Can We Talk About the Weather?

Media Reviews for Media People: Climate Checking Websites

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We're in crisis mode here at Chez Larry. Owing to a combination of oddly angled overhangs and eaves, my trusty hand-out-the-window weather-prediction system has been rendered nonfunctional. Since late May, I've been forced to rely on outside entities for my forecast needs.

Why is this not on the home page?
Why is this not on the home page?
Three months in, I'm convinced every one of these inanimate networks of radars and barometers is out to get me. They hand-tailor their forecasts toward exploiting my weaknesses -- namely, my propensity to leave umbrellas and sweatshirts at home. Behind my back, they've dubbed me "Soggy Boy" and "Larry McShiverPants."

I like to go outside. Fresh air makes my lungs sing with the promise of a new day. So the Big Question has become: Which weather site should I traverse for comically inept forecasts?

This matters more than you think. It's the time of year when weather can torpedo even the best-laid plans. Without some cooperation from Mother Nature, any number of football Sundays might be sacrificed at the twin emasculating altars of apple-picking and foliage-gazing. Believe you me, it's challenging to plan a Twizzlers-and-hooch picnic when you're simultaneously dodging and fetishizing hurricanes.

The Weather Channel's would be the obvious first destination if it weren't so intent on sending me out into unforeseen sandstorms. The site's hour-by-hour forecast, in particular, seems bent on either mischief or revenge. As a result, I've learned to interpret "5% chance of showers" as "relentless downpour" and "mostly cloudy" as "The sun will char your flesh to a fine crisp." Somewhere deep in an underground bunker, a computerized weather algorithm is enjoying a laugh at my expense.

My real beef with, however, is that it doesn't do enough to showcase the coolest assets of its parent brand. For occluded-mesocyclone cultists like me, the Weather Channel produces some of the most compelling true-reality programming on the air. Yet, for reasons unknown, relegates content from these shows into the site's nether regions.

Take the channel's scare-mongeringly super-awesome "It Could Happen Tomorrow," which assesses the disaster potential of semi-remote climate scenarios (blizzards in Kenya, Canadian locust infestations, etc.). None of this video is featured on the home page, which instead highlights bland, 90-second monologues poached from the airwaves and user-generated clips, only a handful of which feature weather-vane impalements. That's an opportunity missed, especially given how mercilessly the site flogs Al Roker's presence and the wacky facial tics that come with it.

Weather Underground takes the opposite tack: Come for the NEXRAD, stay for the commentary. Of all the sites, WU offers the best how-weather-works explications, especially on climate change and extreme conditions. I've become a huge fan of Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog, in which our titular hero tough-talks about hurricanes. If you're a hurricane, you don't want any part of Dr. Jeff Masters. He'll downgrade your sorry ass to a tropical depression with a snap of his compass-callused fingers. Do not mess with Dr. Jeff Masters.

Contrast this with the no-frills approach of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Leading with a map color-coded with no fewer than 17 alerts, advisories and updates, the site is the online weather equivalent of C-SPAN. It conveys the weather. It does so sternly and straightforwardly. Be sure to click on those alerts/advisories, though, which lead straight to the all-caps, sparsely punctuated dispatches that beam along the bottom of the TV screen during end-of-days weather events. It's computerized weather for the telegraph era.

Finally, there's Intellicast, which claims the redundant-tagline title ("The authority in expert weather"). Beyond that, I can't distinguish the site's offerings from those of AccuWeather, the only entity that congratulates itself for being able to memorize a visitor's location via the magic and wonder of cookies ("Enter your location below and we'll remember it for future visits!").

The two sites are similarly dry in tone and stuffed fat with information; you can find just about anything you want on the two home pages, assuming you have the patience to navigate the clutter. Intellicast is probably a touch more map-happy, while AccuWeather attempts to offer a newsy slant. Otherwise, they present the same material with the same inattention to flair and personality. One can only gussy up "65 degrees, with a chance of late-day showers" so much, I know, but the square-blocks-of-information approach is as unengaging as it is aesthetically unremarkable.

In the end, there's no one weather site that, like, rains a hailstorm of dew-point whup-ass upon the others. It's a matter of personal preference. Those who want personality and a look under the hood should check out Weather Underground. Those who want forecasts drained of all charisma and humanity should check out the NOAA offering. If you're not picky about such matters, you can dispense with the weather-specific sites altogether and rely on the morsels of storm data served up by your Yahoo home page.

I'll say this, though: Marketers ought to be investing heavily in the various weather sites. Just as the ads that air on the Weather Channel right before its "Weather on the Eights" jubilee burn themselves into my frontal lobe, so, too, do those displayed most prominently on the various weather sites. They've got frequency on their side. If I were a marketer of parkas or flu balms or snow tires, I'd start buying up October-through-March inventory this very minute.

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