COVID-19 and the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise

by Mary Glackin, AMS President

In normal times, our thousands of AMS professionals and colleagues are completely dedicated to helping people make the best possible weather-, water-, and climate-related decisions. In this COVID-19 period, were not just providing critical information; we are also receiving it. We are each of us following guidance from public health experts and local officials so that we can keep ourselves, our families, and our friends safe and well. We’re joining in the national and global efforts to “flatten the curve.”

amsseal-blueWe all continue to work, but these duties are now competing with new ones: caring for children who would normally be in school, searching for basic necessities that would routinely be in stock on supermarket shelves, protecting elderly friends and family members. With campuses and laboratories shut down, professors and students have scrambled to adjust to online teaching and reimagining plans for field experiments. Nonetheless, critical weather and hydrologic services are provided with sharp eyes for spring floods and convective weather. Preparations for the coming hurricane season are moving forward.

COVID-19 doesn’t “slightly tweak” the task of building a Weather-Ready Nation; it completely rearranges the landscape. Goals of shelter-in-place and evacuation have to be reconfigured for a world where we are advised by health experts to maintain physical separation from others—more than a challenge in a communal evacuation center.

COVID-19 provides a unique learning opportunity for all of us in the Enterprise. We can experience firsthand how even the best-intended top-down risk communication can sound to someone in harm’s way—and step up our own communications accordingly.

Finally, it’s worth noting as AMS embarks on its second century that our founding coincided with the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. The link between weather, water, climate, and public health (enshrined in the AMS seal) has been integral to building a sustainable and resilient world, and it will likely play a larger role in the future.

Thank you for maintaining essential services and supporting research and education during such a critical, difficult time. Stay well, and stay safe—and at the same time, stay focused, on our contributions to a safer, healthier world.

Snowflake Selfies as Meteo Teaching Tools

Undergrads at Penn State recently took to their cellphones to mingle with and snap pics of tiny snowflakes to reinforce meteorological concepts. The class, called “Snowflake Selfies” and described in a new paper in BAMS, was designed to use low-cost, low-tech methods that can be widely adapted at other institutions to engage students in hands-on field research.

In addition to photographing snow crystals, students measured snowfall amounts and snow-to-liquid ratios, and then gained meteorological insight into the observations using radar data and thermodynamic soundings. The goal of the course was to reinforce concepts from their other undergraduate meteorology courses, such as atmospheric thermodynamics, cloud physics, and radar and mesoscale meteorology.

As a writing intensive course at Penn State that meets the communication skills requirement of the AMS guidance for a Bachelor’s Degree in Atmospheric Science, “Snowflake Selfies” also was designed to help students communicate meteorological science. Students shared their observations with the local National Weather Service office in State College and also wrote up their work in term papers and presented their pics and findings to the class.

Snow crystal photographs taken by students in the "Snowflake Selfies" class.
Snow crystal photos taken by students in the “Snowflake Selfies” class.


Of course to have such a class, you need snow, and “the relative lack of snowfall events during the observational period” in winter 2018 was definitively a challenge for students, the BAMS paper states. Pennsylvania’s long winters often see many opportunities to photograph snow, but the course creators caution that perhaps a longer observational period is needed in case nature doesn’t cooperate. It also would allow students enough time to closely observe snowflakes while juggling their other classes and activities.

A survey conducted at the end of the class found that “Snowflake Selfies” was well received by students, engaging them and encouraging their introduction to field science. And they “strongly agreed [it] helped reinforce their understanding of cloud physics and physical meteorology compared to” a previous such course where students designed, built, and deployed their own 3-D printed rain gauges to measure precipitation.

Actually, that previous course sounds like a lot of fun, too!

