Tragedy on Main Street: six U.S. tales of repetitive loss.

Tragedy

1.a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair; calamity; disaster:stunned by the tragedy of so many deaths.

2.a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically involving a great person destined to experience downfall or utter destruction, as through a character flaw or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or an unyielding society.

3.the branch of the drama that is concerned with this form of composition.

(from Dictionary.com)

In today’s world, social media obsess over a small handful of entertainment, athletic, political, and business celebrities. It’s easy and tempting for the remaining seven billion of us to emulate, follow, and live vicariously through these few – breathlessly following ups and downs of the run-up (?) to a North Korean- U.S. summit, Meghan’s marriage to Harry, LeBron’s 50+ points Friday night, Roseanne’s latest tweet. We lose sight of reality – that we are, each of us, intended to be the heroes and heroines of our own lives.

What’s more, we’re not actors in some low-key sitcom, but rather a great drama – the challenge of living on the generous, dangerous, fragile real world.

Today’s focus is on the dangerous bit, and how we’re all involved. To see this, we need only to consider the news in recent days from…

Puerto Rico. The 64 deaths estimated last year from Hurricane Maria? That figure, we were told this past week, doesn’t even come close. Harvard public health experts analyzed excess deaths (over statistical normal) resulting over time since, from multiple stressors – interruption of vital medications; loss of shelter; the electrical power needed  to run health equipment and basic air conditioning; contaminated water supplies; the mental anguish from family injuries, property and job loss; and more. These analysts tell us the death toll to date lies between 800-8500, with the most likely figure something like 4600-4700. Remote regions of the island still lack power even as the next hurricane season has begun. Building construction and the repaired electrical infrastructure are no more resilient than before – if anything, less so. Puerto Ricans face repetitions of this tragedy down the road.

Houston, TX. On May 22, the Washington Post reported that Houstonians have begun rebuilding – in the flood plain. The city, the developers, and those who buy these homes are thereby setting into motion future loss and pain. And don’t think those hidden deaths in Puerto Rico aren’t mirrored here. The statistics may not have surfaced yet – they wouldn’t be so dire – but the stress of the Hurricane Harvey has undoubtedly taken a toll – on the ill, the elderly, the very youngest, the poor, anyone who had only been scratching by in prior months.

Ellicott City, MD. A week ago, the second “1000-year” flood in two years inundated this town, just as businesses and townspeople were beginning to recover from the 2016 flash flood. A wetter-than-normal month, saturating the soil, set the stage for flooding from ten inches of rain. But the town is situated in a stream channel. The canyon that provides much of the charm has flooded fifteen times since the 1700’s. Even so, another Washington Post writer pointed out:

there is no question that the downtown historic district will be rebuilt. The more than 200-year-old enclave is Howard County’s cultural heart, its highest-profile attraction and a big economic generator. But as the mud and debris get cleared, some locals acknowledge that it may be time to rethink some of the zone’s most flood-vulnerable spots.

Asheville, NC. Even as workers were digging out Ellicott City, a similar flooding event ravaged this Appalachian tourist town, hit by a comparable flood in 2004.

Berkeley, CA. This university community was badly damaged by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. But that was a rumble on the fault next door, the San Andreas. The Hayward fault runs right through town and the Berkeley campus; seismologists currently indicate it’s the Hayward fault that’s more likely to trigger the next big upheaval in the Bay area. Estimates suggest a 70% probability over the next 30 years. This may seem like a long time. Factor in uncertainty, and the day of reckoning might be still further out. But that uncertainty cuts both ways. Only one thing is sure. Each day brings us 24 hours closer to the inevitable tragedy, and each day’s construction across the Berkeley-Oakland area increases the scope of the resulting loss.

Leilani Estates, Hawaii. Lava flows continue to destroy this idyllic community, with no clear end in sight. Pele, the fire goddess, the “goddess who devours the earth” has been angry before and will be again. If the past is prologue to the present, she’ll find even more construction, people, and economic activity in harm’s way the next time around.

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Takeaways from these six tragedies – whether just suffered, still underway, or in the future, but nearing in the future.

First– our planet is inherently dangerous. No place is safe. All seven billion of us are hurtling through space on what is essentially a top-down convertible – a convertible convulsively shaking and vulnerable to flooding in the passenger compartment. Our six communities preoccupy minds today. But the fact is, another 6000 U.S. towns, counties, and cities are writing their own disaster narratives. Each and every day, each of these dramas is one day closer to denouement.

Our resources are limited. We can’t afford to eliminate disaster risk; we don’t control the vehicle or the route. All that contributes to the second part of the definition of tragedy – our efforts to survive confront “overpowering force.”

Second– while extremes are nature’s way of doing business, disasters are a human construct. We set disasters in motion through our choices and actions – historically, through where and how we have chosen to build – and more recently, through our impatience to reap immediate benefits from quickly installed, cheaply constructed, poorly sited infrastructure (versus taking the thought, time, and effort required to lay in place the more robust but also the more expensive sort that might better withstand the occasional extreme). The question is: can we learn from experience? After each disaster, can we relocate, rebuild more intelligently, otherwise adjust our behavior, rather than resign ourselves to repetitive (and often increasing) loss? Can we make life incrementally safer, secure happier hazard outcomes for our children and grandchildren? In principle, this looks doable. But as a species, perhaps we suffer from a fatal character flaw (tragedy’s primary contributor).

Third– disasters are personal. We can’t count on our political leaders, our entertainment and sports figures to surface these issues, let alone resolve them. J.J. Watt, a Houston-Texan defensive end, raised $37M for hurricane relief for his city last year; years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates Roberto Clemente died in a 1972 plane crash attempting to deliver earthquake relief aid to Nicaragua. Their efforts were noble, but isolated – and ultimately insufficient.

