Naming Winter Storms: Time for Community Cooperation

by Mary M. Glackin, Senior Vice President, Public-Private Partnerships, The Weather Company
Forecasts of hazardous weather have continually improved, particularly over the past few decades. It is oft-cited fact that 5-day forecasts are now as good as 3-day forecasts were 20 years ago. At the same time, the public has more choices than ever in how it accesses weather information. In particular, we are seeing explosive growth in the web, apps, and social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet in the aftermath of a severe event, it is common to hear, “I didn’t know” either from public officials or the public at large.
It is this latter issue that the United Kingdom’s Met Office and the Irish Meteorological Service (Met Éireann) were seeking to address when they recently announced their plans to name storms this fall and winter. And to kick the campaign off, they are soliciting the public’s help in picking the names. After watching other country’s experiences, they believe naming significant storms will increase public awareness of severe weather and thus improve appropriate responses to warnings.
Several European countries name winter storms. For example, the Free University of Berlin’s meteorological institute has been naming them since the 1950s, and these names are adopted and used by the media and the German Met Service, Deutscher Wetterdienst. In the U.S. and elsewhere, very impactful storms become named by the media; think Snowmageddon in the Northeast (2010) and St. Jude Storm in the U.K. (2013). In the U.S., The Weather Company (TWC) began naming winter storms in 2012-13, citing the importance of communicating in social media–especially Twitter, which requires a hashtag. Rightly or wrongly, this effort was roundly criticized as having suspect science and for being a marketing ploy.
After three years experience at TWC, here is what we can report: Twitter alone provides an incredible reach where we routinely see more than one billion people receiving tweets using the storm name. Millions of tweets are sent using the hashtag from government agencies, school districts, utilities, businesses, and the general public. These hashtags also allow the NWS and others to find real-time weather data tweeted by citizens that can be used in nowcasts and other storm reports.
The criteria to name a storm are pretty simple: it must meet the National Weather Service winter-storm warning criteria, and it must be expected to impact at least two million people and/or 400,000 sq. km. We use a formal process and a committee of three meteorologists to review these criteria for each possible storm, and while we consider the criteria strict, the storm-naming committee still reserves the right to override the quantitative decision in certain circumstances. Some of the factors that may influence decisions to override the naming rules include the degree of historical significance of the event (e.g., accumulating snow in South Florida, a summer-season snowstorm, etc.); see more details here.  The U.K. is planning a similar system using their two highest warning levels, so names are only applied to the storms that present a significant threat.
What’s in a name? Well in this case, the name is the headline to attract attention to the threat. It is the beginning. It needs to be backed up with easy-to-understand information that details the threat to a specific locale and appropriate call-to-action statements. But, in this information-saturated world, this headline/hashtag is key. We need to recognize the importance of serving people in the way they find easiest to consume information vs. how we are most comfortable in delivering it.
Could we take this U.K./Ireland announcement as a call to the U.S. weather enterprise to come together to see how we could maximize the use of social media to improve the public response to severe weather events?  Twitter is here to stay, and it requires hashtags to separate the relevant information from an avalanche of incoming data. Hashtags are spilling over into other social media as well. It is easy to create a hashtag from a tropical storm name. If we could come together as a community to address this for winter storms, we’d no doubt learn a lot that could then be applied to significant weather at the local scale. The nomenclature could be something much different than what’s used in tropical storms or what we have been using.
What’s important is to lead as a community in this social media era. For our part, we are willing to share our experiences, transition our system, and/or help set up an enterprise-wide naming system. During major snow events, the reach on Twitter has been over a billion. What would our reach be with all of us working together feeding into the same system to keep people informed during these hazardous events? Are we ready to re-engage on this topic as a community?

Summer Meeting Leads to Summer Tweeting

A primary focus of this week’s AMS Summer Community meeting in Raleigh, NC, has been communication, particularly about how best to present information on weather, water, and climate threats to the public. So it’s not surprising that the meeting has generated plenty of activity on Twitter. Here are a few of the highlights:

Twitter Abuzz during Extreme Precipitation Hangout

Last week’s Google hangout on extreme precipitation touched on a number of different topics related to preparing for extreme weather events and the larger goal of building a Weather-Ready Nation. It’s noteworthy that one of the key themes that recurred throughout the hangout was “communication,” as a healthy discussion was evident on Twitter during the event. We’ve captured some of the highlights here, just below the full video of the hangout.


