By CLAUDIA DREIFUS
Published: July 31, 2007
In June 2002, Heidi Cullen, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., received a telephone call from an executive at the Weather Channel. Would she audition for a program on climate and global warming that producers at the Atlanta-based cable television network were contemplating?
Dr. Cullen, a climatologist with a doctorate from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, was dubious. A specialist in droughts, she had no broadcast experience. Moreover, she rarely watched television. She had never even seen the Weather Channel.
“My interests were in trying to find new ways to make climate forecasts practical for engineers and farmers,” Ms. Cullen, 37, said on a recent visit to New York. She had, she said, just gotten a grant from the National Science Foundation, “and I didn’t want to leave what I was doing.”
But the lure of a national audience won out. After a successful tryout, Dr. Cullen packed her clothes, furniture and dog and moved to Atlanta. Today, she is the only climatologist with a Ph.D. in the country who has her own weekly show, “Forecast Earth,” a half-hour-long video-magazine focused on climate and the environment.
Q: What were you studying when you got that call from the Weather Channel?
A: I was trying to understand the large-scale mechanisms that had caused a drought in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2001. I was also working with engineers in Brazil and Paraguay to apply climate forecasts to optimize water resource management at Itaipu Binacional, the largest operational hydropower facility in the world.
I hesitated when I got that call. Television was a world I couldn’t imagine. No one I knew had ever done anything like that.
Q: How did the Weather Channel executives know of you?
A: I think they’d been asking around. They were hunting for a Ph.D. scientist who could explain the science behind climate news. As it happened, my doctoral thesis has a lot of relevance to current affairs. Part of it involved looking at how to use climate information to manage water resources in the Middle East. It’s often said that the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water.
For my thesis, I studied droughts and the collapse of the first Mesopotamian empire — the Akkadian civilization. I was able to show that a megadrought at roughly 2200 B.C. played a role in its demise. I found the proof by examining the sediment cores of ancient mud. When one looked at the mud from the period around the Akkadian collapse, one found a huge spike in the mineral dolomite. That substance is an indicator of drought.
Q: What’s the point of knowing this?
A: Because until recently, historians, anthropologists and archaeologists were reluctant to say that civilizations could collapse because of nature. The prevailing theories were that civilizations collapsed because of political, military or medical reasons — plagues. Climate was often factored out.
And yet, indifference to the power of nature is civilization’s Achilles’ heel. I think the events around Hurricane Katrina reminded us that Mother Nature is something we haven’t yet conquered.
Q: Did you have to take lessons in broadcasting techniques?
A: Not at first. I’ve since done some voice training and have become obsessed with the craft of television. It’s important, for instance, to be very still when you’re on camera. My coach says that if you move around wildly, it erodes people’s faith in you. It’s been said to me that 9 times out of 10, the visual trumps what you say on television. I was floored. I had grown up among the cops and firemen of New York’s Staten Island, a world where your word is everything. So when I heard that, it was like, ‘Oh my God, why did I consciously choose to get into this?’
Q: O.K., why did you?
A: Because they were giving a chance to cover things people need to know more about: global warming, El Niño, energy policy.
Q: It has to be hard to put together a weekly magazine show on one subject. Where do you find your stories?
A: I’ve become a media junkie. I read far more widely now than when I was a researcher. Also, I watch a lot of TV, which means all the news programs, “Frontline,” even ESPN, which I watch to learn how to write punchy leads. I also listen to NPR, check out Greenwire and troll the scientific journals like Science, Nature and Geophysical Research Letters.
My problem is that I think everything climate-related is interesting. In my four years on the job, I’ve learned that just because I think something is interesting doesn’t mean it’ll make for good television. It’s often a challenge to make climate issues visual. When I first began, all we had was a little stock video of droughts in the Sahara with dead animal carcasses, and glaciers falling into the sea. We ran them over and over again. My father, who’s a retired New York City policeman, kept phoning me: “Heidi, are those same glaciers falling again?”
Q: Your coverage of global warming has been controversial. Are you surprised?
A: In a way, yes. To me, global warming isn’t a political issue, it’s a scientific one. But a lot of people out there think you’re being an advocate when you talk climate science.
Last December, I wrote a blog about how reticent some broadcast meteorologists are about reporting on climate change. Meteorologists — they are the forecasters — have training in atmospheric science. Many are certified by the American Meteorological Society. I suggested there’s a disconnect when they use their A.M.S. seal for on-camera credibility and refuse to give viewers accurate information on climate. The society has a very clear statement saying that global warming is largely due to the burning of fossil fuels.
The next thing I knew, I was being denounced on the Web sites of Senator James Inhofe, Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh. The Weather Channel’s own Web site got about 4,000 e-mails in one day, mostly angry. Some went, ‘Listen here, weather girl, just give me my five-day forecast and shut up.’
Q: Rush Limbaugh accused you of Stalinism. Did you suggest that meteorologists who doubt global warming should be fired?
A: I didn’t exactly say that. I was talking about the American Meteorological Society’s seal of approval. I was saying the A.M.S. should test applicants on climate change as part of their certification process. They test on other aspects of weather science.
A lot of viewers want to know about climate change. They are experiencing events they perceive as unusual and they want to know if there’s a connection to global warming. Certainly when Katrina hit, they wanted to know if it was global warming or not. Most Americans get their daily dose of science through their televised weather report. Given that fact, I think it’s the responsibility of broadcast meteorologists to provide viewers with scientific answers.
Q: What do your ex-colleagues from academia think of your new career?
A: Oh, they’re so funny. Some of them claim that they haven’t seen me on television because they don’t own one. But when I was being denounced by Matt Drudge, they were all, ‘Hey, saw you on Drudge!’
Actually, a lot of my friends are relieved that there’s at least one scientist out there doing this.
Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times.
TV CLIMATOLOGIST Heidi Cullen, host of “Forecast Earth” on the Weather Channel.
Fausto Intilla's web site: www.oloscience.com