more concrete, which then changes your beliefs and behaviors? “I did find a relationship there,” notes Handy, now a UX research lead with East Coast-based insurance company FM Global. Her study found correlations between weather-related web searches in areas more impacted by extreme weather and climate beliefs in those areas. “Having an experience of extreme weather does change beliefs,” Handy says, “but it doesn’t predict political support. There is a disconnect when it comes to policy.

 

 

“There are a lot of psychological reasons why weather is such a go-to topic of conversation,” she adds. “Aside from talking about climate change, it’s noncontroversial. And because weather is an external factor that happens outside of our control, we talk about it to try to understand why it’s happening, and we try to process it together to give us a feeling of more control.”

Another way we all process it together-ish? Via the media. The weather commonly leads newscasts, dominates news websites and tops the fold of newspapers. Extreme events and climate have further cemented weather’s status as a must-do story.

As a starting reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1977, Jerry Roberts recalls his first beat was the weather — specifically a standing forecast feature, “the weather ear,” as it’s known, that appeared daily on the front page.

“Everything else on the front page was something that happened yesterday — but this was today’s weather,” recalls Roberts, who eventually became the Chronicle’s vice president and managing editor and spent his whole career in newspapers. “I was always a ‘Why don’t you just open your window and look outside guy,’ but oh, it would be a terrible scandal if today’s weather ear got mixed up with yesterday’s weather ear.

“At one point, I only half-jokingly suggested that we create a book of weather and disaster cliches and do weather stories like Mad Libs — just fill in the blanks,” he laughs. “But with the advent of the internet, it was like, ‘Why are we telling people about yesterday’s weather?’ When we began to be able to do the weather in real time, it became a pointless exercise. So then weather stories became about disruptions and the human interest, individual stories of people stranded or losing their homes.

“There is that communitarian impulse to follow the weather. It happens to everyone, we can all talk about it,” Roberts adds. “And it’s hard to piss anybody off with a weather story. Everybody reads them, and everybody reads the whole thing.”


Fall / Winter 2023

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