For SF meteorologist Drew Tuma, it’s both weather and climate change

‘We hope that you get to learn something about your changing Earth’

Extreme weather has become commonplace in California. When it hits, residents often turn to their local television weather anchor to guide them through the crisis.

For many San Franciscans, that’s Drew Tuma, the meteorologist for KGO-TV.

“We put a priority on climate reporting at the local level,” he said of the ABC7 News affiliate. “We want our viewers to understand what’s happening in their own backyard, maybe become more resilient and figure out ways that they’re able to change with us to protect their property, their lives and build a better Bay Area.”

As the real-life consequences of climate change play out in California, Tuma’s role becomes all the more essential, particularly to residents most likely to be vulnerable to its impacts. It also becomes more personal as he talks to victims of natural disaster, visits the places hit by severe weather and walks people through what they can do to better steel themselves and their homes against the inevitable reach of climate change.

“It doesn’t get easier,” he said. “You just know what you have to do in the moment, and then you deal with the emotional effects after.”

Tuma was just three weeks into his new gig at KGO-TV when the 2014 South Napa earthquake rattled the region. Hitting a 6.0 on the Richter scale, the quake was the largest to hit the Bay Area since Loma Prieta in 1989.

Earthquakes aren’t exactly weather events, but as an earth scientist, Tuma was tasked with guiding Bay Area viewers through the crisis and explaining to them what had unfolded. It was the first time the audience watched their new weather anchor with the conversational style, cool demeanor and dazzling smile that have since become Tuma’s trademarks.

It would not be the last time viewers would rely on Tuma in a moment of weather-related crisis.

There has been devastating wildfire, severe drought followed by record-breaking rainfall, and air quality so poor San Francisco’s sky turned orange. People have lost property, livelihoods and sometimes even family or friends as a result.

Though Tuma considers climate change the “challenge of our time,” he says moments of severe weather transcend the politics that often bog down these conversations. Instead, they’re deeply rooted in science.

Tuma graduated with a meteorology degree from Pennsylvania State University in 2010. The school is one of only a handful that offers four-year degrees in the subject. He was immersed in the classic sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology before moving on to rigorous earth and atmospheric studies that today help him understand the science behind weather and explain it clearly to viewers.

He looks to weather models generated by “supercomputers” to inform the forecasts he delivers to the public. These programs use a number of variables such as temperature, humidity, cloud cover and rainfall to determine the likely weather outcomes for up to two weeks.

Tuma considers one of his main responsibilities to be explaining to people what’s happening in the atmosphere in a way they can understand. That includes laying out for the public when an extreme weather event is simply an aberration, or when it’s part of a larger trend of changing patterns over an extended period of time — climate change.

“There’s always natural variability. Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get,” he said. “You start to look at a longer range to understand if something is actually changing your climate.”

For example, one record hot day might not point to signs of climate change; however, a longer, dryer fire season year after year does, Tuma says.

Talking about climate and sustainability has long been kitchen table talk in the Bay Area. People often attribute that receptivity to the region’s more liberal political leanings, but Tuma believes it has more to do with people’s proximity to the affects of climate change in their own lives.

Californians have dealt with wildfires and droughts for years.Now, all kinds of weather are becoming more severe nationwide such as hurricanes, flooding, polar vortexes and deep freezes.

When climate change plays out in people’s own backyards, they start to acknowledge it as a reality rather than a political boogeyman.

“As these events become, unfortunately, more common, and they hit people where they live, I think that’s changing the mindset,” Tuma said. “It was once this abstract concept. Now it’s tangible.”

Tuma’s own journey to becoming a meteorologist starts with such a firsthand experience.

A blizzard dumped three feet of snow on his hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1996 when Tuma was seven-years-old. He recalls the snow towering over him, and wanting to know everything about how it occurred and whether it could happen again.

The fascination carried the self-proclaimed “weather nerd” through college to small local news stations in Virginia and Washington D.C. with a brief stint as a counselor at a weather summer camp for kids.

When he landed his first job in 2010, Tuma says climate change issues were barely talked about in the public, much less the newsroom. In fact, Tuma’s accreditation as a meteorologist are relatively rare in the media industry. Most meteorologists are in government or academia, he said, and many weather anchors don’t have the same degree. Therefore, they might be less willing to walk viewers through the prickly rhetoric around climate change science.

During his early career, Tuma focused on learning how to leverage his formal science training to bring the facts to life for people in a way they could understand. He wanted to become a trusted, authoritative voice on all things weather, and occasionally climate change, when necessary.

That experience prepared him for coming to a Bay Area market hungrier for information about wonky climate change science. It also helped Tuma learn how to talk to a more ideologically diverse audience.

Today, he does a lot of that on Twitter.

“I love Twitter so much. You could ask me any question, and I’ll answer it.”

Sometimes the Tweets are straightforward: a weekend weather forecast, a heads up on an incoming weather pattern or a photo of an iconic San Francisco view.

Other days, the Tweets are essential: updates on shelter locations for fire victims; a detailed explanation of how a severe weather system could impact the Bay Area and how to seek safety; or an entire thread on how one weather event is indicative of a changing climate, and what that means for residents moving forward.

The social media channel is a natural extension of Tuma’s work on the daily newscast. He sees it as another platform from which he can easily deliver information with the goal of giving people the chance to take control over their own lives, whether that be on issues of climate change or something else.

“We can report on things all day, and we can hold people accountable for some things and bring that to light. But, at the end of the day, we hope that you get to learn something about your changing Earth,” he says. “And you can use that knowledge to vote for people that you think align with your priorities.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com