People & Culture

Featured Fellow: Johanna Wagstaffe

The author and meteorologist discusses the need to understand how the world works and how climate change reporting has evolved throughout her career

  • Jun 26, 2023
  • 942 words
  • 4 minutes
On location for an episode of Planet Wonder, all about forecasting. (Photo: Richard Grundy)
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Johanna Wagstaffe’s interest in the natural sciences began as a child while living in Tokyo for a few years with her family. She remembers feeling earthquake tremors as a little girl and wanting to know more about why they happen. Now, as a seismologist and meteorologist with CBC News Vancouver and CBC News Network, Wagstaffe educates and informs the public about the science behind weather, natural disasters and climate change. She also dedicates her time to teaching young people about science and has written three educational books for children. Wagstaffe was named a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2022.

On becoming a meteorologist

I’ve always wanted to get into science but specifically the natural sciences, and understanding how the world works. That’s what led me to want to study meteorology. During my [studies], I realized how much I loved communicating the things that I was learning, and that’s when I realized that I wanted to be a science communicator. Fifteen years ago, that wasn’t really a field, so the way in was through broadcast meteorology. I always had the hope that I could use that as a platform to share science stories from across Canada.

On how climate change reporting has changed during her career

First of all, we don’t need to convince the world that it’s happening anymore. So our messaging has changed when it comes to climate change storytelling. Now we’re trying to tell people that we actually have the solutions, and we’re honing in on exactly what our future looks like. In the past five years, unfortunately, Canada has seen its fair share of climate change-infused weather disasters firsthand. I think for a lot of people, that was sort of a galvanizing moment to realize that we do need to take action.

In B.C., we just had an exceptional couple of years that started with the heat dome in the summer of 2021. I had a two-year-old son at the time, and I was trying to report around the clock on this heat dome that killed so many people while also trying to keep my own family safe. That same summer, we had another record-breaking wildfire season which sparked the fire that destroyed Litton. Then in the fall, the atmospheric river was the costliest weather disaster we’ve ever seen. As a meteorologist who studies this, I was caught off guard by the relentlessness. We knew that any one of these events could happen with climate change, but to see three of them play out and feed off each other in succession was really scary.

On working with children

Talking to kids is always my favourite because they have no inhibitions, so they ask all the questions that we’re afraid to ask. And they just get so enthusiastic, especially about weather, the bigger the disaster, the better.

I love asking kids about what kind of weather events stick in their mind. It’s amazing how different events in their childhood are marked by these weather events, and they have such a curiosity for what’s happening. Something that I’ve also seen in talking to kids over the past 15 years is there’s a level of climate anxiety that wasn’t there when I was a kid because [now] we are living it. So the more we can empower kids with knowledge, the less afraid they’ll feel, and the more they’ll know what to do the next time severe weather hits.

On learning something new about her grandmother

When I was writing the book [Fault Lines: Understanding the Power of Earthquakes], I was sharing the different interviews with my grandmother. She just casually mentioned, “Oh, yeah, we lived through an earthquake, a pretty big one in Australia.” I’d never heard the story before. The earthquake was quite damaging for the communities closest, but luckily my mom happened to be out on an excursion with her school. It was surprising to hear that my family wasn’t together during the earthquake, and that’s what really stuck with me. It really brought home what so many families must feel when they are separated. Everyone was okay in this case, but it made me want to emphasize to people the importance of having that plan during a disaster.

On the importance of family

I moved here to British Columbia from Ontario about 10 years ago, and it was just my husband and I and my younger sister. Then over the years, [the rest of my family] moved, so now we’re all here on the West Coast. I have my son, and I’m expecting a daughter in a couple of months, so spending time with family is so important to me. I also really enjoy flying with my dad. We both have a private pilot’s license and every few weekends, we will go up together in his vintage 1943 World War II tail dragger. It is super fun to see the world from that perspective.

On the future

I feel more optimistic now despite [knowing more] about how fast things are happening than I ever have. When I went to the climate change conference a couple years ago in Glasgow I met with young people all around the world and realized that their message was the same, which is that we can do it, and we have the solutions. [Young people] have shown us that dire storytelling and dire messaging aren’t going to help anyone take action. When I see the small things that young people are including in their life and how that inspires them to then take a bigger step and the ripple effects, that’s what keeps me hopeful.

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