This Self-Taught Meteorology Enthusiast Is The Indie Weather Analyst We Need
You’ll say it to strike up some small talk at the office no matter the season, but somehow, it’s always true: The weather can be so unpredictable these days. Hours after it rains, we’re suddenly sweltering under the sun, and—your co-workers would nod politely in agreement—storms seem to come and go in the span of a day. But we hardly ever get to prepare ourselves for any of it, because when was the last time you watched a truly helpful weather report on TV?
On some days, it can be slight matters of convenience: Accurate and intelligible weather forecasts tell you if you should wear your rain-resistant chelsea boots to work today, or if you should leave a little early to account for just-add-water traffic.
But in a country that’s visited by approximately 20 tropical cyclones every year, it can also be a much more important matter. We are, in no uncertain terms, very vulnerable to bad weather—and especially so because of climate change. How we prepare ourselves and our individual households for the daily and weekly changes in weather matters to our safety as well.
That’s why many people have turned to K’s Weather—a Facebook page that posts concise and digestible updates on the weather, including the status of storms and pressure systems as they leave and enter parts of the Philippines.
The K in K’s Weather stands for its sole administrator, Karen Cárdenas: an independent and self-taught meteorology enthusiast who’s spent years learning how to read the weather, and perhaps more importantly, how to report it. She’s not a traditional source for weather updates, but at least to her page’s 42,000 followers, she’s turned out to be a most helpful one.
Cárdenas was a writer and editor for magazines and publications in the ’80s, before she started teaching college literature at the Ateneo de Manila University. From there, she would go on to become the Director of Ateneo’s Office of Research and Publications until its merger with the University Press in 2009. All the while, she had only an interest in meteorology, the weather, and science—no formal background in it, apart from her own independent research on the weather, as well as winning a science-writing award for a feature article about the ozone hole.
But perhaps it’s precisely because Cárdenas isn’t a formally-trained scientist that K’s Weather is so successful. Because her background is in communications, and meteorology just happens to be something she’s passionate and well-learned about, she’s in a unique position to tell serve up the weather in a way that can more effectively help people.
Today, in between gardening, sewing, playing with her granddaughter, and finishing book projects, Cárdenas runs K Weather from her home, posting and sharing updates that keep people apprised of the weather. We spoke to her about how and why K’s Weather came to be, including the shortcomings of mainstream weather reportage and the ultimate importance of her work.
How did you develop an interest in meteorology and the weather?
As a child, I loved everything about typhoons. Waiting for one, then the mixture of fear that the roof would be blown off and the coziness of blackouts, sitting around the dining table with homemade coconut oil lamps, eating champorado and binitad. Grown-ups would cater to our requests for stories of tikbalang and diwata and kapre. The best would be the clean-up. I’d run out to the garden with the walis tingting and everything was bright and fresh, like a new world.
But my interest in formal weather forecasting came about when I lived in Europe and commuted to and from school—and later work—and seasons changed and you had to be dressed appropriately. I would keep tabs on how often they got it wrong.
"It was as difficult as I made it. Because I haven’t stopped, you just keep tackling the next thing you want to learn."
You’ve mentioned that K’s Weather began as a response to Tropical Storm Ondoy. What was your personal experience of Ondoy?
The night before Ondoy, I noticed a light drizzle begin at around 6:00 P.M. It seemed to go on and on for hours, that light rain. And it just seemed very unusual, such that I spent the night online trying to find out what was going on. I couldn’t believe that no one was addressing it as more than a weak [pressure] system. I warned everyone I could: Stay home. No one really believed me.
Fortunately there was no severe flooding in the area where I live, so we were spared from the destruction brought by Ondoy. We never lost our internet connection, so I spent the next couple of days tracking people, networking on how to get rescue boats to them, finding places for them to stay, even fostering three purebred labs whose kennel was flooded.
When it was over, the challenge for me was two-fold: to try to figure out why I knew intuitively that the storm would be extraordinary and how to go about learning the science of it; and second, to understand how media was reporting what PAGASA was forecasting.
What are the main problems with weather reportage?
The main problems I see are:
First, newscasters and weather reporters have very little real understanding of the basic science of storms. And I’m talking BASIC. The TV or radio news producers who are mostly young Comm graduates are just as bad. They pull out the PAGASA bulletin and rehash the warnings with little understanding of what it really means. So the stories end up as repetitive cut-and-paste templates, much like the bulletins they were culled from.
The same goes for most online news reports. Since there are no real meteorologists and forecasters who can present their own analysis of the situation or interpret a press release adequately, everyone has to depend on a template or a PAGASA presscon.
Second, PAGASA is the official forecaster of the Philippines, therefore no one must question what it says—forgetting that to question is good science, not treason. No media outlet will deign to put out any other analysis or early report, even as a blog.
Third, TV weather reporting has always been personality-based. Some may remember Amado Pineda who was a meteorologist from PAGASA and was a long-time weatherman for GMA-7. Unfortunately, he was spoofed by Tessie Tomas as Amanda Pineda, and so subsequent weathercasters lost the gravitas that has now become necessary in this era of climate change. Ernie Baron and his pitu-pito and pyramid hat had an even worse negative impact on the credibility of weathermen.
