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July-August 2010

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Blue Skies and Green Screens: The History of Weathercasting Graphics

Broadcast meterologists such as Alan Sealls (WKRG, Mobile, Alabama) operate in studios far more technologically advanced than those of a generation ago.

Perhaps nothing about television weather has changed more in the last several decades than the look of it. A typical early-1950s weathercast featured crude hand-drawn symbols for warm and cold fronts. As recently as 1980, nearly all weather maps were created manually. Today, maps are rendered by computer in a variety of styles, with weathercasters providing the finishing touches rather than generating maps from scratch. The earliest radar displays showed nothing but diffuse blocks of white against a dingy gray background, in contrast to the brilliant colors and pinpoint definition of contemporary radars.

According to weathercaster Tom Skilling (WGN, Chicago), one of the nation's most accomplished users of weather graphics: “We've undergone a revolution in the last four decades not only in our ability to measure the atmosphere and its evolution but in our ability to visualize it.”

ROBERT HENSON is a contributing editor to Weatherwise and a writer/editor at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. This article is excerpted from his book Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology, to be published this summer by the American Meteorological Society.

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