Podcast & Show Notes - Meteorologist Josh Eachus

Show Notes

Thu, 7/7 10:17AM • 23:40

SUMMARY KEYWORDS people, tornado, weather, meteorologist, forecast, events, hurricane, communication, Louisiana, severe weather, cone, years, convective, climate, words, bit, risk, department, biggest, probabilities

[00:00:03] Drew Hawkins: This podcast is a production of a research project at Louisiana State University funded by the Louisiana Sea Grant called Communicating Climate Tools to Coastal Stakeholders, or CCTCS. Researchers from the Department of Communication Studies the Manship School of Mass Communication, and the Department of Geography and Anthropology examined communication challenges during extreme weather events.

[00:00:34] Drew Hawkins: Louisiana is no stranger to extreme weather events. And to meet those challenges, both residents and public officials alike look to meteorologists and emergency managers for information and guidance from everything ranging from hurricanes and flooding to hail storms and tornadoes. In this episode, I sit down with Dr. Josh Eachus, a meteorologist at WBRZ channel 2 in Baton Rouge, a native of Philadelphia, we talk about how he effectively communicates with his audience, what tools he uses, the future of the field, and other topics related to weather and climate communication.

[00:01:23] Drew Hawkins: Okay, cool. So, let's start real general. And let's get your name, your title,and a little bit of your background, little bit of work history.

[00:01:30] Dr. Josh Eachus: Sure. So, my name is Josh Eachus. I have a Bachelors of Science degree in meteorology from California University of Pennsylvania, also a Master’s degree in sports management from the same university. And I have a PhD in geography with a focus in weather communication from LSU. I’ve been working as a broadcast meteorologist,a chief meteorologist at WBRZ, channel 2 since 2013. I actually became chief in 2019 when I achieved a PhD, and before that I worked for 3 years at WTOV TV 9 in Steubenville, Ohio. That was my first job out of college. So,I’ve been a broadcaster now for more than a decade going on 12, 13 years.

[00:02:15] Drew Hawkins: Great. How would you describe your understanding of weather and climate information in general?

[00:02:22] Dr. Josh Eachus: No, it’s solid. I don’t really believe in the absolution of total expertise for anybody in any field. But with a decade of experience, I think I’m kind of in the upper percentile of understanding of weather and climate information, you know, at least in the United States.

[00:02:42] Drew Hawkins: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of weather and climate events that you’ve encountered in your position? And, you know, among those events, you know, which ones would you say, are the most severe what stands out to you?

[00:02:54] Dr. Josh Eachus: I’ve had experience with most of the major weather and climate events that you would think of, the obvious that come to mind. Winter weather, my first job in Ohio, several snow events. Here in Louisiana, even it’s almost a bigger deal, because we’re not used to winter weather in Louisiana. So, when we get the occasional ice storm, like we had back in 2021, that’s a big deal. Certainly, our fair share of hurricanes here on the Gulf Coast, and Ida would be a benchmark event. And severe weather, something we deal with every spring and warm season here in the South, and I’ve handled those.

[00:03:30] The other big benchmark event in addition to Ida was the flood of 2016. That was definitely my career event until Hurricane Ida this year. And now, those two kind of run neck-and-neck. Ida, while overall kind of seems higher impact because it’s category 4 hurricane, the flood may have been more wide reaching and affected more people. So, I can’t really choose between those two as which are the biggest events I’ve ever covered. The only kind of major weather and climate hazard I’m missing coverage on in my career, just simply because of geography, is probably wildfires. Haven’t had to deal with those because they're mainly a Western phenomenon.

[00:04:05] Drew Hawkins: Interesting. Can you talk about what kind of lessons you've learned from some of these severe events?

[00:04:09] Dr. Josh Eachus: At least in events like that, I learned that there is an importance in what we do. It kind of reinforced that there is a service and a want for local TV weather still. And by covering that in the flood, I knew that we really had a big game on our hands going into the winter storm a few years ago in Hurricane Ida, and it's motivating to know that there are people out there who need our messages and need to hear our forecasts. So, I learned that it was really kind of a self-validation, I learned that there's still an importance to what we do.

[00:04:43] Drew Hawkins: Can you talk a little bit about what is your primary audience and or one of your major audiences for weather and climate information?