Time Machines, Horse Ploppies…Richard Alley Will Do the Talking Today

From his book and PBS-TV series, “Earth: The Operator’s Manual,” to his renowned lectures at Penn State, Dr. Richard Alley is known for his humorous descriptions about serious science. Today he is the featured speaker as the 98th Annual AMS Annual Meeting begins in Austin, Texas.  Richard Alley
At the 18th AMS Presidential Forum  (4 pm, Ballroom D) Dr. Alley will use his unique brand of communication to discuss why communicating science to the public is no longer optional, but rather an imperative.
Dr. Alley, a renowned glaciologist and climate scientist, has a way with words. His colorful metaphors–like The Two-Mile Time Machine, the title his award-winning popular book about ice cores–put complex scientific issues into a comfortable perspective for perplexed audiences.
Last May, a couple months before a large piece of Antarctica’s Larson C ice shelf broke off,  Rolling Stone published an article about  potential catastrophic collapse of West Antarctica ice. In it, Dr. Alley explained that the Larson C breakage would not necessarily be an “end-of-the-world screaming hairy disaster conniption fit.”
And here, transcribed from a 2012 talk at the Smithsonian in which Dr. Alley explained the impact of burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2:

“You fill up a car and it’s a fairly big tank–you’re putting in a hundred pounds of gasoline. If you had to bring it home in gallon jugs it’d be a different world. But you drive off with it. And when you burn it — you add oxygen — and that makes CO2, and it goes out the tailpipe and you don’t see that 300 pounds per fill-up. Now, our students really get a kick out of it: at this point you say okay, suppose that our transportation system packaged the CO2 in a way we could see it … as horse ploppies…It’s a pound per mile driven for a typical vehicle in the fleet at this point. Ya know … Nnnnn — thffft. Nnnnn — thffft …. Our CO2 turned to the density of horse ploppies and spread over the roads of America would cover every road in America an inch deep every year. On average. Okay. In a decade … there are no joggers. We’d all be cross-country skiers. If we saw this it would be a completely different world. But it just drifts away and we don’t even see it.”

Sunday’s keynote talk at the Presidential Forum is likely to be just as, ummm, vivid. Simple but powerful. Definitely memorable.
It’s exactly the way Alley envisions engaging the public: by building the broad understanding necessary to make science actionable.

Hanging Out with Women in Weather

Today’s Google hangout on “Women in Weather,” cohosted by AMS and the American Astronautical Society and presented by Northrop Grumman, featured an insightful and wide-ranging discussion about what it means to be a woman in the atmospheric sciences. But the conversation wasn’t just among the panelists–it was also active on Twitter. If you missed the live broadcast of the hangout, you can watch it below, and check out the sampling of tweets underneath the video.



From Florida, A Reminder About Freedom of Expression

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting published allegations this week that the terms “climate change” and “global warming” were banned from state government communications in Florida, including state-agency sponsored research studies and educational programs. The Washington Post followed with claims, for example, that a researcher was required by state officials to strike such words before submitting for publication a manuscript about a epidemiological study.
No evidence of a written policy or rule has been reported, and state officials have denied any policy of the sort. Meanwhile, the media are hunting through Florida websites trying to find state documents produced during the administration of Gov. Rick Scott with contents that would contradict the charges of an unwritten policy, imperfectly enforced.
The controversy is one in a string of recent events reminding us how much scientists rely on their freedom of expression. Most often the problem has been the freedom of government scientists to speak about their work with the public. Lately this has caused a media blizzard in Canada.
Science ethicists may argue one way or another about where the limits of public expression are for government scientists when they contradict policy goals. And certainly—as well seen most obviously in the Cold War—such goals can include national security concerns. But the AMS stance on the filtering or tampering of science for nonscientific purposes is quite clear in the Statement on Freedom of Expression:

The ability of scientists to present their findings to the scientific community, policy makers, the media, and the public without censorship, intimidation, or political interference is imperative.

Freedom of expression is essential to scientific progress. Open debate is a necessary part of science and takes place largely through the publication of credible studies vetted in peer review. Publication is thus founded on the need for freedom of expression, and it is in turn a manifestation of freedom of expression.
One might think the job of journals is to screen out unwanted science, but it’s quite the opposite. Papers are published not because they are validated as “right” so much as they are considered “worthy” of further scientific consideration. In addition, the publication process itself—which AMS knows well in its 11 scientific journals—is not just for authors to report and interpret their work. It relies on free discussion. The peer review process usually allows reviewers maximum protection of anonymity to preserve the ability to speak freely about the manuscripts being scrutinized. The papers that pass review are then the starting point for documenting objections, alternative interpretations, and confirmation, among other expressions that only matter if made accessible to other scientists through peer reviewed journals.
The AMS Statement recognizes that such freedom implies responsibility:

It is incumbent upon scientists to communicate their findings in ways that portray their results and the results of others, objectively, professionally, and without sensationalizing or politicizing the associated impacts.