AMS Summer Community Meeting

by Tom Champoux, AMS Director of Communications
Recently, severe thunderstorms rolled east across the greater Boston area that culminated in an EF2 tornado touching down in the city of Revere, just a few miles from my house.
As I watched the weather on TV that day, I noticed some new information provided by the meteorologist as he gave his severe weather updates. Not only did he show the storm’s path, size, speed, intensity, and time of arrival, but he also included the number of people who were in the line of the storm’s path – in this case more than 200,000 would be affected.
This drive to continually innovate the flow of information to the public—refreshing, improving, and updating services in the process—is ingrained in the character of our weather, water, and climate community. It’s a process driven by AMS members across the enterprise.
I was reminded of this repeatedly while attending the AMS Summer Community Meeting this week in State College, Pennsylvania. This year, the theme was “Improving Weather Forecasts and Forecast Communications.” More than 160 attendees from across the country, including leaders in government, academic, and private sectors, convened to discuss, collaborate, and consider ways of improving weather data being collected, retrieving usable information more quickly, and sharing the most accurate information with the public as quickly as possible. In extreme cases, people have to make critical decisions in a matter of minutes.
Discussions focused on how to better inform the public, ensuring their awareness and safety while decreasing false-alarm rates. During the meetings, it became apparent very quickly how important this topic is to the entire weather, water, and climate community, and that hosting these meetings is a vital step for AMS as we bring together key stakeholders to continue improving all aspects of the enterprise. This year’s AMS Summer Community Meeting not only included well-known weather agencies, organizations, and companies but also social scientists, emergency managers, risk analysts, educators, big data specialists, and broadcast meteorologists.
Discussions covered a wide variety of topics such as public perceptions of words like “likely,” “probable,” “possible,” and “certain,” to describe potential weather. Other panel talks included, “Improving Communicating of Forecast Uncertainty,” Communicating Forecast Confidence,” “Conveying Weather Risk,” and “The Weather Enterprise of the Future.” There were also talks about how various social media may hurt or help communicating accurate information.
A tour of AccuWeather Forecast Center headquarters here during the meetings showed how important these issues are to the entire company. I was impressed with their efforts to improve technology, data collection, analysis, and communications. Similarly, National Weather Services Director Louis Uccellini was on hand to talk about what the NWS is doing to address these issues.
The AMS Summer Community Meeting is unique because of the ideas that emerge there. It also is a reminder of how vital it is to bring everyone together. Ideas, information, and experiences are shared freely, and the conversations both inside and outside the meetings remind us all how committed everyone is to constantly improving the entire enterprise, whether they’re doing it independently in their separate jobs, like my local weathercaster, or together in valuable gatherings like the AMS Summer Community Meeting.