No, living on the real world works the other way around. Celebrities have to hope that you and I – the nameless – collaborate in large numbers locally and regionally to build community-level resilience – so that in years to come, “celebrity” will continue to be a thing.  We all have to get involved. We’re not merely passengers on planet Earth.

We’re members of the crew.

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What kind of world do we want?

“A world that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences in fostering creative solutions for the Earth and humanity.” American Geosciences Institute vision statement

What kind of world do we want[1]?

The folks at the American Geosciences Institute (above, per the previous LOTRWpost) have thoughtfully constructed an answer. It’s worth parsing.

A world…To start, note that AGI articulates a vision for the world– for seven billion people, not merely for its 250,000-odd geoscientists. The vision’s not about the geosciences community’s need for more research funding and infrastructure, or freedom of scientific inquiry, or opportunities for international students at U.S. universities, or public-private partnerships, or career development for geoscientists. These and other similar needs are vital to AGI and its members, and to society – but the vision deliberately sets them aside in pursuit of the larger purpose. They may eventually be uncovered in the effort to realize the world vision – but will be addressed then and only then, as a means to a larger, and frankly nobler, end.

…that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences… This isn’t the world we know today. And such a world won’t be achieved overnight.Under what circumstances can this understanding and trust be achieved? A little thought makes the answer obvious: the world can’t and won’t “buy in” unless and until essentially everyone becomes an active participant in the science, the conversations on the implications of the science and the options for action, and the actions themselves. The starting point for all this – a necessary condition – is improved universal public K-12 education. Not just private education for a wealthy few. Not simply public education isolated to this or that better-off public school district. Not even public education confined to the developed world. And not just STEM education – education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. No, to produce a world that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences requires the education of hundreds of millions of schoolkids worldwide. It requires education that prepares children to live in a changing world by emphasizing critical thinking and learning-to-learn as much more than rote memorization. Education that balances the sciences with the humanities. STEM education where the geo- and social-sciences take their place alongside physics, chemistry, and biology. As children so-educated mature into adulthood, then and only then will the reality year-by-year converge on the vision.

Two asides (both analogies):

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Analogy 1. universal service.

Wouldn’t have thought it, but turns out some explanation is needed here. To google this expression these days is to find that the first page of listings deal with the idea of open internet access to all, rather than a privileged few. Terrific concept – but wasn’t what you’d have found back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In those days, universal service was generally construed to mean universal military service. Young American men[2][sic] were subject to the draft, and at that time arguments were advanced favoring universal service — a system under which all male citizens (apart from specified exceptions) are required to serve a preset length of time in the armed forces. Part of the logic behind this idea is that universal service creates a public better equipped to drive national conversations and decisions with respect to national interests, especially pertaining when and why to sue for peace – or go to war. Such decisions and actions would not be made lightly – as they risk being when only 1% of a given population is in a volunteer armed services, and are isolated culturally and socially from the larger general population.

In the same way, the key challenge facing geoscientists today is that the world has become divided into a few hundred thousand experts on subjects ranging from natural resources to hazards to environmental protection, and seven billion bystanders. We need a more participatory approach. We all need to be more involved, instead of leaving that to “volunteers.”

Analogy 2. Spousal trust, between life partners.

Husbands and wives, and life partners more generally, at least those in happy, satisfying, healthy relationships, trust each other. But that trust is shaped by shared history, experience, and both partners know that trust has limits. The spouse/life partner is unable to solve every problem that comes up. The spouse/life partner can be expected to offer a different perspective on many or all subjects – and even disagree strongly on some. In the same way, trust of geoscientists here can’t mean trust without limit, or trust without some due diligence, or some back and forth. It doesn’t mean that geoscientists will always have all the answers. Generally speaking, however, life partners trust each other’s intent, that is, to have their joint best interests at heart. That trust doesn’t just happen so much as it’s built– by extensive, sustained, close collaboration.

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…fostering creative solutions for the Earth and humanity. Fostering! 250,000 geoscientists can at best contribute to solutions; we can’t implement. That’s the role of the larger society. Creative solutions!But it’s not sufficient for geoscientists to be scolds, to confine their work to “documentation of human failure.” Instead of noting the environmental destruction accompanying natural resource extraction, we have to help identify opportunities, means, and methods for renewable resource development/use. We have to go beyond inventorying increasing losses to natural hazards, and join in the task of building community resilience. And instead of merely documenting loss of habit, bio-diversity, air and water quality, and more, we have to work with the larger society to do a better job of maintaining invaluable and irreplaceable ecosystem services. It’s tempting to settle for piecemeal approaches that give the illusion of solving of problems; rather, we have to push together toward creative solutions that make new progress, and that address simultaneously and holistically the three-fold challenges we face – and at the same time create jobs, lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, improve public health and well-being.

Bottom line? A great vision statement, and suggesting that as a community we need to (1) advance our sciences and their application. But we can’t sustain such progress unless we (2) advance public K-12 education, both generally and with respect to the geosciences in particular. The two goals are on an equal footing.

Who could ask for more meaningful life’s work?

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[1]As repeated often – one of the three questions that form the LOTRWmasthead, that serve as the foundation for everything in this column.

[2]This was focused on men, and males at the time, and, by and large, still is. Like so much else in our society, could stand some reexamination.

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AGI and geo(sciences)-diversity.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart. This week, happenstance more than logic saw me going to Salt Lake City, in order to attend a one-day American Geosciences Institute (AGI) Member Society Council Meeting. AGI, like AIP, is a society whose members are societies[1]. This was to be AMS’ first meeting as a member society; important that someone should go! But the reasonable, more obvious choices from our leadership had conflicts.

My good fortune! The meeting proved both substantive and eye-opening.

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Traveling west a couple of time zones means a messed-up biological clock, insomnia, waking up early, a couple of hours before time for breakfast and the morning meeting. What to do? How to fill the time?

Well, maybe (full disclosure, what I’ve done all my life) cram for my finals. I’m here. Might as well learn something about AGI and not walk into their session cold.