[00:04:51] Dr. Josh Eachus: I mean, for me personally, it is just people that watch the local news in the greater Baton Rouge area. So, we serve about 13 parishes. We get credit, I think for 12 surrounding Baton Rouge, and then 3 counties actually in Southwest Mississippi. So, you know, about the size of 16 parishes or counties, however you want to define them. Those that watch the local news, that's pretty much where you're going to find most of our messaging, unless you go online or on social media. But there tends to be an overlap there, you're probably not following me on social media, if you don't watch me on TV as well.

[00:05:23] Drew Hawkins: Can you give me a little bit of insight from your perspective of what you believe the public's understanding of weather and climate information? Like the general sense of that?

[00:05:31] Dr. Josh Eachus: Yeah, you know, through the years, I've actually found that scale to grade lower and lower. I actually think most people kind of have an elementary understanding of weather. And my key anecdotes to make that assessment, just conversations with educated people, friends that I know have, you know, high college degrees, my wife has two college degrees, and these are people that I would consider highly intelligent, that when I'll run something by them, “I was thinking about talking about this today” or “What do you think about this,” and they go, “I don't know what you're talking about.” And something that seems basic to a professional meteorologist, feels 101 level, but when I know they don't understand it, I know I really have to rein in the topics I'm covering on air for the general public.

[00:06:18] And you know, we take some time to try to boost education and awareness. But we can only really do that on the quiet weather days. One thing my studies have taught me is when Hurricane Ida is bearing down on you, it's not the time to teach people about weather, that's when you’re going to give them actionable information for safety. So, on a day where it's normal weather like this, maybe I'll step outside of my 3-minute weather forecast and add 30 seconds to teach about a concept that influences the forecast, or something like that. But yeah, the older and more experienced I get, the more I realize the importance of delivering a really snackable and actionable forecast and not really trying to prove how much you know.

[00:06:58] Drew Hawkins: You know, in your experience, what are some of the most frequent communication challenges that you do encounter, whenever you're trying to actively inform the public about weather or climate?

[00:07:07] Dr. Josh Eachus: It’s severe weather, for sure, and that may change around the country. You know, in this market, in this broadcast market, in this region of the country, people are really hurricane savvy, they understand the tropics. For the most part, they understand the cone pretty well, they understand the spaghetti models pretty well. And in my particular area of expertise and weather communication, often that's debated around the country, people will kind of shame one another for showing the spaghetti models or failing to explain the cone properly. But I think it's a little bit more subjective than researchers might understand. Of course, the spaghetti models seem like a poor choice to show in Chicago. But you know, in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where people are looking at this several times every year for storms, I think they get it.

[00:07:57] So,the other end of the spectrum is severe weather. We are not Kansas or Oklahoma, we don't have severe thunderstorm tornado events as often as they do. And they're not as clear cut, they tend to be a little bit harder to verify here. I have a tremendous amount of trouble and, therefore, negative feedback from viewers during severe weather events simply due to lack of understanding of the risk categories, let alone watches and warnings. And I really don’t think people,and this probably applies to the whole country and not just Louisiana, but I have a special interest here a real lack of understanding of the spatial scale of these events. For instance, you know, you’re familiar with the risk categories 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, enhanced, moderate, high risk. You know, a slight risk for severe weather, in most cases will mean about a 5% chance of a tornado within 25 miles of a point. 

[00:08:53] Well, you’ll get angry emails after a tornado struck Arabi, right, earlier this year, when we were in a level 3 or 4 out of 5 risk that day. And somebody in Livingston Parish was upset, not that I say upset that a tornado didn’t hit their house. They’re obviously not mad about that, but they think we over hyped it. And I think it’s pretty miraculous that we’re able to pick out that tornado was going to drop in this region; and it did, just didn't happen in their parish, it happened one parish over. And really, that's about the level of skill that there is in forecasting severe weather right now. It's not more precise than that. And I don't think people understand that. So, when the tornado doesn't hit their town, they think we were over hyping it.

[00:09:31] Drew Hawkins: And that’s you know, how do you so how do you find that balance? You know, when you’re communicating risk, you got to have that fine line between you know, communicating the actual risk and then you know, hyperbole of maybe driving the point home. As a professional, what do you do to strike that balance to get it across people's radar but without going over the top?