Hurricane Center Changes Policy to Include Sandy-like Storms; AMS Forum Assists

If another storm like Sandy threatens land while on the cusp between tropical and extratropical classification, National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasters will have a green light to issue or maintain watches and warnings as well as advisories, even after transition.
That’s the policy change NWS/NHC made this week after months of animated debate among forecasters, weather broadcasters, and emergency managers. The changes will take effect at the start of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, June 1.
The shift—from watches, warnings, and advisories only being posted by NHC when a storm was expected to be strictly tropical as it came ashore to now being allowed for what it terms “post-tropical” storms at landfall—was borne of a critical firestorm.
Despite the enormous threat from Sandy last October, NWS and NHC decided not to hoist hurricane watches and warnings for the northeastern coast of the United States because the monster storm wasn’t forecast to land its center on shore while still a hurricane. The re-classification of Sandy as post-tropical would have forced such alerts to be dropped mid storm, which they argued would cause confusion.
Critics of the decision claimed that people in harm’s way didn’t take the storm seriously because there weren’t any hurricane warnings in place. Nearly 70 people died in the United States directly from Sandy’s surge and wind.
The fallout included broad discussions of the difficulty forecasting Sandy. At an AMS Town Hall Meeting in Austin, Texas, in January, Louis Uccellini (then director of NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Prediction) said that NWS and NHC forecasters had anticipated Sandy transitioning from a hurricane to an extratropical storm, but they expected it to happen sooner than it actually did. In his presentation, he also noted that the primary operational forecast model used by the NWS (the Global Forecast System, or GFS, model) had performed the best of all models during the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, but when it counted—with the season’s only two landfalling U.S. storms of hurricane intensity (Isaac and Sandy)—it had the worst forecasts.
“When you don’t hit the big one, people notice,” he said.
Compounding the uncertain model forecasts was what to do with the warnings if the transition occurred prior to landfall. NHC Director Rick Knabb discussed this at the same AMS Town Hall meeting, calling it the “Sandy warning dilemma.” He agreed that hurricane warnings would have been best, because they’re familiar and grab your attention. But, because of the looming transition, discussions among NHC and NWS forecasters as well as emergency managers and local and state authorities, including one governor, stressed that the warning type not change during the storm for fear of confusing the message during critical times of preparation and evacuation. Due to the structure for hurricane warnings in place at the time, which would have forced NHC to drop them once the transition occurred, NHC and NWS forecasters opted not to issue a hurricane warning for Sandy.
“We wanted to make sure the warning didn’t change midstream, and we could focus on the hazards.”
Ultimately, calls settled on a way to effectively communicate the threat of dangerous winds and high water regardless of a storm’s meteorological definition. A proposal surfaced during the Town Hall that would broaden the definition of tropical storm and hurricane watches and warnings and include post-tropical cyclones, whose impacts still pose a serious threat to life and property.
Knabb credits the candid nature of the months-long debate, with its criticisms and recommendations, for the now-approved proposal. He says it will allow NHC and NWS forecasters as well as the emergency management community to focus on what they do best.
“Keeping communities safe when a storm threatens is truly a team effort and this change reflects that collaboration.”

Never Too Early To Complement Your Meteorology Skills

Dan Dowling, The Broadcast Meteorologist blogger, posted some useful advice yesterday for aspiring weathercasters about how to deal with inevitable  on-camera jitters as they start their careers. The advice is worthwhile for all students or professional meteorologists looking to advance their careers–not just those who want to be on television.
Dowling points out that a lot weathercasters knew from an early age that they wanted to be meteorologists, but not many of them knew until much later that they were going into broadcasting. As a result, they developed their scientific skills from the start but not the confidence and polish that they’ll needed to communicate to an audience.
It takes time to develop effective on-camera manner, Dowling says, just like it takes time to learn how to write reports or to analyze weather observations properly, because all of these skills stem from maturation of deeper qualities, whether an ear for language and logic to write well, or mathematical understanding to use models and observations, or, in the case of presentation, solid belief in your own abilities:

You can work on talking slower, or stop fidgeting with your hands, or trying to smile more, but it likely all stems from a lack of being comfortable and confident. It’s also a challenge to teach out of a student because it’s usually something that just takes time. Just like jumping in a pool of cold water, it just takes time to get used to, and there is not a lot else you can do to speed up the process. If you are in high school, now is the time to start building your confidence. The students who get started sooner end up coming to college better equipped for the opportunities they will find there.

The blog relates a couple examples of successful Lyndon State College meteorology grads who got involved in broadcasting in high school, but specific experience of this kind not the only way to work on communication and confidence:

It all starts by pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. If it’s a little scary, you are probably headed in the right direction. Try acting or singing in a play, or being in a band or chorus. Get out in front of people. Play a sport. Get involved with a speaking or debate club. Whatever you do, make it fun.

The interesting thing about this advice is that it applies in many meteorological jobs, not just broadcasting. Dowling’s points echo what experienced meteorologists have been telling attendees year after year at the AMS Student Conference: don’t neglect your communications skills. Employers are looking for the ability to write and speak well if you’re going into business or consulting, not to mention any sort of job interacting with the public.
It’s difficult to develop such versatility during student years, when you’re packing in the math and science (here’s an example of a teacher who tries to make it possible by integrating communication practice into the science curriculum). But it’s a lot harder to catch up quickly on fundamental skills like writing and public speaking later in life.