Clicked on the AGI website. Clicked on About.

A lot of stuff there… a sample:

AGI was founded in 1948, under a directive of the National Academy of Sciences, as a network of associations representing geoscientists with a diverse array of skills and knowledge of our planet. The Institute provides information services to geoscientists, serves as a voice of shared interests in our profession, plays a major role in strengthening geoscience education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role the geosciences play in society’s use of resources, resilience to natural hazards, and the health of the environment.

 [Hmm. Can see why it made sense for AMS to join. But what’s this?…founded… under a directive of the National Academy of Sciences? Who knew?]

AGI is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to serving the geoscience community and addressing the needs of society. AGI headquarters are in Alexandria, Virginia.

 AGI’s Mission:

 The American Geosciences Institute represents and serves the geoscience community by providing collaborative leadership and information to connect Earth, science, and people.

 AGI’s Vision:

 A world that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences in fostering creative solutions for the Earth and humanity.

[Very cool vision statement! Who wouldn’t want to get behind that?] The site went on to list what AGI provides:

-Information Services aggregating research vital to geoscientists’ work

-Education and Outreach for schools and the public

-Public Policy facilitating the flow of information between geoscientists and decision makers

-Workforce Development research and analysis of career paths

-Publications that inform on a range of geoscience topics and news

-AGI’s Center for Geoscience and Society

-News on what’s happening now in the geoscience community.

-Recognition of excellence in the geosciences

-Your Connection to the Geosciences

AGI connects Earth, science, and people by serving as a unifying force for the geoscience community. With a network of 52 member societies, AGI represents more than a quarter-million geoscientists. No matter your individual discipline, AGI’s essential programs and services will strengthen your connection to the geosciences.

Okay! But absorbing this information only managed to kill only a few minutes; it was still dark outside; coffee still unavailable in the hotel lobby. What next? Well, AGI provides links to each of their 52 member societies. Maybe in the 90 minutes or so I had left, I could look at the website of each and every one of the member societies.

What a learning experience/wake-up call! For years I’d been thinking I know the diversity of the geosciences – I can recite the catechism of the AGU sections: seismology, petrology, volcanology, geochemistry, etc. – what else can there be?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

The great awakening started with the very first one: AASP… the Palynological Society. Really? How do they get AASP out of that? And what on Earth – or under the Earth – is palynology anyway?

Turns out, according to the website, that “Palynology is the study of pollen, spores, dinoflagellates, and other microscopic “palynomorphs.” Palynology originated in Scandinavia in the early 20th century and developed in America after World War II, particularly in the area of George Fournier, Third President of AASP petroleum exploration.”

Also happens that the group was founded as the “American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists, Inc.” In 2008, AASP changed its name to “AASP – The Palynological Society” to reflect AASP’s promotion of all aspects of palynology in academia and industry.

You already knew that[2]? Good for you. In any event, stratigraphical palynology is a branch of micropalaeontology and paleobotany. It offers context for these more familiar disciplines, provides insights into paleoclimates and their variability, and contributes to challenges as diverse as petroleum exploration and crime-scene forensics.

The next couple of hours’ overview held more of the same flabbergasting flavor. Of course several of the AGI members are big-tent, multi-disciplinary groups all of us have heard of – AGU, the American Geophysical Union; AAG, the American Association of Geographers; GSA, the Geological Society of America.

But others specialize: the American Rock Mechanics Association; the Clay Minerals Society; The Geochemical Society; the Mineralogical Society of America; the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology; the National Groundwater Association; and so on.

Many are more than mere science societies. They share the same mix of science and professional application supported by AMS. Their ranks include the Geological Society of America; the American Association of Geographers, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, et al.

Some are accrediting, standards-setting, licensing groups, operating like our CCM and Certified Broadcast Meteorologist Boards: the American Institute of Hydrology, the American Institute of Professional Geologists; and more.

Some are focused on the state level: take, for example, the Association of American State Geologists and the National Association of State Boards of Geology.

Others have an education slant: the Council on Undergraduate Research; the National Association of Geoscience Teachers; the National Earth Sciences Teachers Association, et al.

Some are based in other countries: the Geological Association of Canada; Geological Society of London; the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

A few specialize in the history of these fields: the History of Earth Sciences Society; the Petroleum History Institute; and (would you count this one?) the Society of Mineral Museum Professionals.

A few feel exotic, starting with that leadoff group, the Palynological Society. The AGI embrace extends to the International Medical Geology Association, the Karst Waters Institute, the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, the National Speleological Society, the Society of Economic Geologists, and the United States Permafrost Association.

All told, an amazing degree of disciplinary speciation – and a reminder that seven billion people can find richly varied ways to segment and self-identify, in ways resembling a Mandelbrot fractal. (Undoubtedly if we were to go back to atmospheric science and drill down we could find similar fine-structure.)

With this disciplinary diversity also comes a focus on professional diversity. The AGI includes among its member societies the Association for Women Geoscientists and the National Association of Black Geoscientists. And that’s a good segue into another topic…

…The newly-released AGI Community Statement on Harassment. Just as diversity is one of the strengths of any human endeavor, harassment must count as one of diversity’s insidious adversaries. For this reason alone, the full AGI statement merits our careful attention, in all its particulars (and is receiving just that from AMS elected-leadership). To whet your interest, it starts out this way:

Geoscientists guide humanity in the use and stewardship of Earth’s resources, drive the scientific pursuit of new knowledge about the planet, and provide education in all of the earth sciences.  Professionals and students in the geosciences represent all walks of life with a full array of personal attributes and cultures.

The American Geosciences Institute (AGI) expects those in the profession to adhere to the highest ethical standards in all professional activities. This includes the active promotion of working and learning environments free of all forms of harassment, aggression or coercion based on any personal attributes, cultures, or differences in status.  This also includes a firm rejection of those who would harass other geoscientists of any rank or status in a manner that may jeopardize their personal safety or comfort or otherwise potentially impede their professional progress or growth.  The guidelines address shared aspects of this topic across the geoscience community; the professional codes of conduct for individual societies may expand beyond these guidelines.

