Written By Alicia Wasula
Being a meteorologist who does not work in media, I get a lot of questions about what I do. Most people assume that meteorologists work on or for a TV station, and while that is not wrong, there are so many other careers in meteorology and related fields that fly ‘under the radar’ (pun intended), including forensic meteorology. In this blog space, we have interviewed and highlighted some of these different career paths (see here, here and here), and when we go to schools, we always talk about the many ways which someone can use a meteorology degree. Today, I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at the area of ‘forensic meteorology’, which is what we at STM Weather specialize in.
Forensic meteorology? What is that?
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences states that forensic science is any science which is ‘used for the purposes of the law’, and that forensic scientists are the experts which attorneys turn to when ‘objective, scientific analysis is needed to find the truth and to seek justice in a legal proceeding’. Our meteorologists here at STM weather do exactly what this definition states. We work with attorneys when they have a case which involves the weather in some way. Many weather records which we use in our analyses are kept in government archives at the National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI). Thus, anyone can download these records for free and use them. However, just like medical records, meteorological records can be difficult for a lay person to interpret and so most attorneys will consult with a meteorologist for assistance in reviewing these records.
Who do forensic meteorologists work with?
We have a form on our website which anyone can fill out to request a meteorological analysis. In the vast majority of cases, we work with plaintiff’s or defense attorneys, but sometimes we are contacted by insurance companies directly, or even regular citizens! One of the first things we do, prior to engaging in a formal work relationship with a client, is to run a conflict check. Why is this important? A forensic meteorologist may be called to testify in court to explain about their research and opinions. Just like in many other fields, ethics are paramount; it is for this reason that many attorneys choose to work with Certified Consulting Meteorologists. You can read about the CCM program and other meteorological credentials in a blog which I wrote here. It would be highly unethical for an expert witness, as court experts are known, to work for both plaintiff’s and defense attorneys in the same case. Why would this matter? Wouldn’t we do the scientific analysis and come up with the same result or opinion, no matter which side we work for? Yes, but it’s more than just that. We can do meteorological analysis for either side in any particular case, but by working for both sides of the same case, we open ourselves up to potentially learning legal strategies or other confidential information on one or both sides. This presents a classic conflict of interest. Other conflicts of interest we look for during a conflict check include things like: Do I have any affiliation with either side which may give me an actual or apparent bias in the outcome of this case? Have we worked on any other cases for the same plaintiff/defendant? Not all of these situations result in an actual conflict of interest, but it is important to do due diligence and carefully consider the possibilities before taking on a new case.
How do meteorologists reconstruct the weather conditions?
This is my favorite part of the process! Forensic meteorology is heavily reliant on observations. We begin by conducting a data search around the area of the incident for nearby observing sites. There are pros and cons to each type of data. Some sites have hourly observations, but not snowfall or snow depth measurements. Other sites have precipitation and snowfall/depth reports, but only on a once daily basis. The foundation of any good analysis is finding and choosing the best, or most representative, data points which will form the basis of the opinion. Sometimes the closest sites are not the best ones, especially if the nearest observing site has large differences in elevation compared to the incident site. Some data is not available for certification by NOAA, which is also a factor to consider (NOAA certified data is generally accepted into court proceedings without question). The New York State Mesonet, which came online in 2016, has become an invaluable data source for our cases in New York, and even occasionally into surrounding states. We also look at radar to determine timing and intensity of precipitation, and depending on the case we may also use satellite, lightning strike data, and severe weather reports.
This data is then analyzed to piece together a timeline of key weather events and developed into a meteorological chronology, along with a timeline of National Weather Service Watches, Warnings, Advisories and Statements to give a full picture of what was known when, and what the situation looked like at and before the time of the incident. There may be other non-meteorological documentation which we are asked to review as well, such as photos from near or after the time of the incident, accident reports, or witness testimony about the weather conditions. While these are important pieces of information, we always let the meteorological evidence guide our analysis and ultimately rely on that analysis to form our final opinion.
What happens after a meteorological analysis is complete?
Next, we brief our clients about what happened leading up to the time of the incident. This might be a Zoom meeting, particularly if there are graphics to display, but more often it is just a simple phone call. Generally after that point, we will put our findings into a written report. We can also order the certified copies of the weather records from NOAA at this time as well. Sometimes, the client requests that our findings be put into an affidavit, to be submitted to the court as part of a motion or other proceeding. In that case, it is necessary to have the document notarized.
Do meteorologists ever have to testify at trial?
Yes! However, most of the cases which we work on settle out of court. Trial preparation involves meetings with the client (usually in person), reviewing all case documents, preparing a binder of the case file, and preparation of any graphics which will be used as part of the testimony. While nerve-wracking, trial testimony is an important part of any expert’s work, and successful communication of sometimes difficult-to-understand meteorological topics to a jury is crucial for success. It is here that I have found my teaching background to be very helpful. Addressing the jury directly during direct examination, using graphical aids to help explain the weather chronology, can sometimes feel just like being in a classroom! It is gratifying (and even enjoyable!) when you can engage the jury and they nod their heads in understanding as you explain how you formed your opinion and what data you based that opinion on. The role of the expert is to inform the court, not to advocate for one side or the other. Thus, clearly stating your opinions and reasoning is paramount.
I hope this discussion has given you a little window into the niche area of forensic meteorology, which is our specialty here at STM Weather. Kelly and I both thoroughly enjoy all aspects of this work- it is challenging and varied. Careful analysis of weather observations, as well as talking with non-scientists about meteorology, are things we both enjoy and we count ourselves so fortunate to be able to do what we love each day.