Scientists are not the only ones to treasure such freedoms, of course. Society benefits from the progress of science every day. This only happens when scientists freely, promptly, and prolifically report what they find—and that means exactly what they find, not what they are told to find. The alternative is to compromise the pursuit of truth and the very foundations of our health and prosperity.
We all become victims when science is not shared and cannot flourish. The fact that climate change has deep social, economic, and political implications today means it is even more important to recognize that with increasing value of climate change science comes the increasing temptation for policy makers to co-opt and alter that science. As the AMS Statement warns, the principles of free expression “matter most—and at the same time are most vulnerable to violation—precisely when science has its greatest bearing on society.”

What Does It Mean to Be Meteorological?

by Anupa Asokan, AMS Education Program
From my past life as an educator, I’m used to misconceptions. In fact, I welcome them as an opportunity for a more impactful “teachable moment.” In the outdoor setting where I once taught marine science, this was usually centered around sharks, which thanks to sensationalist media and works of art like Jaws, I often had the opportunity to spout out some random fact about how you are more likely to die from a falling coconut and hopefully allay the fears of every child forced to listen to me. Now, working with the AMS Education Program, my teachable moments are focused less on sharks and much more on the word “meteorology.”
My first encounter with the word was as a young child watching my local TV meteorologist. Every evening, Bill Quinlan would tell me about the weather. I vividly remember being in awe of the fact that he would be focused on something out in the ether and yet somehow knowingly point at the correct spot on that magical, wondrous, colorful map behind him. If you, a fellow nerd of all things weather, are reading this, you probably have a similar account from your childhood, but as it turns out, the association between meteorology and the weather isn’t something that every person stumbles upon in their lifetime.
Representing the AMS at various conferences and events, I’ve been shown many alleged “meteorites” from people hoping to confirm the extraterrestrial origin of their favorite rock. Most recently, the AMS Education Program participated in the Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., last month. This is a truly amazing production and a dream come true for teachers and lovers of science alike, and we were offering a fun, weather-inspired activity: making clouds in a bottle.
The exhibits were separated into sections by topic. The Earth science section had a cool graphic of a cloud, rain, and a lightning bolt. . . but for some reason it didn’t have us. Instead, we were in the space section–“Astronomy and Space Exploration,” to be exact, represented by a picture of a little rocket. Now don’t get me wrong, it is always cool to be near NASA, but where does this disconnect between meteorology and the weather come from? Certainly, the “meteor” in meteorology has always caused some confusion, and  you could say we “fit” in space—forecasting technology and space weather have roots in the study of the atmosphere. On the other hand, meteorology exists if not to tell us the impact of the atmosphere on our day-to-day lives here on Earth.
So there we were, set up in “space” with our bottles and aerosols, ready to create some clouds and conveniently provided with the perfect teachable moment for 325,000 visitors to Science Fest. That is why we were there, after all, because who else is going to teach the world what meteorology really is, but those of us who love everything that it represents, Earthly or otherwise.

A New Kind of Climate Model Project

Many scientists these days are asking how they can better communicate their research to the public. One group of climate researchers has found a solution–by putting themselves into the spotlight (literally) in the 2014 Climate Models wall calendar.
Scheduled for release this December, the calendar will include pictures of 13 climate scientists as well as information about them, such as their favorite dataset or climate phenomenon. Their ultimate goal, according to their website, is to “increase awareness of climate change and its impacts by engaging the public with scientists and what they’re learning about Earth’s climate.” In the process, the scientists reveal a side of themselves that most of the public doesn’t regularly get to see, and they hope to inspire colleagues to be equally creative in sharing their research with the public. You can get a sneak preview of a few of the models in the video below.
In addition to their work in front of the cameras, the scientists, who represent Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, will also be presenting a poster about their novel communication efforts at December’s AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.
You can help support the calendar by donating to its Kickstarter campaign.