This statement applies to geoscientists at all career stages, including students through senior professionals.  The statement is designed to allow and encourage comprehensive application within scope and span of member society rules, in the particular situations encountered by geoscientists within their ranks.  This document provides a coherent statement of values and conduct from and within the broader AGI community, and joins the voices of many other major STEM societies internationally in promoting healthy, supportive working and learning environments in our scientific endeavors…

It goes on to describe what harassment (including but by no means limited to sexual harassment) is; and then making recommendations to member societies for action, including intervention and enforcement, and best practices for reporting. The statement isn’t prescriptive, but rather provides a point of departure for member societies, better equipping them to develop their corresponding statements, and cope with harassment more generally.

Thoughtful. Actionable. Resource versus regulation. Helpful. Just one example of the benefits AGI provides member societies, and the 250,000 of us – the palynologists and the cloud microphysicists, the geologists and hydrologists, the oceanographers and space weather experts and all the others who belong.

Expect to see more value from our AGI membership in the months and years ahead: supporting our own AMS actions to advance diversity, such as ECLA, to be sure, but also across the full sweep of our agenda.

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A postscript; the exploration of all this on-line material on AGI member societies proved so absorbing that I went from wondering how to fill an empty hour or two to scrambling to capture the last few morsels remaining from the picked-over meeting breakfast.

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[1]In this instance AGI was taking advantage of an American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) conference and exhibition to hold a side meeting.

[2]Certainly Ana Unruh Cohen, a leading figure in our community, knows. Her Oxford Ph.D. thesis was based on dust samples from the Gobi desert.

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Weather’s 101st moment.

We each have our moments.

As it is with humanity, the same holds true for the weather. This week, weather celebrates its 101st moment – the release of Andy Revkin and Lisa Mechaley’s collaboration, Weather, an Illustrated History: From Cloud Atlases to Climate Change. The book chronicles, in crisp text and art, a series of vignettes on weather’s top 100 moments, spanning nearly five billion years.

A great read – fanciful and fun – and at the same time profound and thought-provoking.

We’re reminded that the Earth’s first order of business (moment#1) was cloaking itself in an atmosphere, and as soon as possible (moment#2), adding water. Takes a while, but eventually (moment#11), weather gains a human audience, and that audience is literally moved by the experience (100,000 BCE Climate Pulse Propels Populations). It’s not long before the audience enters the action (moment#15); agriculture warms the planet ca. 5,000BCE.

Keep reading (actually the path of least resistance – the experience is not unlike that encounter with a bowl of popcorn – it’s easier to keep going than to stop)! You’ll find all your favorites. The great atmospheric events – medieval warmth and the little ice age, cooling in response to volcanic eruptions, great hurricanes and storms, awesome floods, and more. The great human accomplishments – weighing the atmosphere, deciphering the rainbow, harnessing wind power, making useful forecasts, modifying the weather, and laying the foundation for geoengineering. The unintended human consequences, starting with that agriculturally-triggered warming, extending to acquired vulnerability to extreme weather and solar storms, the current global warming, Arctic sea-ice retreat (moment#97), and coral reef die-offs (moment#99). A closing conjecture about an end to the ice ages (moment#100) responsible for so many of the first 99 moments.

It’s all there – and more.

The book is a page turner. Savor the experience. But don’t fool yourself. Weather: an Illustrated History is no mere inventory. What elevates it to moment #101? Just this: Revkin and Mechaley have framed the early chapters of a suspense thriller.  Will humanity, now a major actor on the world stage – be the hero or the villain of the piece? Will we consciously comprehend the growing impacts of our acquisition of natural resources, our efforts to cope with hazards, and our unthinking environmental despoliation? Will that awareness drive us to harness our new technological capabilities and social networking tools with will and vision sufficient to change our current course, making it more sustainable?  Most fundamentally, can seven billion of us master our common spiritual challenge? That is, can we overcome our tendencies to resent, factionalize, and polarize, and instead build the trust, the vision, and the common purpose we need to move forward?

So – buy and read the book! You’ll be glad you did. But don’t stop there. Let the experience carry you forward; take another step toward personally creating or identifying  weather-moment #102. Play your part in moving that and the succeeding moments, yet to come, in a positive direction.

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ECLA!

AMS Early Career Leadership Academy (ECLA) holds two days of face-to-face sessions this week. From the looks of the final agenda, the event promises to be life-changing for the participants. Kudos to the sponsors and program organizers… you’ve set something powerful into motion!

A small contribution to the occasion (akin to the party-favor you might find by your place setting), this in the form of a question for each participant:

How might I make better use of questions in my life?

Okay, Bill: here’s a question for you… what on Earth do questions have to do with leadership?

Well, it turns out that management/leadership experts seem to agree that leaders make important contributions to their organization or community by asking questions.

Also happens, though, that the same gurus differ widely in their suggested framing of those questions. Consider these two examples:

Example 1:

  1. Is there a simpler solution or simpler way of doing this?
  2. Can you explain the solution to me?
  3. What should we stop doing?
  4. Is this urgent or important?
  5. Do you think our approach will be successful?

Example 2:

  1. What does success look like?
  2. What’s holding us back?
  3. Who has experience with this?
  4. What’s the climate here?
  5. What if this setback is really an opportunity in disguise?
  6. What hasn’t been achieved yet?

These weren’t chosen randomly; they just happened to be the first two that popped up on a google search. You can take a look for yourself and uncover millions (literally) of alternative question sets. Perhaps you see elements in these two (or some other) lists to admire; more likely you quickly start seeing ways they can be improved upon. Perhaps they seem too bland, or generic… or just slightly misdirected…

That’s the point. You don’t want to adopt someone else’s list; you want to formulate your own.

