Our Stories

Weather Woodles

Weather Woodles

By Emily Senesac (emily.senesac@noaa.gov)

As communication technology began to expand in the 1970s and 80s, so did public awareness and understanding of weather. Americans across the country, regardless of location, age, or profession, were more exposed than ever to information about weather science and potential hazards that could occur. However, despite this newfound public understanding, one demographic was not included: children under the age of nine. This discrepancy was recognized in the 1980s by Carolyn Willis, longtime NWS employee and creator of the Weather Woodles. 

The Weather Woodles are, as one can deduce from the alliterative and rather funny name, cartoon creatures designed to help young children understand how weather works. In fact, the name “Woodle” originated from Carolyn’s own adolescence: it was her little sister’s childhood nickname. Using colored pencils to create the first ever Woodles, Carolyn took photos of these drawings with a 35mm camera and transferred them onto slide film. “The agency only gave talks to older students fourth grade and up,” explains Willis. “I wanted something younger kids could relate to, so I drew the Woodles.”

Although the Weather Woodles didn’t officially make their way to the NWS until the 1980s, Carolyn’s first Woodle character was drawn back in 1973 when she first started at the agency. In those days, before the existence of the Weather Channel or the Internet, the WSFO in Great Falls (where Carolyn worked) partnered with the local cable company to establish a local weather channel. This project consisted of a live continuous broadcast to a local cable channel, featuring a singular camera that focused on individual slots holding informational forecast note cards. As the resident artist, Carolyn’s job was to create and update the cards for the channel -- but she felt that the forecast plainly typed out on the card wasn’t visually appealing enough. Instead, she drew and colored the first ever Woodles onto these notecards: smiling cartoon sun faces, clouds with puffed up cheeks, and fuzzy “Woodles” explaining the weather conditions adorned these otherwise drab cards. Carolyn made all of the cards ahead of time, so the forecasters manning the channel could easily grab whichever Woodle depicted their forecast and add the necessary words to prepare it for broadcast. 

Today, it’s clear to see the Weather Woodles have come a long way since those weather forecast note cards. After copyrighting the characters in the 1980s, Carolyn gave the NWS a copyright release and made sure that every NWS office had a set of Woodles drawings. As technology continued to change, new depictions of the Woodles were created using new mediums -- even a coloring book was designed and released. Additionally, the most recent edition of Woodles drawings includes information about fire weather, a hazard that had not been previously depicted or mentioned. In 1995, Carolyn Willis won the NOAA Administrator Award for her creation of the Woodles, as well as her determination to help young children understand weather concepts.

While Carolyn Willis retired in 2014, the legacy of the Weather Woodles remains present today. Moving forward, Carolyn hopes that the Woodles will continue to be updated and modernized to fit the needs of today’s children, even toying with the idea of creating an animated version of these fuzzy, beloved creatures.