Share Ideas on Climate, Influence Policy Options

The Front Page received the following note from John Nielsen-Gammon, Regents Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University; Texas State Climatologist; and a Fellow of AMS:

A Message To Fellow Physical Scientists
I’m part of a new journalistic endeavor called the Climate Change National Forum and Review.  The purpose of this web site will be to provide a public forum wherein scientists can discuss the latest research on climate change and share and debate ideas on aspects of climate change especially relevant to policymaking.  When the second phase kicks in, policy experts will join the discussion and compare the benefits and costs of possible responses.
I know what you’re thinking: “This sounds an awful lot like the IPCC.”  Well, it’s not.  Nor is it intended to replace the IPCC in any way.  It has a different purview and a different set of goals.

  • The IPCC is an international body. The CCNFR is focused on issues facing the United States.
  • The IPCC scientists are selected from nominees from various countries. The CCNFR scientists consist of anyone who contributes regularly and constructively to the discussion.
  • The IPCC produces reports every few years, whose summaries are edited and ratified by political representatives. The CCNFR web site is a living document, continuously updated to account for the latest science, and not subject to political interference.
  • The IPCC’s purview is anthropogenic climate change. The CCNFR’s purview is climate change in all its causes and manifestations.  Would it make sense to only adapt to anthropogenic climate change?
  • The IPCC reports are written by experts within their subject fields. The CCNFR will draw upon the expertise and experience of scientists from a wide range of fields, not just insiders.
  • The public gets to see the IPCC final report. The public gets to see scientists grappling with, understanding, and debating the issues.

For me, this last point is an important one.  The public can benefit tremendously from being able to see how scientists think and reason scientifically.  We ask them to trust our collective scientific wisdom without allowing them to see how we evaluate conflicting or flawed evidence and develop judgments.  Presently, the only extensive example of this available to the public is the set of emails from Climategate.
Why should you participate?  First, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of climate science.  Perhaps you’ve just taken the IPCC reports on faith, trusting the experts to do a good job.  Whether they did or not, you will be better able to articulate the issues and explain them to others after exchanging ideas, digging into some of the primary literature, and fleshing out any questions that might be nagging you in the back of your mind.
It should be obvious by now that you don’t need to be a climate scientist to participate, as long as you have a suitable technical background.  Indeed, we need at least some people who know relatively little about the state of the art of climate science, for their intellectual journey while participating in the CCNFR is similar to the journeys we hope dedicated lay readers will take.  Outsiders to climate science can better spot the unspoken assumptions and unjustified conventions.
Your learning will come through the course of online debate and discussion with other scientists.  As you probably know from personal experience, discussion with other scientists is often the absolute best way to come to grips with a contentious or controversial scientific issue.  Along the way, you will develop skills as a writer for an outside audience.
Finally, you will be doing a public service, simultaneously helping to educate the public about climate change and about science in general.
On the negative side, it requires time, though not a whole lot.  We’re only asking for participants to contribute new essays once a month, plus participate in some of the online discussions with other scientists.  Compared to starting your own blog, this is a relatively easy way to bring your ideas and judgment into public view.
Scientists who think they know everything about climate change are not welcome to participate.  If you’re an expert in a particular branch and want to broaden your knowledge, or even if this is something outside your expertise entirely so that you have a lot you want to learn, then come join us.

The link above that John provides is a beta form of the CCNFR web site. To facilitate your postings explaining, debating, and discussing climate science–and to keep the site tied to issues in the news and policymaking–the CCNFR hopes to provide a steady stream of news and statements culled even-handedly  from the media by a professional journalist.
As such, this is not only a time to consider getting in on the ground floor of a new public outreach project but also a time to consider making a donation. The CCNFR hopes to raise more than $60,000 to get a journalist on board soon.

Avoiding Toaster Strudel Exchanges

by Keith L. Seitter, CCM, AMS Executive Director
Those of us who have siblings know that the relationship is built, in part, on needling.
When my two sons, Kevin and Matt, were eight and three years old, respectively, Kevin enjoyed Toaster Strudel® as an occasional breakfast treat. Matt, meanwhile, was just beginning to learn the joys of thoroughly annoying a sibling and was quickly becoming quite good at it.  One weekend morning, the following exchange took place:

Matt (to Kevin): We don’t have any Toaster Strudel.
Kevin:  Yes we do.
Matt:  No we don’t.
Kevin:  We do.  Mom picked some up at the store.
Matt:  No we don’t.
Kevin (becoming annoyed):  Matt, we do have some, I saw mom put it in the freezer!
Matt (remaining completely calm and collected):  No we don’t.
Kevin (stomping to the freezer and pulling the box out):  See!  We do have it!
Matt (still calm and collected):  No we don’t.