Weather-Ready or Not, Here We Come

The year so far has been expensive when it comes to disasters. Make that record-breaking expensive. According to NOAA, with nine separate big-money disasters, the losses have already reached $35 billion. In response, the NWS—in partnership with other government agencies, researchers, and the private sector—is building a plan to make the country “Weather-ready.”  Earlier this week, officials from various agencies participated in a group discussion with the goal of understanding the threats extreme weather poses today and what can be done about it. Specifically, they want people nationwide to develop plans they can implement quickly to protect themselves when severe weather strikes.
“Building a Weather-ready nation is everyone’s responsibility,” comments Eddie Hicks, U.S. Council of International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM USA) president. “It starts with the NWS and emergency managers, like IAEM USA, but it ends with action by individuals and businesses to reduce their risks. The more prepared communities are for destructive weather, the less of a human and economic toll we’ll experience in the future, and that’s a great thing for the country.”
The discussion resulted in a list of necessities to make a Weather-ready nation. They include improved precision of weather and water forecasts and effective communication of risk to local authorities; improved weather decision support services with new initiatives such as the development of mobile-ready emergency response specialist teams; strengthening joint partnerships to enhance community preparedness; and working with weather enterprise partners and the emergency management community to enhance safety and economic output and effectively manage environmental resources.
John Malay, president of the AMS, took part in the announcement and emphasized that the partnership among the three weather sectors—all represented in the AMS membership—is essential in achieving the vision. “We share the mission of informing and protecting our citizens, which is what this enterprise and initiative are all about,” he comments. “Given the resources to grow our scientific understanding of our complex environment through observations and research and to apply this knowledge in serving society, we can do amazing things together.”
You can download a pdf copy of the NWS Strategic Plan for this initiative from the Weather-ready nation website.

Neutralizing Some of the Language in Global Warming Discussions

By Keith Seitter, Executive Director, AMS
The topic of anthropogenic global warming has become so polarized it is now hard to talk about it without what amounts to name-calling entering into the discussion. In blogs, e-mails, and published opinion pieces, terms like “deniers” and “contrarians” are leveled in one direction while “warmist” and “alarmist” are leveled in the other.  Both the scientific community and broader society have much to gain from respectful dialog among those of opposing views on climate change, but a reasonable discussion on the science is unlikely if we cannot find non-offensive terminology for those who have taken positions different than our own.
As Peggy Lemone mentioned in a Front Page post last week, some months ago, the CMOS Bulletin reprinted a paper originally published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences by Anderegg et al. that simply used the terms “convinced” and “unconvinced” to describe those who had been convinced by the evidence that anthropogenic climate change was occurring and those who had not been convinced. This terminology helps in a number of ways. First and foremost, it does not carry with it the baggage of value judgment, since for any particular scientific argument there is no intrinsically positive or negative connotation associated with being either convinced or unconvinced. In addition, this terminology highlights that we are talking about a scientific, evidence-based, issue that should be resolved through logical reasoning and not something that should be decided by our inherent belief system. (And for that reason, I work very hard to avoid saying someone does or does not “believe” in global warming, or similar phrases.)
The sense I have gotten is that those who do not feel that human influence is causing the global temperatures to rise would prefer to be called “skeptics.” However, I have tried to avoid using this term as a label for those individuals. Skepticism is a cornerstone upon which science is built. All of us who have been trained as scientists should be skeptics with respect to all scientific issues — demanding solid evidence for a hypothesis or claim before accepting it, and rejecting any position if the evidence makes it clear that it cannot be correct (even if it had, in the past, been well-accepted by the broader community).
I have seen some pretty egregious cases of individuals who call themselves climate change skeptics accepting claims that support their position with little or no documented evidence while summarily dismissing the results of carefully replicated studies that do not. On the other side, I have seen cases of climate scientists who have swept aside reasonable counter hypotheses as irrelevant, or even silly, without giving them proper consideration. Neither situation represents the way a truly skeptical scientist should behave.  All of us in the community should expect better.
We will not be able to have substantive discussions on the many facets of climate change if we spend so much time and energy in name-calling. And we really need to have substantive discussion if we are going to serve the public in a reasonable way as a community. Thus, it is imperative that we find some terminology that allows a person’s position on climate change to be expressed without implied, assumed, or imposed value judgments.
There may be other neutral terms that can be applied to those engaged in the climate change discussion, but “convinced” and “unconvinced” are the best I have seen so far. I have adopted this terminology in the hope of reducing some of the polarization in the discussion.

