A broadcast meteorologist does much more than stand between a greenscreen and a camera. They stand between the world of meteorological science, with mountains of data from weather satellites, forecast models and radar towers, and the people who need to know the answer to the simple yet consequential question: What will the weather be like tomorrow?
Increasingly, though, broadcast meteorologists find themselves at the forefront of the climate crisis, watching as extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity and helping their viewers understand how the changing climate is affecting their corner of the world.
The University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences is the leading program of weather and climate-related research and education in the Intermountain West, according to the department’s website. “Our research and teaching endeavors provide the knowledge and tools needed by society to address the challenges posed by hazardous weather and climate change in the 21st century.” The baccalaureate program in atmospheric sciences includes a professional meteorology emphasis that prepares students for a career in weather forecasting, broadcast or otherwise.
We spoke with Matt Johnson, an alum of the department, who joined KSL as a broadcast weather forecaster in April 2022 after four years at KUTV, to hear how his studies at the U prepared him for his current role.
What are your favorite weather conditions?
Heavy snow or thunderstorms, hands down!
There’s nothing like watching massive aggregated snowflakes fall from the sky and blanket the earth with a fresh coat of white. It fascinates me that the liquid content of snowflakes affects how efficiently they stack, thus impacting how much snow will be measured by the end of the event.
Thunderstorms are a beautiful thing. To think that a little cumulus cloud can grow into a thunderstorm and produce, wind, lightning, rain, hail and even flooding at times is just so mind-boggling.
When did you decide you wanted to be a meteorologist?
I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist when I was about 9 years old and saw snow fall for the first time.
It was a lake effect snow event in November of 1999 in Spanish Fork, Utah. I was having a little snowball fight with my brother and the snow rate picked up to 1-2” an hour. I remember the distinct moment of when the snow was falling so hard, I was starting to lose sight of my brother’s silhouette in the setting sun.
It was at that moment that I said to myself “I love this stuff!” The weather geek in me came out in full force as I wanted to know everything about it and how it worked.
What experiences during your time at the U were influential or formative in shaping your career path?
When I originally started at the U, I didn’t really have my sights set on being a broadcast meteorologist. I wanted to forecast for the National Weather Service, but that quickly changed as I fell in love with talking about the weather and getting other people excited about it. It brought me joy.
The pivotal moment was when senior classmate Nate Larsen invited me to come up to the green screen on the 8th floor of the William Browning Building to shadow him and see if I liked it. I loved it.
The University of Utah provided that equipment to be able to practice at anytime I wanted; it was a game changer. That combined with the Utah Weather Center gave me the ability to master my craft. I remember staying up until 1 a.m. sometimes in the weather broadcast room recording hit after hit after hit. Rounds of repetition made it possible to get the mistakes and mishaps out of the way early so that I could one day be the presenter that I am now.
I must also mention that Jim Steenburgh, a.k.a. @ProfessorPowder, taught me how to forecast and to do it in a way that wasn’t saturated with sensationalism. His passion for weather, powder skiing and “snow snobbery” inspired me to dig my heels into knowing more about weather forecasting.
Another influential individual was Michelle Brooks who was an AMAZING academic advisor at the time. You wouldn’t think that an advisor would be so influential in your schooling career, but she was. She was always on top of stuff letting me know what classes I needed and how many credits I lacked here and there. She was passionate about it. It made a difference.
What lessons did you learn at the U that you still carry with you every day into the newsroom?
I learned that the Math Center is your best friend! Clawing through Physics 1 and 2, Differential Equations and Atmospheric Dynamics taught me to never give up. Go one equation at a time. In the newsroom, you can get slammed with a million different tasks, and you must learn to prioritize and go one task at a time.
I only took one broadcast TV class but something they taught me that I’ve held onto is to not rely on others to get things done. Take it into your own hands. In the newsroom that translates to being proactive and informing web producers and managers of severe weather when it is happening so we can get the word out.
What’s an aspect of your job that many people might not realize?
Weather is ever evolving. Pinpoint forecasting is difficult and we do our best to dissect the weather in a way that will help the public be more aware of how the weather may impact them every day. Every time we get on the TV to tell you the weather, we’ve already spent hours forecasting and interpreting the weather patterns.
Your phone can only give you so much information regarding the weather. TV meteorologists can enhance your experience in understanding the weather. A more digestible message with a lifestyle approach—that’s what we strive for every day, making the weather more relatable and understandable.
Since you graduated from the U, attention on climate change has only sharpened as we’ve experienced fire and drought throughout the West. What is the role of a meteorologist in a changing climate?
The role of a meteorologist is to help the public understand how this change of climate is impacting them locally and personally.
For example: For the second summer in a row Salt Lake City has seen a record amount of triple-digit days at 21. The normal is eight for a Salt Lake summer. Climate change has lengthened the duration of heat waves in the West and intensified the heat level of these events (tying the all-time hottest temp ever recorded in Salt Lake City at 107 °F both last year and this year).
As meteorologists, we help the public understand that as the climate changes it will begin impacting you on a personal level with increasing frequency as time progresses. Shorter skiing seasons, lower snowpack, less drinking water, larger wildfires, declining air quality, etc. The role of meteorologists is to help people understand on that local level how such an (unfortunately) politically charged subject is impacting them independent of their party views. The truth is in the data.
What advice would you give to current U students?
Stay the course and use your resources while you are in college. Be a sponge, absorb all the information you can so that when you graduate, you can rise to the top of your company/business and stand out.