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.

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.

A Community Living Up to Its Name

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director
Last-day thoughts from the AMS Summer Community Meeting this week. From a post in the AMS project, Living On the Real World
The term “community” shouldn’t be applied to any enterprise cheaply; there should be a high bar. gives several definitions for “community.” The third of these is most pertinent here:
“a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the ): the business community; the community of scholars.” [italics in the original]
Coming across that last phrase was a pleasant surprise; it’s been with me since ninth grade. Then I was a student at Wilkins Township Junior High, just outside Pittsburgh. (The school was kind of tough and my ambition was to graduate with all my teeth, but that’s another story.) Our science course that year focused on the weather. The course made an impression on me that lasted over half a century. In part this was because the Earth sciences became my career, but in addition there were two other reasons. First, our teacher, though she was nominally the science teacher, was uncomfortable with science. (This was before the AMS started its Education Program; today’s science teachers have no excuse!). So, our textbook notwithstanding, we spent the entire semester (!!!) on weather superstitions/folklore…”mares’ tails make lofty ships carry low sails,” etc. The semester seemed to me to drag on forever; I’m sure she felt the same way. Second, the opening page of that textbook stated, and I quote, from memory, “Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.” As the son of a scientist, even then the thought inspired me. I wanted to be part of such a community.
In college I majored in physics, and then entered graduate studies at the University of Chicago. I started out at the Institute for the Study of Metals. But there, and then, competition, not cooperation, was the word. It was dog eat dog. The field seemed over-populated. A lot of people were working on the same problem (the de Haas-van Alphen effect, which had been around about 35 years), not sharing progress but keeping results to themselves, etc. After one year, I transferred to the Department of Geophysical Sciences after a year. What a breath of fresh air! There were more than enough problems to go around. Nobody was going to win a Nobel Prize. Growing rich was not in prospect; the geophysical scientists had all taken vows of poverty. As a result, or maybe because the field attracted cooperative types, we all got along! The contrast with physics was palpable.
Today we can all feel more privileged than ever to be part of this community.

Public and Private: More Thoughts from the AMS Summer Community Meeting

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director
A post from the AMS project, Living on the Real World
Back in the 1990s, while still working at NOAA, I was once part of a two-day U.S.-Japan bilateral discussion in Tokyo on science and technology issues. Bill Clinton was President. Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s former Vice President, was then ambassador to Japan. Tim Wirth, who at that time was Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, was leading this particular delegation. Wirth, Mondale and the rest of us from the U.S. side were in a big meeting room with the Japanese. Leaders from Japanese government and industry filled the room, under auspices of MITI, the Japanese Ministry for International Trade and Industry. The Japanese couldn’t comprehend why the United States was moving so haltingly on a range of environmental and hazards matters.
“You have to understand,” Tim Wirth was saying, “that if government and industry worked with each other in the U.S. the way you do in Japan, people would go to jail.”
Tim Wirth’s remark has everything to do with this week’s discussions at the AMS Summer Community Meeting in State College. Two points: First, and foremost, this is our history and our policy in America. Our nation decided long ago that we wanted a free-market society, with minimal government. We wanted government to focus primarily on regulations that would foster capitalism and business competition, and at the same time curb corruption, restraint of trade, monopolistic practices, and other abuses. Second, this approach is a policy, a choice, or framework of choices, not an inescapable reality. Other governments are free to adopt other approaches, and have, as the Japanese example illustrates.
Well, as is so often the case, you pick your poison. The Japanese approach spurred

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Nothing but the Truth, Part 2

We noted that Richard Clark challenged his audience at the AMS Student Conference to make the pursuit of truth their purpose in scientific careers. Not surprisingly, others at the conference expanded on that theme. Jon Nese of Penn State gave a talk spanning some of the pros and cons of life in the various sectors of the weather enterprise, but perhaps most striking was his observation of the role that trust plays in scientific endeavors, academic, private, research, operational or otherwise. It’s worth hearing the way Jon expressed the interdependence between the sectors–operational, research, entrepreneurial, and otherwise–in this pursuit of truth as we embark on a meeting week full of discussions of uncertainties, promising findings, and future priorities.