Commutageddon, Again and Again

Time and again this winter, blizzards and other snow and ice storms have trapped motorists on city streets and state highways, touching off firestorms of griping and finger pointing at local officials. Most recently, hundreds of motorists became stranded on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive as 70 mph gusts buried vehicles during Monday’s mammoth Midwest snowstorm. Last week, commuters in the nation’s capital became victims of icy gridlock as an epic thump of snow landed on the Mid Atlantic states. And two weeks before, residents and travelers in northern Georgia abandoned their snowbound vehicles on the interstate loops around Atlanta, securing their shutdown for days until the snow and ice melted.
Before each of these crippling events, and historically many others, meteorologists, local and state law enforcement, the media, and city and state officials routinely cautioned and then warned drivers, even pleading with them, to avoid travel. Yet people continue to miss, misunderstand, or simply ignore the message for potentially dangerous winter storms to stay off the roads.
Obviously such messages can be more effective. While one might envision an intelligent transportation system warning drivers in real time when weather might create unbearable traffic conditions,  such services are in their infancy, despite the proliferation of mobile GPS devices that include traffic updates. Not surprisingly, the 2011 AMS Annual Meeting in January on “Communicating Weather and Climate” offered a lot of findings about generating effective warnings. One presentation in particular—”The essentials of a weather warning message: what, where, when, and intensity”—focused directly on the issues raised by the recent snow snafu’s. In it, author Joel Curtis of the NWS in Juneau, Alaska, explains that in addition to the basic what, where, and when information, a warning must convey intensity to guide the level of response from the receiver.
Key to learning how to create and disseminate clear and concise warnings is understanding why useful information sometimes seems to fall on deaf ears. Studies such as the Hayden and Morss presentation “Storm surge and “certain death”: Interviews with Texas coastal residents following Hurricane Ike” and Renee Lertzman’s “Uncertain futures, anxious futures: psychological dimensions of how we talk about the weather” are moving the science of meteorological communication forward by figuring out how and why people are using the information they receive.
Post-event evaluation remains critical to improving not only dissemination but also the effectiveness of warnings and statements. In a blog post last week following D.C.’s drubbing of snow, Jason Samenow of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang (CWG) wondered whether his team of forecasters, and its round-the-clock trumpeting of the epic event, along with the bevy of weather voices across the capital region could have done more to better warn people of the quick-hitting nightmare snowstorm now known as “Commutageddon.” He concluded that, other than smoothing over the sometimes uneven voice of local media even when there’s a clear signal for a disruptive storm, there needs to be a wider effort to get the word out about potential “weather emergencies, or emergencies of any type.” He sees technology advances that promote such social networking sites as Twitter and Facebook as new ways to “blast the message.”
Even with rapidly expanding technology, however, it’s important to recognize that simply offering information comes with the huge responsibility of making sure it’s available when the demand is greatest. As CWG reported recently in its blog post “Weather Service website falters at critical time,” the NWS learned the hard way this week the pitfalls of offering too much information. As the Midwest snowstorm was ramping up, the “unprecedented demand” of 15-20 million hits an hour on NWS websites led to pages loading sluggishly or not at all. According to NWS spokesman Curtis Carey: “The traffic was beyond the capacity we have in place. [It even] exceeded the week of Snowmageddon,” when there were two billion page views on a network that typically sees just 70 million page views a day.
So virtual gridlock now accompanies road gridlock? The communications challenges of a deep snow continue to accumulate…

