For decades, though, there’s been one prominent local voice guiding how we interpret weather and climate in Washington: Dr. Cliff Mass. The towering figure in atmospheric sciences earned an audience communicating through his personal blog and a regular guest spot on KNKX radio. But while delivering the weather, the University of Washington professor has also courted controversy, first over his characterization of climate change science and most recently over his comparison of violent protesters to Nazi brownshirts in a personal blog post unrelated to weather. Following a backlash on social media, the NPR-affiliated KNKX ended his regular weather program.
But Mass isn’t the only person in our region explaining the skies in a way that’s accessible to the rest of us. That’s good news for weather-curious folks adrift in the rolling sea of the internet looking for a weather-information port in the storm.
“There’s a really awesome weather [and climate] community here in the Seattle area,” says Dr. Joe Zagrodnik, a postdoctoral research associate with Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet. While most of the academics and well-informed weather and climate enthusiasts interact on social media, some keep blogs and newsletters — including Zagrodnik, who was inspired to launch a blog the day after KNKX parted ways with Mass. “I guess it's kind of an exciting time,” he says. “I think that some of us who have been quietly posting about the weather have a chance to get our voices heard a little bit more.”
There aren’t that many people blogging or writing at length about the atmosphere for an everyday audience, but a few people are carrying the torch. Get to know four of the most active regional weather and climate heads — from academics to state officials to enthusiasts you can look to when the skies strike your fancy.
A weather enthusiast for everyone
The newsletter: Seattle Weather Blog
The author: Justin Shaw
Blogging since: 2011
Blog and Twitter focus: The blog explores timely weather questions for everyday readers in ways that get them excited and help them make decisions on how to plan their days. Active, enthusiastic tweeting on the day’s forecast and current weather.
Favorite Pacific Northwest atmospheric event or fact: Disputing the idea that July 5 is the start of summer in Seattle. As someone with a July 5 birthday, Shaw has been sensitive to the weather of that particular day since he was a kid. “I would say summer starts on July 12…. Spring’s like six months around here.”
The lowdown: In 2011, financial writer Shaw was looking for an outlet to merge his interests in weather and writing, while contributing to the weather community. “I wanted to share my excitement for weather and get everybody else excited,” he says. “I feel like you have the people out there with Ph.D.s, and there’s an audience for that. But I consider myself the citizen’s weatherman who’s writing in layman’s terms because I’m a layman myself, but I love this stuff, and I’ve followed it and tracked it obsessively my whole life.”
Shaw took a class on atmospheric sciences in college, but started educating himself about weather from the second grade onward, after the windstorm on President Bill Clinton’s inauguration day in 1993 piqued his interest. He began reading the National Weather Service’s forecast discussions in middle school, which he says “forced him to learn.” While he’s not a meteorologist, he’s grown to recognize patterns in weather that help him anticipate how events like snowstorms will unfold.
Shaw’s audience is, he says, anyone who wants to get excited and informed about weather without getting bogged down in jargon. (He appreciates Seattle’s wealth of weather talent, though, and often looks to experts’ posts and data when doing his own writing.)
Shaw feels like his work has added meaning right now, with people split over so many issues. “Weather is one of those things that everyone can relate to,” he says. “Everyone can have something to talk about that’s not divisive.”
While he likes writing stories that rely on his easy recall of weather stats and that challenge him to put them in relatable cultural contexts, he has adjusted his format to fit what people seem to need — especially as more people are reading on the go. “I’m a data nerd but I think most people just want to know the quick and easy forecast. ‘Is it going to rain? Or do I need a coat? I don’t care what happened on this day in 1967.’ And I get that,” he says. “I've definitely changed from more long-winded posts to shorter posts — and definitely on Twitter — [with] more statements that are more likely to answer more pressing questions.”
The author: Dr. Joe Zagrodnik, postdoctoral research associate with Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet
Blogging since: August 2020
Blog focus: A brand new blog with an academic bent that covers recent atmospheric science research, weather news and weather impacts on the Pacific Northwest and the climate, all while elevating new and diverse voices in the field. “It’s for anyone who's curious about the weather and wants to know more beyond the forecast,” Zagrodnik says.
Favorite Pacific Northwest atmospheric event or fact: The convergence zone, a local phenomenon where air passing over the Olympic Mountains extends rainy days after storms pass. “It’s just kind of a cool, unique thing that only happens in that way because of a particular orientation of where we're located relative to the mountains,” he says.