Do this with some care and thought. Craft an initial set and then revisit and refine it from time to time. Over a period of years, you’ll realize you’ve created a guide, a lodestone, a compass (insert your own metaphor here) that is helping you set the course of your life’s work – equipping  you to distinguish between what’s vital and enduring and what’s merely urgent and fleeting, between what matters and what’s irrelevant; to tell the difference between opportunity and distraction.

Wouldn’t ask you to do anything I haven’t done myself, so here’s…

Example 3:

My list of questions appears on the masthead of Living on the Real World. First formulated these thirty years ago, listening to conversations at the nascent stages of what is today’s full-throated climate-change debate, discussions of sustainability, and related issues. Had the naïve/grandiose idea that they’d make a great frame for a worldwide conversation to celebrate the run-up to the millennium – the year 2000.

We all know that didn’t happen!

More recently (and with humbler aspirations), in 2010, they seemed to provide a useful frame for the blog.

What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action? This is a science question – not just an Earth sciences question, but rather one that has three dimensions. Where is the natural world – the world of resources, extremes, landscape, environment, biomass and biodiversity – trending?  In what ways is it degrading? I what respects might it be becoming more robust? What about the social world – the world of seven+ billion people? Are we growing more urbanized? Richer or poorer? Equitable or unfair? Peaceful or fractious?  And finally what about our spiritual world? Are we suppressing our spiritual side, or allowing it to flower? Do we celebrate its diversity, or do we all tend to shoehorn it into something narrow, monochromatic?

What kind of world do we want? This is a social question, a societal question, a question for everyone, not just for scientists. The question clearly has no answer, yet it deserves ongoing attention. That emphasis extends to figuring out how we engage each other on this issue. How do we keep discussion from morphing into debate, and debate from degrading into polarization and dysfunction? And keep in mind this question also has the same three dimensions: what kind of “natural” world do we want? What kind of social world would be desirable? What kind of spiritual world suits?

(A google search doesn’t back this up but) I was once told that George Bernard Shaw said, “if you have everything you want, you might as well be dead.”  So, we’re not likely to ever “get what we want.” This will always be a journey. That brings us to the third question:

What kind of world is possible if we act effectively?  What’s achievable? What represents a step or steps in the right direction? What can I, or my community, or my organization, do next? How do I translate thought into action?

Regardless of your background, somewhere along the line a teacher or professor asked you to write a paper or thesis, and asked you to start with some articulation of “what question am I trying to answer?” That wasn’t just an idle academic exercise. The teacher was trying to equip you for life… for life as a leader. So, if you’re an ECLA participant and have already framed such questions as a guide to living and leading, use this ECLA event as a chance to reexamine them, refresh them. If you haven’t got a pre-existing list, develop a prototype list while you’re here.

Even if you’re well past the ECLA stage, or not directly involved (remember, seven billion people fall into this category) give your life questions another look, and in the process make your day and your relationships and your work just that much more meaningful and effective.

And remember, it’s not just about you. When you do this, you make life better for the rest of us as well. Thank you!

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The 2018 March for… and the Sustainability of … Science.

Scientists are appropriately focused on the sustainability of science: will it continue to prove useful and beneficial to society? Will society continue to support science?

Which brings us to the March for Science.

On April 14, if history runs true to form, thousands of scientists around the world, and an even larger number of supporters of science, will take to the streets in a second March for Science. Weather forecasts for that day are just coming into view. As of this writing, in Washington DC, the outlook is for fair and warm; a far cry from last year’s cold and rain.

Marking the occasion, this past Thursday, the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communicationmade public the findings from its survey of participants and followers in the 2017 March. Whether you’re preparing to join this year’s March or not, the survey results make useful reading.

(Substantive? Interesting? Evidence-based versus conjectural? Facts versus spin? These signature traits mark the work of 4C, as the George Mason researchers refer to themselves. Their stated goal?To develop and apply social science insights to help society make informed decisions that will stabilize the earth’s life-sustaining climate, and prevent further harm from climate change.Under the leadership of its director, Ed Maibach, the Center has developed a reputation for insightful studies and reports over an extended period of years.)

Here are the 2017 March survey key findings, reproduced verbatim:

  • Roughly 7 out of 10 survey respondents said they participated in a March for Science in person on April 22, 2017; about one third (32%) attended the main march in Washington, DC.
  • Although most had participated in a march or demonstration before (71%), for many, the March for Science was their first science-related demonstration (88%).
  • A majority (61%) felt that, in their country, conditions for scientists are headed in the wrong direction. Respondents in the United States assigned most blame for this to Republicans in Congress (93% said they deserve “all” or “a lot” of the blame) and Donald Trump (90% said “all” or “a lot”).
  • The most common concerns expressed by participants in the United States were: the current Congress and administration would make harmful reductions in the use of scientific evidence in government decision making (91%); cuts in government funding for research (90%); and reductions in access to government data for scientific research (81%).
  • Participants expressed many goals that they held for the March for Science. The two most commonly cited goals were “increasing evidence based input into policy making” (89% selected this as a goal, and 38% selected it as their most important goal), and “sustaining public funding of science” (88% and 20%, respectively).
  • Despite these aspirations, only about half of participants thought the march would be at least moderately effective at increasing evidence based input into policy making (46%), and at sustaining public funding for science (52%).
  • Majorities of participants in the United States said they thought the response to the march was positive among scientists (91%), Democrats in Congress (79%), the news media (70%), and the American public (55%). However, majorities also thought that Donald Trump (68%) and Republicans in Congress (64%) had a negative response to the march.
  • Nearly all participants said they were taking a variety of other advocacy actions to advance the goals that brought them to participate in the march, including discussing science-related issues with their family and friends (97%), contacting government officials (83%), attending another march or demonstration (80%), donating money to a scientific or political organization (78%), and discussing science-related issues online (73%).
  • Most participants felt that a number of actions would be effective at reducing harm to science from the current Congress and the president, if many people do them. The action seen as most effective was donating money to a scientific or political organization (84% perceived it as at least moderately effective), followed by contacting government officials (78%), engaging with the media (76%), attending a march or public demonstration (72%), discussing science-related issues with their friends and family (70%), and discussing science-related issues online (58%).
  • About half of participants (51%) viewed scientists as either a “somewhat” (44%) or “heavily” (8%) politically liberal group, whereas most of the other half (47%) see scientists neither liberal nor conservative in particular. Very few participants (2%) saw scientists as a “somewhat” (2%) or “heavily” (<1%) politically conservative group.
  • Only about one in six (17%) participants said that the political leaning of scientists hurts their ability to be objective. However, two out of three (66%) said that the political leaning of scientists makes it more difficult for people of another party to believe them.