Some Take-Home Messages from Seattle

by Peggy Lemone, AMS Past-President
Unpacking from my trip to Seattle, I mulled over the many ideas about communicating weather and climate gleaned from planning, the formal program, smaller meetings, and hallway and dinner conversations.  Below is but a partial list:  I would be interested in hearing what others think.
The first idea originated well before the meeting, when Raj Pandya, Steve Ackerman, and I were brainstorming about the Presidential Forum.  After we settled on a panel discussion on communicating with the public, we decided that we needed to include weather as well as climate to provide synergy between the two, to provide a fresh twist, and to transcend the negativity sometimes associated with communicating about climate.
What I saw at the meeting suggested that was the right thing to do.  Talking about “climate” alone has too often divided Americans, while talking about weather sets us at ease, and experiencing a severe storm or blizzard unites us.  Besides, it is not clear to me at least where one draws the line between weather and climate.  I suspect, as we learn more, we will be talking more and more about the changes that are taking place from year to year using terms that we didn’t even know thirty years ago – like El Nino and La Nina, Arctic Oscillation, the North Atlantic Oscillation, and so on.  “Climate change” discussion will be richer with the inclusion of these phenomena.
Communication about polarizing subjects requires trust, which can emerge from long-term engagement.  As we learned from the Presidential Forum, people in the media not only bring us weather forecasts but also educate us about these new weather phenomena and new types of data like Doppler radar reflectivity.  People turn to their weather broadcaster for information not only about weather but also science.  Many weather broadcasters, like Tom Skilling, solicit questions from the public.  We feel more comfortable hearing difficult messages from these people, because we have a long relationship with them.  (However, as one of the panelists, Claire Martin noted, the media could do a much better job).
The importance of trust was reinforced in a small meeting on data-stewardship issues.  A colleague looked at us and said – “I see you all have wedding rings.  Anyone who has been married a long time realizes there will be disagreements, but you can handle them if you remember what you have in common.”  One of the newspaper advice columns said exactly the same thing.  If you have something difficult to talk about, start by reminding yourself about shared values before diving in.  If it gets too hard, then go back to those shared values before trying again.  A similar approach might work with other relatives and friends:  allowing a dialog that includes common values rather than giving a lecture on the science.
Ralph Cicerone’s talk on Thursday reminded us of two more important points related to developing trust.  First, we should work to the best of our ability to earn our trust as a scientific profession.  This means working hard to keep the peer review process robust, not only by selecting good editors and reviewers, but also by ensuring that data used in publications are available to check conclusions.
And secondly, we need to make ourselves available to help the public understand our science (and science in general) better.   Part of this is by making ourselves available to the local TV weather broadcasters, as suggested in Monday’s presidential Forum, and making ourselves available in other ways, such as giving talks to schools , civic groups, museums, and participating in scouting groups, etc. Cicerone quoted statistics that suggested that people respected scientists, but few actually knew any scientist, save perhaps their physician.  Building familiarity will allow better communication.
A third idea comes from a comment heard in the meeting of the Committee on Climate-Change Communication.  Amidst our struggling to figure out how to do this, someone said that we shouldn’t think of people as being only in two camps – to use polite terms1 – the “convinced” and the “unconvinced,” but rather we should allow people to have a spectrum of positions.  To illustrate the “either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us” attitude, a colleague at lunch complained that the “convinced” group pigeonholed him in the “denier” slot (o.k., this is a polarizing term, but this is a quote reflecting his feelings), simply because he wasn’t convinced about claims of a relationship of stronger tropical cyclones to a warmer climate.  About a year ago, I exchanged emails with a well-known colleague who in the press was described as an ally by those who deny climate change simply because of some rather benign – and useful – comments on a blog.  Upon being contacted, this person told me she was fully convinced of the importance of greenhouse gases in warming the planet.
Other conversations reinforced what we already know:  that there are those out there who don’t want to have a conversation, but simply want to attack.  This rarely happens with weather, but it certainly happens with climate.   To reflect on Cicerone’s comments again, we needn’t “pander” to them but we do need to maintain our scientific integrity and to be approachable to those desiring a conversation rather than an argument.
Looking back on this essay, I realize that all the points are closely related:  that we will do better about communicating about difficult topics if we develop familiarity and trust.  We can perhaps do this by having a conversation that allows common ideas and values to emerge.   But the chances for such a conversation increases when – either through common experience or shared values – we obtain a degree of familiarity and trust.
[1These terms were proposed by Anderegg, W. R. L., J. W. Prall, J. Harold, S. H. Schneider, 2010: Expert credibility in climate change.  CMOS Bulletin SCMO, 38, 179–183.  Thanks to Keith Seitter for pointing this out.]