Climate

Weather subscription services are increasingly essential on an overheating Earth

As the climate changes and weather becomes more unstable, people are turning to personalized weather service subscriptions.

Lightning shoots down in two forks in the night sky.

Subscription weather services can help shine a light on the increasingly erratic weather.

Photo: Shlomo Shalev via Unsplash

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In the beginning, there was the local weatherman providing the day’s forecast with the morning news. Then came the Weather Channel and its local on the 8s. More recently, free or low-cost apps have proliferated on smartphones.

But as the climate changes and the weather becomes more apocalyptic, relying on a few weather dispatches throughout the day via the local news or even the Apple weather app isn’t enough for some. A growing number of people are subscribing to hyperlocalized and activity-specific apps and websites to keep ahead of the ever-changing weather.

Eric Holthaus, meteorologist, writer and founder of the service Currently, said people are increasingly interested in weather information that is specific to their needs and location, and not just to the city they live in.

“Weather has always had a very personal relationship between people and the environment, and we’re trying to build a weather service that reflects that,” he said.

Currently is fairly new on the scene, having launched in June 2021. It provides daily, local weather newsletters written by meteorologists and other weather experts who live where they’re writing about. For power users, the service also offers on-demand text communication with those meteorologists, who answer such varied questions as “what was that weird cloud?” or “how heavy of a jacket should I wear to the baseball game tonight?”

The service tends to see subscriptions surge in the days leading up to a major weather event or crisis; the January blizzard in Boston was Currently’s biggest day for picking up subscribers so far, per Holthaus. It operates in 17 cities across the U.S., the Caribbean and Europe, with New York and the Dominican Republic as the two most-subscribed newsletters.

There are other services that serve a very specific audience, such as Surfline. The surf forecasting company has existed since 1985 — early users received surf reports via fax machine — that has evolved into a mobile subscription service that reaches 5.1 million people each month and conducts roughly 250 billion calculations on ocean and weather conditions daily.

“We like to think of ourselves as the most advanced ocean forecasting platform and global subscription business,” said Kyle Laughlin, the company’s CEO. “People use the platform as frequently as they check their email.”

Climate change has added urgency to the forecast. Carbon pollution is now making nearly every heat wave more intense or likely. It’s also contributed to an uptick in heavy downpours and explosive wildfires and helped sear in a megadrought across the West. Currently, in particular, tries to make that connection clear in its local forecasts, in part to encourage both personal and political action.

“People have their attention focused on the weather during those high-impact events, and that's also when they realize that systems need to change around climate,” Holthaus said. “So we provide those messages of the climate science behind weather events as they're happening for that reason.”

The climate crisis has also changed Surfline’s work. Rising sea levels are affecting beaches and surf breaks around the world, while tropical cyclones are likely growing more intense. In the Atlantic, hurricanes and tropical storms have become more common in recent decades and a growing number have appeared outside of traditional hurricane season, which runs from June to November.

Kurt Korte, director of Atlantic Forecasting for Surfline, said the surf season is beginning earlier on the East Coast as a result. Whereas surfers may once have been able to time their trips to the shore to a predictable season, forecasting has become an increasingly complex enterprise in recent decades, which Surfline parses for its growing base of subscribers.

“We’ve had the ability to see those changes and adjust to them, and apply those changes going forward,” said Korte, in reference to shifting meteorological events. “And if you have a change in sea level, that can impact where the waves break, the shape of the waves and how big they are.”

And there is opportunity for these services to expand beyond individual plans, especially as climate change continues to make weather more violent; demand has emerged from both the public and private sector for hyperspecific weather and wave data that can allow companies to plan for extreme events that could do everything from disrupt the supply chain to cancel events.

Currently is starting a B2B weather service, providing the same sorts of interactive information to weather-sensitive clients like wedding venues, flood restoration companies and outdoor sporting sites and events.

And Surfline’s models, which incorporate 37 years of meteorological and wave data as well as its extensive webcam network, are not used purely for surfers looking to catch the perfect wave. State and municipal agencies have turned to Surfline for the seabed and coastal erosion data that the company’s fleet of cameras and other monitoring devices have been providing for years. The company has a partnership that provides California State Parks with data to create an erosion strategy for San Onofre, where a decommissioned nuclear power plant abuts the shoreline.

“What we’ve found is that people who work in municipalities and governments and educational agencies that are studying these challenges happen to be surfers, and they understand from a consumer perspective the value of those cameras and what we've been able to provide,” Laughlin said.

Surfline also announced an agreement with Fox Weather in January, giving Fox exclusive broadcast rights to its 500 cameras set up at breaks worldwide; Laughlin cited “tremendous demand” for those feeds when major storms hit the coast.

Subscription weather services can help shine a light on the increasingly erratic weather. “As a forecaster, observation is our goal,” said Korte. “If you have the ability to know what the atmosphere is doing at any particular time, it makes your ability to forecast what's going to happen so much easier. Otherwise, you're kind of just taking a stab in the dark.”

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