The lowdown: Zagrodnik had been thinking about writing a blog for a while, but was inspired to take the plunge in response to Mass’ recent posts. “I believe that there are more voices that need to be heard in the weather community,” says Zagrodnik, who has a doctorate in atmospheric sciences. In his work at WSU’s AgWeather Net, he helps farmers and growers across the state understand how weather impacts agriculture. “I don’t want to directly criticize Cliff’s blog — Cliff and I are on good terms — but [his blog] can very much be editorial,” he says. Zagrodnik wanted to create something that was less about his opinion and more about highlighting other people’s expertise, in government and in the nonprofit space.
The academic climate community, and especially the weather community, doesn’t elevate a lot of diverse voices, he says. It doesn’t help that he’s a white guy also writing in this space, he says, but he thinks his role is to build a platform for elevating others.
He hopes to use his platform to highlight especially those who aren’t active on social media. Amplifying more experts in narrower areas of expertise, he says, might help bring attention to the right voices to help the media and public make sense of issues when they arise. “So when a significant weather event does happen, hopefully as a community we can give a more nuanced and detailed approach to not just what happened physically in the weather, but how it relates to the climate, how it impacts those in the community and what researchers are doing to better understand it,” he says.
Zagrodnik also wants environmental justice to be a bigger part of the academic conversation. “It hasn't been mentioned a lot in the blog space, partially because it's been dominated by a singular voice in a lot of cases, but there's this whole realm of climate justice that barely gets talked about it,” he says, rattling off everything from redlining’s relationship with tree-cover loss, how homeless people experience weather and what the lack of air conditioning means for a warming Seattle. “And honestly, that's kind of what bothered me about [Mass’] post — just kind of whittling down this really complicated issue down to this really simple black and white dichotomy,” he says.
Deep climate cuts
The newsletter: Office of the Washington State Climatologist Report and Outlook
The author: Dr. Nick Bond and Karin Bumbaco
Writing monthly since: 2007 (with Bond taking the lead in 2010)
Newsletter focus: To provide analysis and data to people who rely on climate knowledge for their work but don’t want to yawn their ways through reading, and to raise public awareness of climate matters.
Favorite Pacific Northwest atmospheric event or fact: Bond is fascinated by the asymmetry of season lengths in the Pacific Northwest. While it takes months for spring to warm up into summer, fall gets shortchanged. “In basically October, we go from summer to winter.”
The lowdown: You might not think to reach for official analytical weather documents in your free time, but State Climatologist Bond has worked for a decade to make sure there’s something in his monthly climate report for everyone. When Bond took over the Office of the Washington State Climatologist Report and Outlook in the spring of 2010, he went about adding sections that make the report less of “a slog.” It’s one of his favorite parts of his job.
Each roughly nine-page edition features things like a long description of what happened with the climate over the past month, a summary, the next month’s forecast and a drought monitor update. It also has more accessible sections that relate climate to everyday living or take longer-view looks at trends — discussing when tomatoes might ripen, exploring the state’s diverse climates, spotlighting people in the climate community.
“When I took on the state climate office job, I thought that I’d be serving state agencies largely, and that we would be providing them climate data and expertise — and there would be a line going out the door and around the block of people coming to seek our help. But that was not the case,” he says.
In addition to utility managers; people with the Departments of Health, Ecology or Fish and Wildlife; or university academics, “a big fraction of our audience is what we’d call enthusiasts,” he says. These are folks interested in the weather and climate and how they relate to things like agriculture, hydropower, freshwater ecosystems and more.
But the newsletter’s bread and butter is climate, not weather. Weather is the local atmospheric conditions you’re experiencing right now or in the short-term; climate is cumulative trends in local conditions over time. “We're not trying to keep people out of harm's way. Our role is on a longer time scale, and a monthly interval makes sense for that,” Bond says.
Writing the newsletter has challenged Bond to put readers first. “In science writing, it is so easy to slip into very turgid prose with endless strings of adjectives, lots of detail and jargon and so forth. I wanted to make the newsletter a pleasure to read rather than work to read. And in doing that, I’m trying to keep things not simple, but understandable,” he says. “And a little bit of humor makes the medicine go down. … Chances are, then, your ideas will be that much better accepted.”
