Use Your Words

February 1, 2014 · 1 comment

In the halls of Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center this week you can say “drought.” You can say “polar vortex” if you please (add some spice and make it “circumpolar“ if you wish).

You will say a lot of things at this 94th AMS Annual Meeting and chances are you won’t get a sidelong glance because you’ll be doing what scientists always do: talk passionately about what words mean and what pixels, patterns, and numbers say.

Out on the street, however, perhaps this is not the place. You may not remember, but amidst a droughty 2011 Georgia was where the governor terminated the state climatologist’s office without warning while they were using the “D” word uncomfortably often. This little scientific wound opened again during the snowfall that became a traffic crisis and finger-pointing exercise this past week in Atlanta. Turns out, it is nice to have a designated expert on hand when—should we say, before?–the weather turns on you.

John Knox, Marshall Shepherd (who are both University of Georgia faculty), and Bill Hooke (of AMS’s Policy Program) have been actively exploring the the flow of scientific information to and from decision makers. But we’re about to get into a week of intense information flow of our own—mostly within our scientific community—so it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the value of words and finding a time to exchange them properly. This week is our biggest opportunity to talk freely.

In the greater society we are basically retreating from to be here in Atlanta amongst friends and colleagues, words get twisted, become loaded, and generally turn into obstacles. The kerfuffle over the meaning of “polar vortex” has been a classic example this winter. Scientists are forced to shovel up the mess.

This is obviously not a problem in Georgia alone. In California arguments over whether or not to embrace the “D” word reached the highest levels of government this past month.  Of all the arguments to and fro about whether Governor Jerry Brown ought to declare a drought emergency for the state midway through the rainy season, one of the most telling was this:

As Governor Brown considers declaring a drought emergency, perhaps he should look to his own citizens as his audience. A drought declaration would not only draw the attention of federal officials. It would also serve as a wake-up call for Californians, underscoring the crisis at hand. It’s time we get serious about water conservation in the long term. A drought declaration could be the first step to real, sustainable lifestyle changes that keep both our water use and our water crises under control.

Sometimes indeed it takes an act of politics to get people to use an important word like “drought”. By contrast, here in Atlanta all we need is for a few thousand scientists to agree on a time and a place.  The “D” word is everywhere. On Sunday evening a team of Purdue faculty and students show a poster (Hall C3) on thermodynamic soundings in a recent drought. On Tuesday (4:30 PM, C213) Ekaterina Altman of the University of South Carolina discusses the role of indices in drought management. And so on. You might even be sick of the “D” word by the end of the week, but not if Mark Shafer of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey has his way on Thursday (C107, 11 AM):

We’ve been talking about the Southern Plains drought for 3 years now. What is left to be said? Plenty!

Use the “D” word. Let “PV” pass through your lips—whether or not you mean polar vortex or, more likely, potential vorticity. Let the words fly.