[00:09:52] Dr. Josh Eachus: You know, I think this is something that's been in me since I took an interest in this in college. I was always a little bit skeptical. I was always wanting to kind of roll my eyes at national coverage. So, at least the way I've worked with my team and not only was this kind of instilled in me and the former chief of this department, Pat Shingleton [who retired from WBRZ in 2021], who was living here for 40 years, but I've then taken that mantra on and passed it on to my teammates, is we tend to err towards the side of underselling an event, an impactful weather event, so that we can really reserve our red alarm tone for high notch situations like Ida with a great flood, I tend to choose my words really carefully.

[00:10:37] A comedian I like, always talks about like the American way to kind of reach for the top shelf word in any situation. “Now, those chicken wings I had were amazing!” Well, if you waste “amazing”on chicken wings, what word you use to win the lottery, you really set nowhere else to go from there. So, I think the same applies in weather messaging. I try to reserve words like “devastating”or “catastrophic” for only the events that truly could be that like an Ida or the Great Flood. If there's a category one hurricane that's going to pass through our area, probably not using those words, I'm probably going to more err towards “inconvenient,” you know, “out of power for a few days.” I'm not going to say “un-survivable”or “get out now.” I really choose my words carefully.

[00:11:23] Drew Hawkins: Gotcha. So,you mentioned a minute ago, you know, the incredible precision of being able to ideally, like accurately pinpoint relatively where a tornado is going to touchdown, you know, despite the fact that you got some, you know, some frustrated emails or phone calls. And you mentioned that that may be as precise as we could possibly get. Do you think that, based on just developments that you're saying that we can, you know, or the people in your field or emergency managers can get more precise with their predictions?

[00:11:54] Dr. Josh Eachus: Oh, yeah, it's going to and even, you know, I have only been in this for a little more than a decade, in that time, I've watched the hurricane cone shrink, you know. It gets narrower every year as our ability to program and therefore rely on computer models gets better. Just in my short time, in this field, I've watched tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings shrink from warning an entire parish or county, to just a polygon that includes part of a parish or county. So, I've seen that precision increase.

[00:12:25] And there are some really exciting changes that I've learned about at annual conferences we go to that are coming for severe weather warnings that are going to get better and better and better where the cone, the little polygon, we now have in a tornado warning, not only is going to get smaller, but it's going to come with points in that area, and percent chance of a tornado affecting that area down the line and the percent chance of there being hail or gusty wind. And those probabilities obviously should decrease out in time. But it's only going to get better through the years here. And, you know, the public's demand for better means that the science has to evolve. So, hopefully they stick with us as we roll out those changes. But we'll see it get better every year. Certainly, we measure it in decadal increments, you'll notice massive improvements.

[00:13:11] Drew Hawkins: Gotcha. So,a survey that the Mass Communications Department conducted show that some of the most used climate and weather tools were things called the Convective Outlook, Cone of Uncertainty, and the Drought Monitor. Are you familiar with all three of these?

[00:13:25] Dr. Josh Eachus: Yeah, absolutely.

[00:13:26] Drew Hawkins: Can you give me maybe just kind of quickly off your gut feeling the quality of these tools and maybe a 1 to 5? So Convective Outlook, what would you get that on a 1 to 5, 5 being great, 1 being not so good?

[00:13:38] Dr. Josh Eachus: I think that's kind of a like a 2? 2 or 3.

[00:13:40] Drew Hawkins: How about a Cone of Uncertainty?

[00:13:43] Dr. Josh Eachus: I think that's the best of these three. I guess it's hard to call anything perfect.

[00:13:47] Drew Hawkins: Sure.

[00:13:47] Dr. Josh Eachus: So, I guess a 4, but I think that's really well done.

[00:13:50] Drew Hawkins: And where does Drought Monitor sit on that scale for you?

[00:13:53] Dr. Josh Eachus: I rank that as a 1 because sometimes I don't even fully understand that. And it's because there's not a really good temporal scale on the Drought Monitor. So you're just saying, “Look, this regions that–they're just different words to say that something's dry, kind of dry, moderately dry, severely dry, exceptionally dry, like, "Okay, that's really subjective.” And in what time period in the last week, the last month, the last year? So, I think it's poor.

