WXGeeks-o-genesis

Off to a good start… The Weather Channel and its host Marshall Shepherd launched their new Sunday noontime series, WXGeeks, yesterday, amidst a fair amount of fanfare, generating considerable media interest (see, e.g., the Eric Holthaus piece in Slate).

The show lived up to the high expectations! It moved along at a good pace, and was able to remain both substantive and conversational – no mean feat in today’s media, which is necessarily fairly scripted. Viewers hoping to get a feel for issues related to storm chasing – the science stakes, the personal risks, and the thrill offered by that combination – were not disappointed. Chuck Doswell was a great choice for a guest to unpack these issues. Hosts and guest also nicely opened up a discussion of the challenge implicit in folding responsibility into the science-risk-thrill mix. What’s more, they found time to discuss the “science” behind proposals to build 300-m-high walls across vast stretches of the central United States to reduce tornado risk, identify a WXGeek-of-the-week (might have that title wrong!), and maintain weather-on-the-eights.

A forecast: what’s going to keep this programming interesting over the long haul (months/years) will be the breadth of host Marshall Shepherd’s scientific interests and expertise, his personal and professional integrity, and his positive energy and enthusiasm. Many of us were raised from childhood with sci-fi/adventure storybook heroes such as Tom Swift. In whatever he turned his hand to, young Tom Swift prospered.  Marshall Shepherd is as close as we come in real life to such a person. In this WXGeeks context, he seemed totally at ease, as if he’d been in the role for months.

Next week: guest Jason Samenow and a look at social media.

An issue to be (re?)visited sometime down the road… As shows such as WXGeeks mature, they have opportunity every year or so to revisit topics of universal appeal such as storm chasing, and dig deeper with respect to some of the particulars. Consider, for example, the issue of responsibility. On air, this was largely framed as a matter of reducing risky behavior and thereby maintaining meteorology’s good name. Storm chasers, if not careful, can themselves create a need for emergency response.

But lurking behind this concern is a larger one; storm chasers, particularly in large numbers, can interfere with emergency response in support of the larger public. So far, this concern is largely anecdotal (e.g., thoughts from this weather-ready Oklahoma cab driver-cum- emergency responder back in December of 2011), but it’s likely to grow with time. Science is one thing, but there’s something unsettling about tourists high-fiving each other at a tornado sighting while people nearby are losing their lives, their homes, and their livelihoods. In an interdependent society, there may be a limit to allowing such traffic to clog roads in ways that interfere, however slightly, with emergency responders on call. Youtube video (this clip, or something like it, was shown on air yesterday) gives a feel for the numbers of people who can be storm-chasing near a big event, in this case the El Reno tornado.

Fast-forward in your mind to a future in which most cars are Google cars or some equivalent; that is, robotic/computer controlled. Will these cars, which presumably will not simply incorporate the positions and actions of the nearest few cars but also build larger situational awareness of traffic and weather conditions into their decision making, allow you to chase tornadoes? In such a future, regulation and licensing of tornado-chasing will almost surely follow and grow increasingly stringent. (And, for that matter, what options the car designs and the law will allow owner-operators with respect to evacuation in the face of a tornado threat is equally problematic.)

As these hypotheticals become reality, we can anticipate that WXGeeks (and perhaps imitators) will be there.

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