At about this point, when Kevin was clearly exasperated, I think I did the parental thing and intervened to calm things down.
I relay this little story because some of the “debate” on climate change seems to be taking on the character of this Toaster Strudel exchange.  And it is far less amusing when it is happening among adults in the media and in the blogosphere.
Frequent readers of my monthly column in BAMS will know that I have long been advocating for open and respectful dialogue on the science of climate change, with all parties recognizing that as scientists it is our job to be skeptical and require solid theory and evidence to back up claims.  We must always be cognizant of how hard it is to keep our intrinsic values from triggering confirmation bias as we review research results or listen to alternative explanations for observational evidence.  Our training as scientists, however, makes it clear that our goal must always be the objective truth — whether it supports our belief system or not.  We must all strive for that level of integrity.
I continue to feel that with open and respectful dialogue on the various complex issues involved in climate change we can achieve greater understanding within our community and less divisiveness.  We have to recognize, however, that “Toaster Strudel exchanges” are not about the evidence.  They have an entirely different goal from finding the objective truth, and failing to recognize that will only lead to frustration.

Science, the Write Way

by Emily Morgan, University of Miami-Florida
Writing is a form of expression that has become a difficult task for members of the student scientific community. This is not a remark on the basic skill set for a meteorology student, but rather a result of neglect. A huge part of the academic field focuses more on computer-aided analysis, modeling, computation and processes that can very readily led themselves to good writing but often don’t, perhaps because it’s so much more convenient to move on to the next task without explaining the first.
I’ve often wished the science courses I’ve participated in included an increased focus on written analysis of topics, even just simple written forecast discussions or responses to research results, so that we become more familiar with expressing ourselves concisely and fully to a broad audience. It boils down to trying to communicate through a medium that cannot rely on facial expressions and you-know-what-I-mean’s. There is no “question and answer” session after the essay, aside from disgruntled and confused e-mails from readers, and the writer cannot instantly respond to the blank faces of his readers. So the readers, not able to grasp the main theme of the writing, leave the writer without an audience for his point. A terrible fate this is, as writing in science has vital purpose: to convey important research findings, to apply for funding to allow research to flourish, to explain a complex process to students at any level. So why is this form of communication neglected, shunned, even dreaded?
Dr. David Schultz, presenting “Practical Advice for Students and Scientists,” addressed some of my concerns. His seminar focused on commanding, concise titles and effective abstract writing, his mindset being that these are components of a paper that are the most relevant to the reader, who should be the main focus of the paper. His fourth and final rule of writing was “We write for our audience, not for ourselves,” something he reiterated throughout the seminar. He presented a relationship between an effective writing process and an effective forecasting process, where both benefit from a constant narrowing in focus from broad scale ideas to microscale changes. Active writing, rather than passive writing, he claims, is a much more effective way to write. Not all in attendance were comfortable with these ideas, claiming that they’ve always been told to use the passive voice and including anything in first person is seen as unprofessional. One individual was in awe that Dr. Schultz would even suggest replacing the phrase “it was suggested that” with the phrase “I think.” I believe that it is this mindset that continues the difficulty of embracing scientific writing and it was very inspiring to see someone who was intent on easing people out of these bad habits.
Finally, in what I believed was his most important point, he urged the room to “treat all your writing as if it counted.” So it was wonderful to hear this from Dr. Schultz as a reassurance to a sometimes-bewildered writer. Writing can be an intimidating affair, even with the right skills, so to bolster one’s confidence with the thought that this writing does, in fact, matter can be the difference between long, wishy-washy reports and strong, concise writing.
Editor’s note: David Schultz is conducting a workshop, “Eloquent Professional Communication,”  Tuesday, 1:30 pm-3 pm, WSCC 3B. He is also presenting “Best Resources for Communication Skills for Scientists” at the Atmospheric Science Librarians International session, 8:45-9:45 am Wednesday, WSCC 304.