In 2001, Eric Berger was at a Bob Schneider concert in Houston when Tropical Storm Allison rolled in. Within minutes, the torrential rainfall drumming against the club’s roof drowned out the music. Berger tried to drive home, but flash flooding forced him to abandon his car on a median and walk the rest of the way, avoiding chest-high water in places. He arrived at his newly purchased house in Oak Forest, just outside Loop 610 in northwest Houston, to discover water lapping at the door, just feet from his $6,000 wide-screen television. Although his home was spared, Berger, then a science journalist at the Houston Chronicle, was determined never to be caught unprepared again.
“I had no idea Houston could flood like that,” Berger recalled. “I was like, why didn’t I realize this was going to happen?” Today, the 48-year-old Michigan native is perhaps Houston’s most respected weather expert. Space City Weather, the website he founded in 2015 with fellow meteorologist Matt Lanza, receives between 10,000 and 20,000 page views on a slow weather day. When extreme weather strikes, as it often does in Houston, readership skyrockets. As Hurricane Laura, a category 4 storm, barreled toward southeast Texas last year, the site hit its record of 1.6 million daily page views.
Although Berger is a technology enthusiast—his blog at the Chronicle, where he worked from 1998 to 2015, was called SciGuy—Space City Weather is a decidedly no-frills affair. It’s essentially a weather blog, with daily posts by Berger or Lanza summarizing the day’s relevant information and offering their best forecasts. The maps and radar displays are rudimentary, and because the site has a single sponsor (Houston energy company Reliant), there’s no intrusive advertising. The site’s tagline is “hype-free forecasts,” and that’s exactly what it delivers.
After weathering Tropical Storm Allison, followed four years later by Hurricane Rita, Berger enrolled in Mississippi State University’s online meteorology program while still working at the Chronicle. Although the program gave him a rigorous grounding in the science of the weather, Berger’s main interest was in how to convey information to readers in an appealing way. “It’s all about how you communicate,” he said. “It’s about knowing how to speak to people, to tell them what we know and what we don’t.” Upon finishing the course in 2014, Berger became the Chronicle’s resident meteorologist (with help from the New Jersey–born Lanza) on top of his other job covering NASA and space exploration. The pair’s forecasts attracted a loyal readership, so starting their own website seemed like a logical progression. “What I’ve found over the years is that once people find a meteorologist they like, they stick with them,” Lanza told me. “Sometimes we get compliments thrown our way even when our forecasts weren’t one hundred percent accurate.”
Space City Weather started as a side project for both meteorologists. After leaving his newspaper job, Berger moved to the science-focused website Ars Technica, where he covers NASA and the private aerospace industry. Lanza has worked since 2014 as the lead meteorologist for Houston-based Cheniere Energy, a producer of liquefied natural gas. Space City Weather maintained a loyal but modest following until August 2017, when Hurricane Harvey left a wide swath of southeast Texas underwater. Over the course of the storm, the site received about four million page views. “There’s before Harvey and then after Harvey,” Lanza explained. “That’s the point when Space City Weather became more than just a side project. It actually became a kind of community service.”
Houston has never suffered from a lack of weather coverage. But while the local TV news is awash in flashy graphics and meteorologists who have a tendency to hyperventilate, Space City Weather cuts through the bullshit. Berger has been known to single out local TV news stations on Twitter for overhyping storms such as 2019’s Tropical Storm Karen while underhyping truly dangerous storms like Harvey. “Our readers know they’re going to get everything we know, and they’re going to get it in a way that’s not just informative but empathetic,” Lanza said. “People here are very unnerved after the last few years. There’s a lot of PTSD. So we try to show that we’re going through this with them.”
That’s especially true for Berger, who lives with his family in League City, north of Galveston on Trinity Bay. Although the main living areas in his home are on the second floor, he knows he’s vulnerable to storm surge from incoming hurricanes, including “The Big One”—a category 4 or 5 hurricane striking directly at the Houston Ship Channel, as Hurricane Ike threatened to do in 2008 before it shifted slightly south toward Galveston Island. “You’re talking power outages for weeks, if not months,” Berger said. All the petroleum and chemical facilities that line the Houston Ship Channel would flood, spilling deadly chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico and knocking a substantial portion of America’s refining capacity offline. This is the worst-case scenario the so-called Ike Dike is meant to prevent.
After the busy 2020 hurricane season, which saw a record-high thirty named storms, eleven of which made landfall in the United States, 2021 promises to be a little quieter, Berger said. But he warns that the region can’t let its guard down. With climate change accelerating, residents of the Gulf Coast can expect a future of even more powerful hurricanes and rain events. “While there probably won’t be more hurricanes as a result of climate change, the stronger storms will get stronger,” Berger explained. Warmer ocean temperatures increase precipitation, and rising sea levels exacerbate storm surge. “The heavy precipitation events that we’re seeing will become more intense, and the intermittent droughts will become worse.”
Berger has also highlighted Houston’s mixed response to the threat of increasingly dangerous weather. Though much of the city bounced back quickly from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, many low-income homeowners are still fighting for relief funds to rebuild their flooded homes. Federal funding, which is funneled through the state’s General Land Office, has been snared in bureaucratic red tape for years; Harris County and other low-lying coastal communities initially received no funding in the most recent round before a political outcry forced land commissioner George P. Bush to backtrack. And while Houston has completed a few flood-mitigation projects, much remains to be done. “We’re more vulnerable to flooding now than we were during Harvey,” Berger said. “We keep building developments in floodplains, paving over the prairies, all these things that make disasters worse.”
As he’s launched his own meteorology site, Berger’s long-standing interest in space travel hasn’t abated. He grew up reading science fiction, and attended college at the University of Texas at Austin because of its strong astronomy department. One of Berger’s last reporting projects at the Chronicle was a year-long investigative series titled “Adrift,” about the demise of NASA’s shuttle program and the organization’s general sense of malaise. Berger came away from his reporting convinced that the future of space exploration was in the hands of private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
“NASA has become a bureaucracy,” he said. “It has tens of thousands of employees, with ten centers spread across the country that are all trying to compete for federal money.” After successfully landing humans on the moon, NASA lost much of its sense of purpose. That was where Musk, with his audacious plan to colonize Mars, came into the picture. “What’s refreshing about SpaceX is that from the beginning Musk was like, ‘Mars in the goal,’” Berger said.
At Ars Technica, Berger became one of the two dozen or so professional space journalists in the country, giving him a ringside seat for SpaceX’s explosive growth. He met Musk for the first time at a Falcon 9 launch in 2018; as it turned out, the South African–born billionaire was a fan of his journalism. At the time, Berger was writing a book about SpaceX’s 2002 founding and its early efforts to develop a rocket. Although Musk is notoriously press-averse, he ultimately agreed to cooperate on the book, granting Berger extended interviews and encouraging SpaceX staffers to do the same. The book, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, was published in March to strong reviews in the Financial Times, Forbes, and elsewhere.
Although cognizant of Musk’s blind spots—he wasn’t thrilled about the tech mogul’s COVID-19 denialism, for instance—Berger shares his belief in colonizing Mars. “Humans eventually need to go to other stars and live on other worlds,” Berger told me. “Some people don’t think we should pollute the galaxy, but I think we need to expand out into the galaxy, or we’ll eventually die. So when Elon says we’re going to become a multiplanetary species, that’s the long-term vision. And Mars is the closest, least-worst option.”
With a poisonous atmosphere and an average temperature of minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit, the Red Planet may not seem hospitable to civilization. Then again, if humans can live in Houston, perhaps they can live anywhere. And if we do start a colony on Mars, it will probably need a meteorologist.
Berger is available.