You now have a flavor for the survey and the scholarship – but if you have the time, please read the entire report. There’s much more to be mined from the details of the 4C summary.

To recap, and distill down even further:

Respondents from the United States largely shared a view that conditions for scientists are headed in the wrong direction, and that one party was largely to blame[1]. Nearly 90% of participants were looking to see increased evidence-based input into policymaking, and sustained support for science. However, only half the participants figured the March itself would be effective toward these same ends.  Most figured one political party would view the March favorably; the other negatively. They viewed scientists as either politically liberal or politically neutral as a group as opposed to conservative. For the most part they didn’t see this as hurting their ability to be objective, but two-thirds thought this made it more difficult for people of a different political persuasion to believe them.

In a nutshell: March participants want increased evidence-based policymaking and support for science. They see the chances that the March will change minds as no better than 50-50. In fact they believe that conservatives (political leaders and general public) will see this as a poke in the eye.

Given this evidence-based social science, what should scientists do?

Science can’t be sustainable if only half of  Americans support it. In light of the 4C survey data, it follows the March ought to be substantially positive in tone and impact, across any partisan divide, OR it should be a miniscule, nearly invisible piece of scientists’ engagement with policymakers and the public. If it’s going to express a political message then it should be accompanied, even overwhelmed, by a rich, ongoing relationship that looks far more like collaboration – or even courtship– than confrontation.

The latter is in fact the reality. To start, US scientists wake up every morning to focus on the day job. Research: pushing back the frontiers of our basic understanding of how the natural world works, as well as the social science of how seven billion people think and engage socially with each other. Service: applying this understanding to technological advance; partnering up with individuals, corporations, and nations to build a safer, healthier, richer, more satisfying life for all, while preserving the web of ecosystems and natural resources that sustain us. Teaching: sharing the excitement of science with young people and inspiring them to join in. Scientists are providing an extraordinary return on society’s $100B+  investment.

And when scientists dialog with policymakers, the majority (?), certainly the effective bits, of the communications are characterized by respect, by two-way listening and learning as much as talking, by clarity but also by accommodation.

We know all this in part because the 2018 federal budgets for science were generally positive, exceeding substantially the initial administration requests… and these budgets were passed by majorities of both chambers of Congress, and signed by the president. Support continues to be widespread and bipartisan.

We want things to stay that way.

My dad, himself a scientist and a manager of scientists, always said to my brother and me: make your compliments public and keep your criticisms private.

So, this coming Saturday, as we prepare to join the March, and make clever signage, and join in any chanting, or model desired behavior for the kids we brought along, or perhaps even make a speech…

… let’s think like scientists – be (4C) evidence-based in our approach to the audience we’re trying to cultivate and persuade. Let’s defuse the confrontation and accentuate the celebration.

Let’s do our bit to make, and keep, science sustainable.

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[1]Incidentally, the survey also noted in the body of the report that only a minority (roughly a quarter) of scientists thought they shared some of the blame as well. Non-scientist participants in the March viewed scientists more favorably.

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Meteorology: Where do we go from here?

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” – Martin Luther King, Jr.,  (from his last speech, I’ve been to the Mountaintop, April 3, 1968)

Today, April 4, marks fifty years since the tragic assassination of the reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. As part of its commemoration of the event, Memphis held a two-day symposium April 2-3 asking the question: where do we go from here? Unsurprisingly, participants arrived knowing that despite progress over the ensuing half-century, much more remained to be done. They decided that the path forward lies in a rededication to those causes Dr. King espoused: racial equality; reduction of poverty; greater economic equity; better education for all; and more. Time to enter, not just view, the promised land.

Today, meteorologists, and their close kin hydrologists, oceanographers, climatologists, Earth and space scientists, could well ask the same question. Although the particulars include many arcane scientific and technological bits, much of “where do we go from here” is aligned with Dr. King’s broader themes.

Inclusion is a major AMS concern and goal. With the transition in the meteorological profession from forecasts of geophysical conditions per se to impact-based decision support, meteorologists, whether researchers or service providers, find themselves drawn in not just to the social dimensions of their work but also a continuing need to translate “protection of life and property” and “economic development” into both public good and private interest. The act of balancing these two needs changes and grows more challenging with each scientific and technological advance and the unintended consequences for shifts in private and public provision of weather services. Underpinning the prospects for managing these challenges is the state of American public education, especially critical thinking and STEM education. Weather extremes – hurricanes, winter storms, floods, and other natural phenomena – are portal drawing young Americans into scientific fields more broadly.

The value of meteorology to society, but, more importantly, the connection of meteorology to American values?

Worth some reflection today. If as a meteorological community, we model inclusion; through continuing innovation foster public good as well as private interest; and do our bit for STEM education; we can help America and the world toward a more sustainable, vibrant, satisfying and meaningful future.

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Congress appropriates science funding for FY 2018.

