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.]

Raj: "I think we learned something, Steve!"

Raj Pandya and Steve Ackerman, co-chairs of the AMS Annual Meeting this week in Seattle, wrapped up their show with Episodes 4 and 5, now up on YouTube. Raj and Steve took their production team and throngs of groupies into the Exhibit Hall in search of tips on communicating from those master communicators, the people who represent the products meteorologists invent and use:

The next day our intrepid co-chairs finally had a moment to themselves and opportunity to get to know a little bit about each other’s day jobs via the standard professional communique-in-a-nutshell…the elevator talk:

Making the Public Aware of the Science

by Skyler Goldman, Florida Institute of Technology, Student Contributor
I sometimes feel like the whole purpose—or at least the effective application—of meteorology depends on being able to communicate to people who are not as knowledgeable in our subject.  And yet the difficulty of this task is overwhelming. This was acknowledged from the outset at the Presidential Forum on Monday.
“We don’t serve you, the scientists, very well, and I want to change that,” Claire Martin, the chief meteorologist of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said of the communication between scientists and the public.  It’s an important statement, and one that seemed to be agreed upon by the rest of the panel.
“Scientists live and die by how their work is represented,” Tom Skilling of WGN Chicago said, adding that if they are not represented well, then they have no interest in communicating with the broadcast meteorologists and other meteorologists who communicate with the general public.  It’s an issue facing our entire field, especially with important climate change topics knocking on the door.
It’s a simple concept: if the scientists who are doing the work of studying our changing climate are not getting the credit they deserve nor getting their entire story out there accurately, then they could lose interest in dealing with those responsible for communicating the science.  In a society of three-minute weather broadcasts and one-page weather reports, it’s a delicate balance between telling the whole story and leaving something out.  Someone—either scientists or journalists—is not going to get their way.  So how does our field get around it?
An audience member threw out an interesting point.  If the public is paying for the research, then shouldn’t they be able to read the work in a language they understand?  This scientist cited a paper he wrote in “regular” English as opposed to “scientific” English, and said that it was instantly rejected by the editor for sounding too “unintelligent.” This scientist suggested that journals publish two versions of every paper, one for the scientific community and one for the general public.
The idea is somewhat revolutionary, and it was denounced by another scientist who claimed that he wasn’t sure that the public would even “care about his work.”  Why go through the trouble?
But shouldn’t the public get to decide what they care about?  I think those of us in the sciences tend to overlook just how intelligent the public can be.  Making more scientific work available to the public in plain language would increase awareness.  Then, of course, the public would need to have access to such articles.  Unless you’re in college or working in the field, you’re probably not even aware that these journal articles exist, let alone have a subscription.  It’s not like you can browse meteorology journals at Barnes and Noble or Borders.  Access to science should not be limited by a caste system based on wealth or education.  It should be available to all so the public can make their own decisions. Perhaps the public would be better prepared for weather and climate if they could form their own opinions.
Tom Skilling said that we as meteorologists “haven’t done a good job of preparing the public [for climate change].”  Martin Storksdieck added that we “have done a poor job of telling not only what we can do, but what we can’t.”  Perhaps the scientists wouldn’t be misrepresented if the general public could read their work.  Maybe we don’t have to re-write articles as the one scientist suggested, but it would be a start.  Sure it requires more work, but whoever said communicating was easy?

The Raj and Steve Show, Episodes 2 and 3

Your Conference Co-Chairs, Raj Pandya and Steve Ackerman, have been gleaning insights into the communication of weather and climate during the meeting. Episodes 2 and 3 of their continuing quest for Annual Meeting wisdom are available on the Ametsoc YouTube channel. In Episode 2, Steve (sensitively acknowledging Raj’s letdown of expectations for the Chicago Bears) talks about how science-driven information sometimes unintentionally creates high expectations for certainty when in fact uncertainty is a key to using such information wisely:

Then in Episode 3, Raj notes that scholars continue to puzzle over the communicative power of pictures, but have a firm grasp of the power of the word. Words, Raj points out, have the power to create pictures of their own, ultimately trumping numbers in their ability to motivate and convince an audience:

Not Sure What to Say? Talk about Uncertainty.

Since communication is the topic of the week, the new AMS draft statement on “Communicating Science” is never far from our minds during this meeting. The statement is available for comment until 2 February, which means discussions here could help shape that document.
Not surprisingly the statement addresses how AMS membership should communicate not only the “nature and practice of science” but also its results to a wide variety of nonscientific audiences.
One of the most challenging aspects of that communication is summed up baldly in the statement:

Uncertainty is not equivalent to not knowing.

Therein lies a major communication challenge, because the public expect scientists to “know” things by making confident predictions, like where the planet moves and which way things fall.
Yet uncertainty is built into the scientific process just as much as making successful predictions. Uncertainty fuels new experiments and hypotheses. It can be expressed mathematically. And it actually is increasingly a basis for sophisticated, probabilistic decision making tools. Says the draft statement:

In … studies of complex phenomena such as weather and climate, [uncertainty] may contribute to knowing more.