Bond’s newsletter writing has also spurred research. The first mention in writing of The Blob — a now famous term Bond coined for a patch of hot water that formed in the Gulf of Alaska in 2013— was in this newsletter, and researching some newsletter highlights sparked full-on journal articles.
The newsletter is not a one-man show: Asst. State Climatologist Karin Bumbaco, who had been at the office a year and half before Bond joined her, provides writing and editing. She has a strong sense of what’s interesting or accessible, Bond says, and is “essential” for flagging whether ideas are too inside baseball. A recent University of Washington graduate student has also been writing recap sections on temperature, precipitation and more over the past few months. “He’s earning his pay, definitely,” Bond says.
The student who became the teacher
The newsletter: Weather Bloggin’ for the Common Noggin
The author: Kelsie Knowles
Blogging since: 2020
Blog and Twitter focus: A geographically narrow, topically broad blog. Focusing on south Snohomish County and Seattle, Knowles shares in accessible terms explainers on common Pacific Northwest weather events, blog posts answering timely weather questions and weather photographs in accessible terms. Reaction-GIF-savvy Twitter.
Favorite Pacific Northwest atmospheric event or fact: Like Shaw, Knowles loves the convergence zone and the mixed bag of heavy rain, thunder, lightning and even heavy snow that can develop in the winter. “It generally sets up right over me, and it’s really fun — I’m all over the place, just watching things and grinning ear to ear,” she says.
The lowdown: A lifelong Washingtonian, Knowles recently graduated from the UW with a degree in meteorology. She may have started her region-specific weather blog in April (after setting up the website in December), but it’s not her first blogging rodeo. She has written posts for the Weather Channel’s fan community, and did a three-month internship with KOMO News meteorologists Shannon O’Donnell and Scott Sistek, during which she blogged daily and got good feedback on her work translating weather developments for the every reader. “If someone says that you have a skill, I wanted to actually use it,” she says.
Knowles had experience demystifying the weather before that. Family members frequently ask her about what’s happening outside, and she learned to weed out the jargon in order to “bridge the gap.”
“My goal is to help people learn something new about meteorology with every blog,” she says, and turn fear into fascination. Learning about the weather helped her overcome a fear of it, and ultimately got her hooked professionally. “When I was a kid I was scared of everything, especially stuff in nature, like thunder and lightning and fire and volcanoes. … I think my mom probably recognized that fear and started buying me books that helped explain these different things,” she says. The more she learned, the more she wanted to learn: She started watching the Weather Channel on repeat, and by the eighth grade, she knew she wanted to make a career of the weather.
In trying to anticipate the types of questions most people have, Knowles set up a section of her website dedicated to common weather phenomena, like rain shadows and atmospheric rivers.
That atmospheric sciences tend to be male-dominated fields didn’t faze her. While she was one of three women in her graduating class, Knowles says she’ll “learn from anybody,” and has noticed that the Twitter weather community is more diverse. (She’s also a fan of Little Bear Creek Weather, a hyperlocal weather blog run by weather enthusiast and photographer Brie Hawkins that is now active in weather forecasts and community-building via Facebook and Twitter.)
Knowles is realizing the value of writing short and relatable items on social media, and her Twitter is full of personal feelings on weather and reaction GIFs, in addition to safety updates and retweets of professional weather agencies.
... and the big leaguers
Don’t just take our word for it. They may be more “establishment” organizations than intimate, small-shop blogging and newsletter affairs, but you’ll miss out if you don’t also check in with full-time professional meteorologists at KOMO News — web meteorologist Scott Sistek and chief meteorologist Shannon O’Donnell — and the National Weather Service.
Sistek keeps a weather blog (Partly to Mostly Bloggin’), which highlights weather oddities, records, cool photographs and conversations in the weather community in fun, accessible ways, while also helping people make connections about what’s happening outside (like the impact of distant Siberian wildfires on Western Washington haze). Both meteorologists keep positive, active Twitter accounts.
Despite being part of a sprawling federal agency, the National Weather Service operation in Seattle knows how to keep weather forecasts relatable and, dare we say, engaging via its incredibly active Twitter account. From safety warnings to trivia to behind-the-scenes photos of their work, the NWS crew tweets multiple times a day to a huge audience.
Update: This article was updating at 8:07 a.m. on September 2 to reflect that Mass was not describing all protesters as Nazi brownshirts, but those he deemed “violent persons destroying property and hurting people;" and that Knowles was one of three women in her department's graduating class.