___________________________________________________________

[Jesus asked] “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

 “The first,” they answered. – Matthew 21:28-31 (NIV)

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Last week, the president signed the final 2018 appropriations bill passed by the Congress. Debate over specifics of the bill had riveted public attention for some time; almost every American found some of the bits likable, other aspects less so.

If you happen to be a scientist, though, looking at the budget through that narrow lens, the final numbers appeared quite a bit better than you might have feared. The starting point of the proposed budget and potential for cutbacks to specific agencies, programs, and subject matter had been cause for concern, right up until the end.

But, again for scientists, that end proved generally positive. FYI[1], the American Institute of Physics’ science policy newsletter, even went so far as to label the result a windfall for science. Their figure, reproduced above, shows the results for several agencies.

Congress went home for a scheduled (and undoubtedly welcome!) Easter-Passover break.

The budget, and its coincident seasonal timing, calls to mind a discussion that Jesus had with Pharisees and other religious leaders, recorded during a similar run-up to Passover some 2000 years ago. A piece of that conversation opens this post. The chief priests and elders – the establishment – were questioning his authority; he in turn noted their hypocrisy, especially evident compared with the faith he found in the underserved and disenfranchised of that day – tax collectors, prostitutes, et al.

As part of the back-and-forth, this well-known parable.

One question we might ask is this: focusing solely on the science element of the 2018 budget, which son was the Congress in this parable?

The first.

This matters. Congressional support for science budgets holds many positive implications for the world’s future prospects, and for America’s place in that world. Innovation is the key to greater economic prosperity; more sustainable use of food, water, and energy resources; reduction in world poverty; resilience to hazards; and protection of the environment; and so much more. And America, representing 4% of world’s population but 20% or more of its consumption, necessarily shoulders a big and globally visible responsibility for moving things forward. The competition for innovation, and the corresponding competition for people’s hearts and minds, is the big story of the 21st century.

In the face of this, how might scientists conduct ourselves? Well, we might start by expressing thanks to Congress and the American people, for one. We might redouble our efforts to advance knowledge and understanding, with a sense of urgency derived not merely from a desire for personal gain or reputation, but with an eye to its greater societal benefit. (After all, society is footing the bill… and major portions of the society paying for our work are not so well off as scientists as a class.) We might communicate and celebrate those benefits with those around us.

Why bring this up now, Bill?

Here’s why. While our gratitude, sense of urgency, and commitment to public well-being ought to be ongoing, one moment is coming up where what we scientists think as a group will be especially visible and on full display: the March for Science, scheduled for April 14.

In view of this show of bipartisan Congressional understanding of the importance of science and corresponding support, it would be inappropriate to come across in April as ungrateful, self-centered, or politically partisan – to bite the hand of the Congress and public who feed us.

Now of course the national need for science and innovation doesn’t end with the budget. Immigration policy, STEM education, energy, hazards, and environmental policy, the need to refurbish U.S. critical infrastructure, even free trade and more all hold the potential for fostering science and its application if done well and inhibit progress if mishandled. The use of science in decision making with respect to climate change, genetically modified organisms, vaccinations, and much more could stand improvement. So the conversation isn’t over; the listening and persuading isn’t done. But the support for science budgets signals bipartisan willingness to engage these other issues in the science context.

We ought to welcome and seize that opportunity. In practice, good will reigns. Congress showed up for work in the science vineyard. The March for Science optimally would reflect a similar positive, non-partisan note on our part.

To see the importance of this, reflect on the contrast with another issue, and with another march: gun control. With children, singly or in groups, losing their lives to guns every day, there’s real reason for grave concern. Hence the outpouring of protest in last weekend’s March for Our Lives.

We might all do well to reflect on both Marches – their similarities and differences  – in preparing for April 14. In the meantime, enjoy and celebrate Passover/Easter, however you may observe it.

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[1] Not familiar with this publication? You might want to be. Crisp, insightful, timely reporting on issues and events that matter to physical scientists across a broad spectrum. One of many benefits AIP provides its member societies, their members, and the world.

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AMS Workshop on Forecasts and Water Resource Management.

This coming Tuesday-Wednesday, April 3-4, the American Meteorological Society is holding a workshop here in Washington, DC on Translating Advances in Forecasting to Inform Water Resources Management.

You don’t want to miss it. You do want to register.

Here’s why.

The topic matters. If your expertise lies in Earth observations, science, and services, there’s no greater intrinsic challenge than the meteorology and hydrology needed to forecast water availability. And there’s no more important application for such knowledge than managing Earth’s water resources on local, national, and global scales, over both the short term and the long range – ensuring that water supplies remain ample, uninterruptible, potable, and cheap. If you want meaningful life and work, devote yourself to this cause.

Then there’s the checkered history of weather/water forecasts per se. In 2003, Steve Rayner, Denise Lach, Helen Ingram, and Mark Houck wrote a seminal paper under the challenging title Weather Forecasts are for Wimps: Why Water Resource Managers don’t Use Climate Forecasts[1]. The authors compared management practices for three U.S. watersheds: the Columbia, Colorado, and Potomac Rivers. They found that dam operators made decisions to release or hold water solely based on existing water levels behind the dam, without any reference to weather outlooks indicating wet or dry conditions over ensuing periods (with emphasis on seasonal to inter-annual implications of ENSO forecasts). Simply put, the forecast skill had been deemed below that threshold needed to improve management practice.

But that was fifteen years ago. Predictions of precipitation extremes have improved since then, on all timescales extending from a few days out to seasons. And Congress has called for augmented research focus and further innovation in Title 2 of Public Law 115-25 (also known as the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017). This raises questions:

What’s the usage of state-of-the-art forecasts in water resource management today? How might forecasts be made more useful? Can decision processes take better advantage of existing forecasts? How do we expect forecasts to improve? Workshop participants will tackle these and other questions related to improvement of the physical forecasts.

But that’s only one piece of the puzzle.