This idea has not been adequately communicated to the public.

Worse yet, as practitioners of prediction, scientists look bad when they admit uncertainty:

In a world of sound bites and rapid-fire news coverage, scientists struggle with how to convey to the public the additional information contained in statements of uncertainty and probability without seeming less credible than other voices conveying the appearance of certainty.

Since uncertainty is at the soul of the scientific process as well as its products, communicating uncertainty is at the very heart of this week’s meetings. A Town Hall meeting on “The Role of the Forecaster in Probabilistic Decision Making” on Monday (24 January, 12:15 p.m., WSCC 606) continues the community follow-up to the 2006 National Research Council report, “Completing the Forecast: Characterizing and Communicating Uncertainty.” In this case, forecasters face a double-whammy. Not only is uncertainty difficult and unwelcome, but, according to the AMS statement draft,

there exists in the public mindset distrust in the ability of models to provide useful information.

On Thursday (27 January, 11 a.m.-12:15 a.m., WSCC 611) we’ll get some concrete examples of overcoming these problems in a session on “Communicating Uncertainty,” part of the Second Conference on Weather, Climate, and the New Energy Economy.” Jeanne Schneider of USDA will open with “The Necessity of Communicating Uncertainty—Lessons from the Interface.” And Deborah Smith et al. of Remote Sensing Systems will talk about “Communicating Satellite MW Ocean Product Errors to a Variety of Users” at noon.
Of course many other presentations will touch on this topic one way or another. One thing is sure: uncertainty is a major part of this year’s discussions.

The Most Difficult "Way of Knowing": Listening

by Raj Pandya, Annual Meeting Co-Chair
The theme of this year’s annual meeting is communication, and I think one of the hardest parts of communication is listening. I find it embarrassingly easy to slip into broadcast mode, and imagine that simply because I want to say it, others will be interested.  My 8-year old daughter can be brutal about this:  “Daddy, this is boring, can we talk about horses, please.”  (I will say, though, I can sneak in a little thunderstorm talk if we frame it around storms’ impact on horse happiness).
So, I am especially looking forward to this annual meeting as a chance to listen, especially to communities we haven’t interacted with before or in places we haven’t gone. There are lots of opportunities in this meeting. The presidential forum opens the meeting with some suggestions about how to address what audiences may be interested in and how to present information in a way that connects. There is a themed joint session on Thursday called “Ways of Knowing” that will explore things from an indigenous perspective. Sunday night, before the meeting kicks off, students will be presenting their research – a great chance to listen to the next generation. On Tuesday, a panel will tackle the challenge of communicating – and listening –across our various disciplines and another set of talks will focus on communication and diversity. Finally, there are sessions that explore communication from a user perspective – including public health, energy, and people interested in tropical cyclones.
The second hardest part about communicating is adapting. I find myself clinging to my preferred mode of communication, even when the audience and circumstance change.  It doesn’t always work – in the words of Hawkeye Pierce, “He doesn’t understand loud English, either, Frank”.  Even only in English, there are new social media and devices that are rapidly changing the way we communicate.
There are a number of talks at the Annual that tackle this. There are sessions on mobile devices and e-books and a more general session to explore technology that enables communication. There are special sessions demonstrating technology in education and a special session on Thursday looks at how data publishing may change the way we communicate science.
Yogi Berra is reported to have said a whole lot of things, including “You can observe a lot just by watching.”  In the spirit of this year’s Annual Meeting, with the theme of communication, I’d suggest, instead: “You can hear a lot by just listening.”
Have fun.

NWS sez 'Hi' to Fort Worth on Facebook

The National Weather Service is on Facebook (so is AMS, actually). But you knew that already. What’s new is that now the NWS is trying out Facebook as a local-level communications tool. The Fort Worth, Texas, office has a new page to raise weather awareness locally. If weather turns ugly, it might become an important additional channel between meteorologists and the public.
Writes one commenter, “About time you guys got on here.” But actually, social media and government weather services have had a somewhat tempestuous relationship so far, even with the undeniable popularity of the national NWS fan page.
At least one NWS employee already had tested the waters on his own: in an April 30 severe weather outbreak one local forecaster in Arkansas was posting weather updates on a private Twitter account, minutes before the same information made it to TV screens. In response the Weather Service reiterated its policy against employees using unofficial communication channels for official business, effectively prohibiting social media for local weather communications.
More recently, the head of forecasting at Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau, Ming-Dean Chen, used his personal Facebook page to distribute typhoon information hours in advance of the official notices from his own office. He expounded on possibilities that weren’t discussed in the official forecasts. Chen ended up apologizing to superiors, but pointed out that he was merely repeating information that had already been posted on the Japan Meteorological Agency web site anyway.
Renegade incidents seem less likely now that NWS is cautiously dipping an official toe in Facebook waters for local purposes. They could start a tidal wave, however, if they don’t proceed judiciously. Digital Meteorologist blog points out that a strong social media presence by local NWS offices might rapidly erode the long-held niche broadcast meteorologists have enjoyed by combining local weather knowledge with direct access to the public.