Kuya Kim follows in the footsteps of Ernie with some Steve Irwin thrown in. Lourd made weather reporting fun and entertaining. And then of course, there is the weathergirl—and we can go as far back as Malu Maglutac in the early ’80s, to Bettina Magsaysay, Lia Cruz. So far I don’t believe we have resorted to bikinis, or dogs or cats making cameos during a broadcast.
Fourth, the reporter becomes the story. See the handsome reporter teetering on the edge of a wall to be blasted into a future of stardom. See the tears and pain of a news reporter visiting her hometown and watching a church roof blown away. These are stories where the reporters become a bigger story than the typhoon.
Fifth, weather disaster porn: There’s got to be a “human interest” story—I’m told this is an absolute must for ratings and so the masa audience does not change channels. You have to show how miserable the situation is. Of one family. That represents the whole situation, it seems.
Lastly, we have been nurtured on traditional knowledge as if that is static and unchanging. For example: There are two monsoon seasons, the southwest and the northeast. In truth, the monsoon cycle is very complex and there is much more than just the habagat and the amihan. We are stuck in post-war textbook knowledge when the field of monsoon studies is actually dynamic and ever expanding. We also have preconceived notions. For example, [the notion that] El Niño means no rain. Actually, our fiercest typhoons usually happen during an El Niño year.
Has weather reportage changed since Ondoy?
In many ways, some things have not changed. Honestly, I haven’t watched TV for three or four years now. And I don’t listen to radio at all. I get all my information online. And everything I read now, I take with a healthy ounce of doubt.
I do know that after Ondoy and Sendong, there was a mad scramble to get the latest weather tools for TV. The three top stations at the time—GMA, ABS-CBN, and TV5—were adapting new delivery systems that combined not only fancy graphics, but also forecasting tools.
When it comes to online weather, no one has succeeded. Both ABS-CBN and TV5 were never big players. GMA’s online “I M Ready” remains a dismal failure. Mainly because there is no one currently that has a good grasp on communicating weather. The reports on weather that I have seen for most online news agencies are rehashed PAGASA bulletins.
"For about five years, I spent at least ten hours a day, reading, analyzing, testing myself."
Can you walk us through how you learned meteorology? How difficult was it?
Let me qualify that: I am still learning. The first thing I did was organize my sources. I hunted for websites, journals, books, course curricula, in order to set my path. I reviewed my physics and read dozens of textbooks and hundreds of scientific papers. I downloaded and studied annual reports from JTWC (Joint Typhoon Warning Center) from 1959 to the latest, and JMA (Japan Meteorological Agency) and whatever was available online from PAGASA (very little).
I studied the tracking of typhoons, especially those that were forecast badly, like Typhoon Fengshen (Frank), which resulted in massive death and destruction. For about five years, I spent at least ten hours a day, reading, analyzing, testing myself. The MetEd courses are helpful for specialty practical courses—for example, the process of flash flooding, or identifying oil spills in the ocean, or how to determine if there will be a storm surge.
It was as difficult as I made it. Because I haven’t stopped, you just keep tackling the next thing you want to learn.
How much time out of your day goes into K’s Weather and studying the weather?
It varies. Each day I spend at least an hour checking satellite imagery, probabilities of cyclone development, checking tectonic and volcanic activity, as well as solar weather. Then I spend another hour reading up on more long-term climate phenomena, like ENSO [El Niño–Southern Oscillation] or the MJO [Madden-Julian Oscillation], the state of the monsoon, and the latest in conspiracy theories.
If there’s an imminent system developing, then I check its status every half-hour. If the system is targeting the Philippines or will come close enough to be worrisome, then I can be online for 24 to 36 hours, watching, analyzing, and answering inquiries. Summer is lighter because there are very few storms, so even if I still do the one to two hours of monitoring a day, I am able to give more time to doing modules and reading the latest papers in science journals.
Tell us about your experience managing the K’s Weather Facebook page. What has been most fulfilling about it? What has been most difficult about it?
The most fulfilling is to know that I do help in some way. I get messages from followers who tell me that if not for my warnings, which they heed, they would have lost valuables in flooding. Or it’s 3:00 A.M. and you’re chatting with someone whose dad is captaining a ship traversing the ocean as a typhoon rages towards Taiwan, and she needs someone to reassure her. Or a college kid who posts that he was inspired to study meteorology because of my page.
The most difficult? Running out of coffee when you know there’s a mean typhoon you need to watch and you weren’t planning on sleeping.
To what extent should the layman be educated about the weather?
I used to think that everyone should be educated about the weather.
I don’t think that anymore. In my eight years of K’s Weather, I have learned that most people don’t care to learn. They just want to be told. They want a simple answer to simple questions: Will it rain? Will it flood? Am I in danger? Most people can’t be bothered to understand the whys. They want certainty (which they will never get), they want you to decide for them (which I will never do). They just want to be safe.
So, no, they don’t need to understand that you need low pressure and weak wind shear and high sea surface temperatures to make a storm. But they need to be educated about the effects of the weather, and of course climate change.
Why is good weather reportage important?
The raison d’être for a weather report is to warn and warn well. It is not just news to inform, but news that calls to action, to prepare, to make your followers safe and secure. If it does not do that, then it is a complete failure.
Post-event reporting should serve to inform on the outcome of the storm, and assess the threat and the warning of the threat so that next time, forecasting and reporting can be even better, and in turn make people safer and more secure.