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story.lead_photo.caption When there’s severe weather in Arkansas, both pro and amateur weather geeks turn on the social media storm. - Photo by Arshia Khan

When storms pop up in central Arkansas, Greg Dee makes like the posterboy for the screen-obsessed generation. There’s the laptop, the other laptop, the tablet and two phones. Five screens, each with a purpose.

As Dee, a meteorologist at KARK and KLRT in Little Rock, scrolls through emails received on his phone, he keeps an eye on the radar pulled up on his tablet and the laptop screen open to an ongoing chat with National Weather Service personnel.

But it’s the never-ending stream of tweets popping up on his second laptop — the one running desktop Twitter application TweetDeck — that Dee keeps turning back to. On the screen, tight columns organize the stream of real-time posts into categories. One for the accounts Dee follows — colleagues and viewers — one for people responding to him directly and one for the hashtag that’s keeping everything going: #arwx.

When added to the end of tweets, hashtags allow Twitter users to quickly access all tweets containing that tag. In the case of #arwx, it’s a fast way for local meteorologists, media, storm trackers, weather geeks and Arkansans deciding whether they need an umbrella to contribute to an organized flood of information about severe weather in Arkansas.

Even on-air, Dee manages to keep up with those tweets.

“We have a large monitor where TweetDeck is usually running,” Dee says. “You can usually see that in the corner of your eye. And any time we have a break, I’ll be pulling out my phone to tweet and check on emails.”

Dee’s hyper-connected habits are part of the growing trend in social media weather coverage. With smartphones now hanging out in the pockets of most viewers, Dee and other broadcast meteorologists have found that viewers are turning to Twitter and Facebook in the wake of storms, rather than television.

Sarah Fortner, meteorologist at THV 11, has been active on Twitter since she launched her career three years ago after graduating from Florida State University. Now, she works with two cellphones that are both dead by the end of the day, batteries zapped by nearly around-the-clock posts.

“[Twitter] is where people get their news, and we’ve gotta go where people go,” Fortner says.

In good weather, Fortner uses Twitter to casually interact with viewers, report highs and lows, and retweet the occasional sunset photo. But during severe weather, the social media outlet becomes a tool. Fortner issues details on the track and severity of storms and any official storm warning information, but she also gathers information. When Arkansans tweet photos or reports from their area, Fortner and other meteorologists are able to use those details to give more accurate reports. The details also help inform the National Weather Service.

“Before, for whatever reason, it was very difficult for us to get hail reports,” John Robinson, warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS Little Rock office, says. “But now that we can see these pictures coming in on Twitter, that’s a big plus. You can get an idea of the strength of the storm.”

While meteorologists are able to interpret most needed information from radar, those images don’t always reflect exactly what is happening on the ground. The difference between sleet and freezing rain, Dee says, is hard to determine from radar, as is accurate level of snowfall or hail size.

“People don’t realize on how small a scale weather changes,” Dee says. “You can go from downtown where it’s raining during a winter weather event, and by the time you get home in west Little Rock, it’s freezing rain. That’s just eight miles. Photos from viewers are really helpful then to show the difference.”

But tweets can pile up quickly during severe weather, with dozens of reports being posted or reposted in seconds. And all that information can lead to confusion.

“It’s scary,” Fortner says. “As a meteorologist, you get worried watching people drumming up hype on Twitter that may not be accurate. They’re crying wolf.”

And then there are the photo scams. Like many viral photos that turn out to not be quite what they seem, meteorologists and storm chasers are wary of shocking weather photos. That fully formed tornado with a lightning bolt next to it? Just because a tweet says it just touched down in White Hall doesn’t mean it did.

“Ninety percent of the time the photo is fine,” Dee says. “The content is usually not showing much, just rain or some clouds. But there are cases where someone takes an old photo and edits it to make it look like it’s something happening that day.”

Meteorologists and chasers can generally get an idea of whether a photo is fake based on the weather patterns that would have been in the area at the time they posted it. Some search engines, including Google, allow searches using images, which can show if that image has been previously posted online.

“The most important thing is knowing your source,” Michael Hook, longtime storm chaser and National Weather Service storm spotter, says. “In storm situations, people are always looking for confirmation about what is happening whether it’s on TV, the radar or on Twitter. Just make sure it’s from someone reliable.”

Dee points to amateur weather watchers tweeting erroneous reports as the biggest downside to the popularity of weather reporting on Twitter.

“It’s a huge problem,” Dee says. “Even if they are experienced, it’s difficult to spot the difference between a scary-looking, low cloud and a tornado when people are tweeting these photos.”

To stay ahead of storms and correct rumors, Dee, Fortner and other meteorologists are often glued to their phones. Even on her days off, Fortner will cancel plans if it looks like severe weather is moving into Arkansas. She knows that her followers will be looking to her on Twitter and Facebook for updates, even if she isn’t on air. Her audiences are completely separate, Fortner says, with many of her social media followers never turning on THV 11 for coverage.

If a storm is set to roll in at 1 a.m., Fortner sets a middle-of-the-night alarm so she can check radar and get the word out.

“If people are hearing strong winds and wake up, they’re going to go to their phones to see what’s going on,” Fortner says.

Thanks to those two phones, her job is quickly turning into a 24-7 affair. It’s no surprise that a recent broadcast meteorologist job opening Fortner spotted described the job as 80 hours per week.

“It’s crazy how the business is changing,” Fortner says.

FOLLOW THEM INTO THE STORM

Want to keep up with Arkansas weather on Twitter? Let these handles be your guides.

@KATV_Weather: KATV meteorologist Todd Yakoubian

@SarahFortnerWX: THV 11 meteorologist Sarah Fortner

@weatherninja: Central Arkansas storm chaser Michael Hook

@ryanvaughan: Jonesboro-based meteorologist Ryan Vaughan

@GregDeeWeather: KARK and KLRT meteorologist Greg Dee

@JeffBaskinFOX16: KLRT meteorologist Jeff Baskin

@arkansasonline: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette breaking news

Print Headline: #ARWX Forever

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