Sure, the US government is slow, but what happens when it finally catches up?  #NWS could be a pretty powerful hashtag….Poke the bear if you want.  Just make sure you are ready to run when he wakes up.

The Toughest Part of Forecasting

The New Zealand MetService’s chief forecaster Peter Kreft writes:

Getting the message out about severe weather, particularly when it involves rapid changes, requires excellent communication with the New Zealand public and many organisations managing weather-related risks. The message needs to be relevant and clear – not always an easy task, given that users of weather information have such diverse needs….In some ways, the challenge of getting the communication right is even more difficult than getting the meteorology right.

After recent events in New Zealand, Kreft should know. For days, the MetService had been tracking developing conditions for severe weather for parts of New Zealand. Then, on Wednesday, September 15, forecasters actually issued an advisory for gale force winds and “bitterly cold” weather several days ahead.
That’s when the other part of forecasting–the tough part- started to go awry. The media made references to a “massive” storm the size of Australia about to go medieval on New Zealand. References to civil defense authorities making preparations for the worst also hyped up the alarm.

[S]hortly after the MetService press release on Wednesday, this communication process was thrown off kilter by a media article about “the largest storm on the planet”. The article was based in part on the MetService press release but included information from other sources as well as a measure of journalistic licence.

Not surprisingly, weather discussion boards, blogs, and more media went haywire. Kreft says the misconstrued warnings went “viral”:

Within a matter of hours, MetService was fielding calls from people concerned about the “massive storm heading for New Zealand” and asking for clarification on various statements that MetService had apparently made. It was clear early on that people were confused about the source of the information they were receiving, and had been misled into thinking that the whole country was in for serious weather.

Not only worried citizens and nervous farmers but even disaster-preparedness authorities got caught in the storm of “mediarology.”

Unfortunately, MetService’s ability to get weather information to those who really needed to know was significantly hampered by media articles over-stating the area affected by the storm.

While severe conditions indeed occurred, the weather, as meteorologists had expected, was not bad everywhere in New Zealand

…leaving many people wondering what all the fuss was about. The danger this raises is that some of those may simply ignore the next Severe Weather Warning they receive.

All in all, it was a good reminder for why the weather enterprise continually needs to foster the partnership between scientists and the media, and ultimately the communication between forecasters and the public.

Not Seasick…Science Smitten

What if you are asked to be part of a scientific expedition aboard a non-luxurious research vessel, surrounded by complete strangers, forced to face rough seas – and sea sickness, 16 hours’ work shifts, no weekends or recreational activities, no days off, lots of hours under the sun working with scientific equipment, poor internet connectivity and no interaction whatsoever with the outer world? While many people would say: “no thank you”, I was euphoric when I received an email which first line read: “Congratulations, you have been selected as a participant of the Sixth Aerosols and Oceans Science Expedition”.

So begins Mayra Oyola’s engaging story of work aboard the NOAA research vessel Ronald H. Brown for the AEROSE campaign

Beside The Ronald H. Brown.

under the auspices of Howard University, NOAA, and other institutions. It was apparently a love affair not just with the science and the sea, but with a lidar, too:

[E]very scientist is …assigned at least one particular instrument and is expected to become the one and only expert on that matter.  In a sense, every scientist establishes a sort of “bond” with his/her assigned instrument that is very similar romantic affair. You can grow such a strong love and hate relationship with it. There are days when you two can get along just fine. But other days you have to fight against temptations (like throwing it overboard or smashing it with a sledge hammer). There are days when your appointed instrument gets seduced by Murphy (in other words, goes haywire) and you have to make him/her understand that s/he is in a monogamous relationship with you.  As some partners, these instruments can be gold diggers (they cost hundreds/thousands of dollars) and are high maintenance as well.

And, this enticing view of the ocean:

When people say I must be crazy to have loved so much sailing on this expedition, I just ask them a couple of questions: Have you seen bioluminescence or done some fishing in the middle of the Atlantic basin? Or have you ever had the chance to catch a movie under the stars in the middle of the Sea? Well, I had.  There are some great perks about sailing on the Brown. There is nothing as beautiful as lying on deck at night for the most spectacular stargazing sessions you will experience in this world.  There are unusual things that you will never see in your everyday life: like watching a double rainbow or the most impressive towering cumulonimbus cloud EVER at the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITZC). I also loved watching different marine life forms like the flying fishes, dolphins and squids (oh yeah, we saw squids!). Oh and the sunsets… sunsets that will take your breath away!….But the highest reward is this:  we get to do REAL science to solve REAL problems, such as improving the quality of satellite operations,   understanding the effects of aerosols in hurricane formation and intensification and learning how tropospheric ozone can be linked to global warming, among many other things. There is nothing that can top that!

Check out the full story, and picture gallery, here, and kudos to Oyola for such drawing a compelling portrait of science at sea. We talk about the need to communicate science, and we’ll talk more about it as the Annual Meeting approaches, but she’s set a strong example already.