[00:14:20] Drew Hawkins: Can you elaborate a little bit more on Convective Outlook, which you gave about a 2 I believe, you know, what do you think's good about it? What's bad about it? What are your frustrations there?

[00:14:30] Dr. Josh Eachus: I think it's really well designed for industry use, but over the years I don’t probably blame my industry on this, the broadcast industry, it's kind of been misappropriated for public consumption. And really, it's a probabilistic graphic that scientists have attempted to simplify by assigning words to these probabilities. You know, like I mentioned, 2% chance of a tornado within 25 miles is a marginal risk, 5% would be a slight risk. You know, I don't know specific percentages and maybe 10% would be enhanced or something like that.

[00:15:08] So first of all, everybody is going to have a different idea of what marginal,slight,enhanced, moderate, high is. A lot of people think that enhanced should be above moderate. A lot of people then interpret slight as slight small, not a big deal, in reality slight is a way bigger risk for tornado than on a normal day. So, I think it's a communication nightmare. And to do it probabilistically I don't think people would interpret that well, either. I had a professor a long time ago, lay it out for me this way. That slight risk is again, a 2% chance, or a 5% chance of a tornado hitting within 25 miles of point, go–“Well, that's not really a high chance.”

[00:15:45] But if you reframe it as a tornado, a pretty destructive event, right,you wouldn't want to live through one hitting your house. But if you said a 5%, what's that a 1-in-20 chance you could die today, I think that might make people perk up a little bit more, but we also don’t want to use language that scary and harsh. So, I just think it's a communication nightmare, because it's a probabilistic tool that’s tried to, you know, made more subjective and people just don't understand it.

[00:16:12] Drew Hawkins: And, you know, you mentioned that of these three, the probably the best one, is the Cone of Uncertainty, but it's not perfect, right? Can you talk about why it's good, and how it could be better, you know, what its short-comings are?

[00:16:26] Dr. Josh Eachus: The main shortcoming is simply that even in a hurricane savvy region like this, I think there are some people that don't understand that impacts can and do occur outside of that cone. So, the cone is for where the center of the storm, where the eye is going to go. And when you get a massive storm, like a Katrina for instance, that was a giant storm. Or category 1, many years ago, Hurricane Isaac was a giant storm. So, “I'm not in the cone, I'm going to be fine.” Well, especially east of the center, you could have heavy rain, flooding, tornadoes, two or three states away. So, people mistakenly feel that they're not going to be impacted, just because the eye might not pass directly over them. So, I think that's the biggest misnomer with the cone.

[00:17:10] Drew Hawkins: And, you know, just thinking about these tools and their short-comings. And you had even suggested, with that example of 1 in 20 over 5%, like language communication. Are there other ways that you think that you could, or that could be not necessarily just you, that would improve the communication of these tools to the public? And can you talk a little bit about them if you have any in mind.

[00:17:33] Dr. Josh Eachus: One thing that I've liked that the National Hurricane Center has done over the years is with their official forecasts, especially when a storm is going to affect land, they actually have a key point section or a bullet point section that comes out for what people should take away from that cone. I think it would benefit the Storm Prediction Center with their Convective Outlooks to issue something similar. And that might at least be a step in the right direction, at least that when we're broadcasting that to be--

[00:17:58] And it’s something I've thought about,that in the future here, at least when I put these on air, I might really leave those points on the screen. Remember, what these probabilities mean, so just because a tornado doesn’t hit your neighborhood, doesn't mean we're not going to have one in the area. It's going to come down to, “Just where does that thing drop?” And that's the best precision we have right now. So, I think, oddly the convective outlook is just too vague. At the same time, it's so complex, that it's too vague for the public to understand, and I think some bullet point messages accompanying it would be helpful.

[00:18:29] Drew Hawkins: Can you talk a little bit how social media fits into this wider industry? And maybe what are some of the good things about it first, because I think there are some positives. But what are some of the problems with it as well, that you've kind of alluded to just now, but maybe expand on that a little bit more?

