A Meteorologist Weathers the Storm

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Last week, New Yorkers woke up to a hazy orange skyline. Smoke from wildfires raging in Canada had poured over the border, blotting out skyscrapers and making the air dangerous to breathe. At one point on Wednesday, the air quality in New York was recorded as the worst in the world.

Then on Thursday, scientists announced that it would be an El Niño summer, a global weather pattern that can drastically raise temperatures.

Keeping an eye on it all was Judson Jones, a meteorologist and reporter on The New York Times’s Weather Data team. Since joining the newspaper in October, Mr. Jones has kept tabs on a range of weather phenomena, such as “atmospheric rivers” in California and Arctic blasts in the Northeast. He relies on models and data to keep readers informed as climates become more extreme.

In an interview, Mr. Jones discussed reporting on the smoke as it swept through parts of the United States and the evolution of The Times’s weather coverage. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Did you have a sense that the smoke in New York was going to be as bad as it was?

On Tuesday, we started looking at the forecast models. The high resolution model only goes out 18 hours, so you only start to get a glimpse. Then the National Weather Service forecasters were mentioning it. By Wednesday morning, as soon as the sun rose, there was this huge concentration of smoke. The models were showing it staying together as this big, dense mass, and moving.

It actually arrived about three hours earlier than I expected. The fact you could see this mass of smoke moving like a blob was freaky. The time-lapse Earth camera we very quickly put out was apocalyptic. It’s like putting on a giant Instagram filter, or in this case it was like you photoshopped out all the buildings.

Are there any ideas you have for different ways to cover weather events as they become more consistent and impactful?

Our weather team likes to work with all the teams across the board at The Times. We don’t like to keep things to ourselves. That’s what makes us dynamic. Our team has already been working hand in hand with the folks that have built our wildfire tracker. Air quality and the smoke forecast are all products that came out of this group. We’ve been thinking through how we cover this better, how we inform our readers, how we give them something tangible and how we explain how that affects them.

As we move forward, we’re going to encourage even more group collaboration. Every fire, every situation is different. Even when these fires burn in the middle of nowhere, the smoke impacts somebody.

The El Niño summer was just officially announced. It feels like everything is compounding.

El Niño is likely not going to have an immediate effect on everything. It doesn’t always have a huge effect on the summer weather patterns. But as we get into winter, you really start to see that shift. Globally, we’re very much going to see those effects as we move into that season.

El Niño really affects weather patterns worldwide. Expect Australia and parts of Indonesia to be more dry. You also see more dryness in South America. The wet weather patterns in places like southern Brazil and parts of Argentina and Chile — you can see that shift a little bit more. There’s more dryness toward South Africa and elsewhere. In India, it impacts the monsoon season.

Are we going to see this immediately? Probably not. But the more it takes hold and the stronger it gets, the more that we see these dramatic changes.

As a meteorologist and a journalist, what is your reaction to these events — extreme heat, wildfires, El Niño — happening at once?

I don’t want to overhype it. I think we’re already seeing the extremes, partly because of climate change. These extremes happen in years of La Niña and El Niño.

We’re trying to notify people about extremes before they happen. Recently we launched an extreme weather tracker. You can choose up to four locations in the United States right now, and you’ll get an email saying if extreme weather is likely in your area. We’re trying to inform people ahead of extreme weather as best we can. There are amazing meteorologists and scientists that produce a lot of great information, and we’re trying to make that more readily available to the public.

Are you thinking about how weather coverage at The Times might evolve as climate change continues to as well?

What’s amazing about The New York Times is that it has been devoted to covering the climate and climate change, and reporting on what can be attributed and what can’t be attributed to climate change. A lot of other media organizations have had weather teams that then became climate teams. The Times has done it the other way around.

We’re really excited. Our team is diving into this and is partnering with the Climate desk on articles and asking questions. Can we attribute this to climate change? What are scientists saying about that issue? We think it’s important to be honest about saying when we know and when we don’t know, or rather when scientists know and when they don’t know.

I heard you got in trouble as a child for running to the window in school to try to see a tornado. Does weather still excite you that much?

There’s something about the raw power of it — it’s not something you can control, but it’s interesting to try to understand it. The sad part is when it hits something. The coolest thing to see is a tornado in the middle of a cornfield and doing absolutely nothing.

There’s something pretty powerful about the natural beauty of these things.

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