The forecast aspect is matched by the policy opportunities and challenges. State and local jurisdictional boundaries only partially respect watershed geographies, and even when they do it’s often to create competing jurisdictions on opposite riverbanks. Downstream needs and interests conflict with upstream demands and concerns. Federal responsibilities apportioned among USGS, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA and other federal agencies overlay state and local purview in complex ways. Each water-resource player engages diverse publics in the pursuit of different blends of basic goals – public health and safety, economic development, hazard mitigation, environmental protection. As a result, water availability at any point in the watershed and at any given time depends as much on the aggregated human decisions as on the recent precipitation history.

The management problem is thus so complex that water resource managers rely heavily on policies and regulatory frameworks, often put in place a century or so ago, when water demands were so small compared with natural flows and supplies that any science was rudimentary and (fortunately) muddle-through strategies were adequate. Today, margin for error is smaller, and the stakes are higher. This raises a second set of questions:

How might policies be evaluated? Improved?  How can policies at local, state, and federal levels be made more consistent? As forecasts improve, how might policies be made more adaptive, able to capitalize on the opportunities – and mitigate the threats – imposed by weather and climate variability on all scales?

Game-changing technologies are coming on line. Water-resource managers of the future will enjoy observing platforms and instruments of unprecedented diagnostic power for monitoring and assessing water resources, and aiding decisions. And the technological opportunities don’t end there. New computing capacity, data analytics, and even artificial intelligence greatly expand the opportunity for improving forecasts – not just of the (geo)physical system but the coupled natural-human system behavior – and thus optimizing outcomes. And new facilities such as the National Water Center will serve as incubators for the needed innovation. This raises the third set of questions:

How best to harness such new technologies? And get them working together? Can we go beyond a Weather-Ready Nation to build a Water-Ready one?

At the workshop’s conclusion, those interested can adjourn to a Hill briefing the afternoon of April 4, in the Congressional Visitors Center that will bring Workshop conclusions to interested Congressional staffers – while findings are fresh in minds. What happens at the Workshop doesn’t stay at the Workshop.

Water resource management. Both a defining scientific topic and an existential societal concern. A diverse roomful of experts spanning the full range of relevant perspectives. At a pivotal point in the science and its application for the benefit of life. In the city where science meets society, and where critical infrastructure is the topic of the day. Only one way to improve on things:

Your active involvement at every phase.

Please join us.

__________

[1] The report has appeared in multiple formats. The 2003 report to NOAA is available in pdf form here. A version also appeared in the April 2005 issue of Climatic Change.

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When your autonomous vehicle goes autocratic.

The March3-9 print edition of The Economist had a great special report on autonomous vehicles. Actually “great” as a modifier to Economist special article is redundant; all their reports are worth the read and this one was no exception. Tom Standage does a masterful job of driving the reader through the future landscape of such vehicles, suggesting they’ll change the world as the automobile itself has done over the century just past. He explores the technical issues; the emerging competition among carmakers, IT leaders, startups, and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft; the awkward aspects of the transition period we’re entering; and much more.

That “much more” includes an inventory of foreseen and unforeseen consequences: reductions in deaths and injuries (and reductions in organ donations); reductions in congestion and the need for urban parking acreage, associated with the rise of ride-sharing; the commercial world arriving at our doorsteps; cars that could be reshaped and outfitted as workout platforms, beauty salons, etc.; and additional infringements on privacy; possible new forms of segregation, reduced access and much more.

The report even acknowledges that meteorology, especially snowfall (blanketing lane markers and other features helpful to onboard computers busily identifying automobile position) poses challenges that have yet to be addressed.

A lot to process!

As thorough as the report is, however, it suffers from a blind spot – the same human blind spot that shapes our policies for dealing with weather hazards. That blind spot? A failure to learn from experience (following the aviation industry), and a reliance on emergency evacuation in the face of weather hazard as opposed to vigorous attention to land use and building codes that would make home the safest place to be, and shelter-in-place the preferred hazard response.

Here are three realities (or social preferences, whichever nomenclature you prefer). First, the transition to autonomous vehicles will occur on a time scale short compared with the lifetime of the nation’s building stock. That is, we will find ourselves in Autonomous Vehicle World before it will be safe to shelter in place, no matter how vigorously we might move to replace or retrofit building stocks with something safer. As a future hurricane approaches shore, thousands/millions of people in the path will still need to evacuate.

Second, current emergency response favors “mandatory” evacuation not just because of the short-term physical hazard posed to people in harm’s way, but also because an empty city is easier to manage during extreme weather than one teeming with people all facing a variety of special needs (for food, water power; emergency medical attention; protection from looters, etc.) Artificial intelligence will make it technically possible for emergency managers to do this. They might in principle take over control of vehicles during evacuations; ensure that vehicles don’t evacuate with only a single driver, but also pick up a couple of others who might need a ride, etc.

This concern might seem fanciful (“Americans would never allow such an infringement on their basic liberties”) but for the fact that autonomous vehicles are likely to be accompanied by widespread, nearly universal ridesharing, and a substantial drop in the number of vehicles on the road and a change in the ownership of those vehicles. Facing a need to evacuate, what will be the pricing structure for ridesharing vehicles? Barring regulation, what is to prevent the price-gouging already visible during peak commuter traffic, or evident in home and building repairs following a natural disaster, such as one of the hurricanes or wildfires the U.S. suffered during autumn of 2017? Will price and ability to pay alone determine access to vehicles? What are the implications for social equity in this arrangement? Would access instead be first-come, first-served? That has drawbacks too. Will ridesharing vehicles be commandeered to dump passengers off at nearby shelters (versus, say, a more distant home of a family member) to allow return visits to the hazard zone?

The Economist report suggests we’ll be better off individually and as a society to the extent we work out these and related policy issues in advance, versus belatedly discovering problems in the aftermath of a crisis.

It’s not too soon to begin thinking these problems through. Perhaps the process might spur efforts to build resilience in the built environment and critical infrastructure.

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