Sep 1, 2020 - Economy

How the coronavirus pandemic changes weather reporting

a drone

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Executives at weather news companies tell Axios that the coronavirus pandemic has forever changed the way they cover the weather.

The state of play: Reporters are forced to address new safety threats in the field. Meteorologists need to evaluate new weather factors that impact COVID-19. News executives need to consider the impact of weather on new consumer habits, like daily walks and home-schooling during quarantine.

Driving the news: News companies that specialize in weather coverage have added new topics to their everyday reporting and are using new tools to do it.

  • Drones: Nora Zimmett, Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President at The Weather Channel, tells Axios that the network has started using drone coverage to do more on-the-ground storytelling at a social distance. "We are seeing an uptick in usage of unmanned 360-degree cameras," she says. "There's a lot of really interesting storytelling you can do."
  • Air quality forecasting: Steven Smith, president of AccuWeather, tells Axios that the company launched a partnership with Plume Labs in June to do air quality forecasting, especially in places impacted by wildfires. "In some cases, it's life-saving information," Smith says. "We were among the first to do on-air experiments and demonstrate how virus particles travel in humid vs. dry air and what that looks like," says Zimmett.
  • Indoor humidity: AccuWeather also launched a product that gives users an understanding of how humid indoor climates might be and what actions to take based on certain humidity levels. "As the virus and signs of virus continue to evolve, information about how long the virus lives on surfaces and doors is becoming critically important," says Smith.
  • Business weather warnings: AccuWeather is investing heavily in its forecasting product for businesses in order to make sure hospitals and testing centers, especially outdoor testing centers, have access to real-time warnings about the weather in case they need to shift testing indoors for a day.
  • Educational resources: The Weather Channel is investing heavily in educational resources for families about weather and the pandemic. "There's an ancillary effect to the COVID lockdown in quarantine — more parents are home schooling their children and they need resources," says Zimmett.

The big picture: Weather is a local story with national implications. But being on the ground to capture local stories presents unique challenges given social distancing protocols and traveling restrictions.

  • Zimmett says weather reporters continue to be on-the-ground, using specialized tools like drones. "Thats something we can do uniquely, while a lot of outlets are pulling back on travel."
  • "We're trying to push the envelope in terms of making weather more local," Smith says, noting how consumers' relationship with weather stories has changed now that many are monitoring the weather constantly in order to walk places instead of using public transportation.

The bottom line: "Weather and storms are the great equalizer, " says Zimmett. "They don't have an agenda when it comes to race, religion, creed, or socio-economic status. That's a big reason we've seen massive tune in for some of these events.

  • The Weather Channel saw a 60% year-over-year increase in August TV views. AccuWeather says page views across its digital channels are up 23% since the beginning of March.
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