News Columns & Blogs

Hunting for Weather

After a holiday season bursting with feel-good features and events to cover, January just seems so boring.

And slow days mean one thing for the photo staff: weather features.

When it’s hot, the easy go-to shots are of people playing in water. If there’s snow and ice, then car problems, sledding and snowmen are the obvious shots to get.

But what about when it’s cold and dreary? Such was the case last week, which at times felt like I was hunting snipe instead of features. After shooting a photo to remind readers of places to recycle their Christmas trees and covering Richland’s 100th birthday celebration plans, I drove through Columbia Park on the way back to the office. The steamy-looking bird pond caught my eye and I stopped to shoot this B.O.D.:

It’s funny because benches are for people...not birds! Hilarious, right?

Other stuff came up and this shot never ended up getting published, leaving me devastated.

The next day wasn’t any more action-packed, but I figured I’d swing by hiking hotspot Badger Mountain to see if anything was going on. It looked pretty deserted, so I shot some boring photos of the empty playground and trailhead as I tried to plan my next move:

(If only a bird would land on that swing...)

Then I noticed two people emerging from the fog:

I liked the repetition of rounded hillsides that faded into the fog and this shot ended up on the front page.

After a day at Hanford, I headed back out for my third weather feature hunt, and while the foggy hiking shot was an OK find, I was feeling pretty blah about my work of the week. I decided to grab the macro lens and look for interesting details in Finley. Temperatures had been hovering around freezing, so I kept my attention on puddles and ditches for potentially interesting ways to show the weather. One puddle had a graphically chilly look to it:

Before a seemingly hovering sheet of ice in a ditch caught my attention:

I didn’t like what I was getting of the icy sheet, but there were some trapped plants:

which looked pretty cool, but I settled on this shot of water straddling two of its states for my submission:

Warning: big segue ahead

It’s kind of strange explaining my thought processes for these photos, just as I’m sure it was when I asked a couple of our readers about their interest in our weather coverage. I’d often wondered about reader interest in weather during many of these mind-numbing feature hunts — especially during slow news weeks during which weather features comprise a good percentage of published photos. Granted, if nothing else is going on, there are few other places to turn beside weather features, but I still doubted that anybody cared about our weather coverage.

Judging by the small, but passionate amount of mail we receive, some do. And since so many of the recreational activities enjoyed by Tri-Citians are outdoors and weather-dependent, this isn’t surprising. Still, one reader’s careful reading of the weather page made me rethink the importance of this coverage. Bob Hennig of Kennewick, a retired Hanford engineer, noticed an error in the temperature trends graph — something I had never even cared to notice. His careful eye for accurate details doesn’t make him a weather freak, however, as he wrote me via e-mail, explaining that his interest mainly stems from his morning walks and wanting to know what to wear for the day, adding, “I have no complaints about anyone's weather forecast accuracy; they're a helluva lot better than we get from economists, stock brokers, and sports pundits.”

Another reader, Vaughn Mackenzie of Kennewick, wrote in wondering whether he had missed our monthly weather recap — calling to my attention another feature of our paper I hadn’t ever noticed. Again, there’s no fascinating back story to his interest in the recaps, which compare the previous month’s temperature data with average and record data from years past. This longtime Tri-Cities resident just finds it interesting to see the numbers behind his perception of whether December really was colder than usual.

I’m sure a lot of this sounds like one of those painfully obvious newspaper articles telling you to stay hydrated in the heat and to wear more clothes when it’s cold out. Perhaps my weather apathy is because I grew up in the Willamette Valley, a place where umbrellas are a dead giveaway for outsiders and people are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes.” Forecasts never seemed to come true and I got used to not caring about what it was supposed to be like tomorrow, and often mentally prepared for the exact opposite of what had been forecast.

Meteorologists are used to brusque treatment, however. “As you can imagine, weather forecasting can be a tough business if you have thin skin,” wrote Pat Weeden, customer service manager for Weather Central, which provides us with our weather content. “However, we do pretty well overall and really don't get many complaints aside from the usual, ‘I wish I could be wrong and still get a paycheck’ type of flippant comments.”

Weather Central meteorologist Kacie Krueger adds that they really do feel bad if they mess up a forecast. “It’s nothing that we intended to do,” she writes, “but people seem to forget we are forecasting for an area square miles big on an extremely large planet, where we have no control over what happens in the atmosphere above us.”

Meteorology is something I’d never really thought I’d be able to relate to, and the countless weather feature hunts I’ve cruised around on only served to reinforce that notion. While talking with Kacie, however, she said something that suddenly made a lot of sense to me. She explained that many meteorologists get into the field because of an interest in studying severe weather.

“We love the challenge of predicting where and when weather will happen,” she wrote. “We also love watching storms play out, whether that means if they strengthen or weaken or if they surprise us, by doing something that we never expected. If we get a chance to forecast storms like these and get it right, there is no better feeling.”

Every budding photojournalist dreams big, hoping that work he or she does as a professional will impact lives or shine a light on some seldom-seen corner of the world. And while opportunities to tell stories like these are uncommon, like tracking a massive tornado or hurricane, that shouldn’t negate the importance of having a photo on the front page reminding readers of the content on the back.


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