[00:18:45] Dr. Josh Eachus: I think the good things are giving us another avenue to reach people, certainly, I mean, there's no real such thing as appointment viewing anymore. People aren't going out of their way to sit down and watch the 5, 6, 10 o'clock news to get information. So, you can certainly reach people that way, especially with Facebook. Twitter is great from a chronology standpoint. I mean, you can disseminate information immediately. So I think that's a positive. And really at the advent of Twitter, you know, years ago, we're over a decade now, we thought this is going to be kind of game changing for us to be able to get critical information out immediately outside of newscasts.

[00:19:17] But then we saw the ugly side of it. I just had an example I posted on social media a couple of weeks ago, back in mid-May, just a weather enthusiast, without any understanding for how the science works at all, grabbed a forecast model they found online that put like a Cat-3 or 4 hurricane just south of Louisiana on Memorial Day weekend. Well, you live in Louisiana. You live in New Orleans. Last weekend was pretty nice, wasn't it? There's nothing out there. But that got like 6,000 likes and shares. Whereas my posts saying “Hey, don't believe things you're seeing out there right now. We're probably going to have nice weather Memorial Day weekend” from a degreed meteorologist, got like 2 likes and shares because it wasn't sexy. You know what I mean?

[00:20:06] For as much as people claim about the news overhyping things. That's what they seem to want. That's what they respond to. And when an amateur uncredentialed source shares hype, they go right along with it. And then somehow the blame comes back on us. And we, that whole time went and downplayed it. I know meteorologists in New Orleans that went on the air and tried to downplay it as well. And it just didn't get the traction that the scary image from the amateur weather enthusiast got. So, I think that one of the biggest negatives is that we're fighting a battle on two fronts now, is one trying to explain the real forecast to people on the air, meanwhile, having to put out fires, off air and on social media of just rumors starting by everybody having free access to other information.

[00:20:47] Drew Hawkins: So Meteorology is not immune to misinformation, either, it seems

[00:20:51] Dr. Josh Eachus: No, not even close. It's probably, you know, with the medical field probably one of the worst there is, in terms of misinformation.

[00:20:58] Drew Hawkins: Is that relatively new? In your experience? Is it getting worse? How do you feel about it?

[00:21:03] Dr. Josh Eachus: Well, it's getting worse. This was not a major problem before social media before Google, I mean...

[00:21:12 ]Drew Hawkins: It sounds like you've just gotten your workload increased, right? You know?

[00:21:15] Dr. Josh Eachus: Yeah, absolutely.

[00:21:17] Drew Hawkins: Do you, how does that–do you feel frustrated? You know, it sounds like a really difficult task to take on every false post that maybe tells a different forecast. You know, if you're thinking of broader ways of addressing the issue, you know, do you have any other ideas coming to mind on how that can be combated?

[00:21:40] Dr. Josh Eachus: You know, the obvious one just isn't feasible. The obvious one is like, well, we shouldn't make these models publicly available. But that's not really cool, you know? We shouldn't be restricting people from information just because of a couple of bad apples. So, I don't really support that. I just think it's all about, you know, using the influence we do have to, you know, and the platform we do have to let people know what the good sources are. I think that's the main way, because the end of the day, everybody's responsible for themselves. And if somebody has chosen to believe an amateur weather source over mine, and make some rash decision, sometimes they have to learn the lesson the hard way.

[00:22:23] Maybe that's too nihilistic of a view. But at the end of the day, I'm not here to control people, I'm here to offer the best guidance and advice I can, and I can't go home and lose sleep at night, over, you know, people falling prey to those trying to, you know, take advantage of their emotions. So, all I can do is provide the best information I can, and at least hope that I reach people with that knowledge that, “Hey, get your forecast from a credential source. And if you don't, you're kind of on your own.” The same way like, well, I know there's this, you know, accredited Kelley Blue Book car salesman down the road, but you know, a buddy here selling this truck for like $3,000 less, so I'm going to take that route. You don't come with those guarantees that it's going to be functioning properly or that has had an inspection, has all of its working parts. So, it's the risk you take when you go outside the realm of, you know, somebody that's credentialed in the field.

[00:23:24]Drew Hawkins: That's fair. Great. Well, Josh, thanks so much for your time.

[00:23:28] Dr. Josh Eachus: Yeah, cool. Drew. No problem, man. Thanks for the opportunity.



Dr. Josh Eachus