Meteorologists – forecast your own future!


“Like some inferior doctor who’s become ill/You’re in despair and are unable to discover/By what medicine you yourself can be cured.” – Aeschylus[1], Prometheus Bound (5th century B.C.)

Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’…” – Luke 4:23 (NIV)

Physicians certainly don’t get a pass. They heal others, or claim to. The challenge that they heal themselves is almost as old as the profession itself (as the quotes above reveal). In like manner, meteorologists are in the business of forecasting the weather. Isn’t it only fair to ask of meteorologists[2]: you who are so good at forecasting – can you predict your own future?

Yes, just as a weather itself changes, so is the field of meteorology itself in transition. And just as any complete weather forecast addresses different elements: pressure, temperature, wind, cloudiness, precipitation amount and form, and so on, the future of meteorology itself is evolving in multi-faceted ways. Here’s a notional list that attempts to capture seven trends that matter (the list itself is subject to change! I might rethink; and/or you might offer your better list):

The future of the need for meteorology. At present, society’s need for forecasts seems to be increasing, not diminishing; growing in complexity, not diminishing; and growing in urgency. Can meteorology continue to meet this need?

The future of the task of meteorology. Once meteorology focused on saving life and property; today, preserving business- and community continuity have been added to the mix. The task continues to expand, extending beyond forecasts of atmospheric parameters per se to impacts on weather-sensitive activities, ranging from the production of food and fiber to energy to transportation and water resource management. What’s immutable? What’s varying, and why?

The future of the tools of meteorology. New tools are coming on line: observing instruments of unprecedented diagnostic power; novel observing platforms such as drones and cube-sats; breakthroughs in computing capacity; the emergence of data analytics and cognitive computing; and the application of rigorous social science. Are these advances incremental, or transformational? Will they be adequate for the growing future task? What additional innovation is needed?

The future of the benefits of meteorology. The growing needs and new capabilities suggest that weather forecasts of the future will be far more valuable than they are today. But we struggle to measure that value and articulate it to others today; as costs mount, can we continue to afford such a limitation?

The future of meteorological institutions (that is, the “Weather Enterprise.”) All these changes are triggering upheaval in traditional relationships and collaborations across the public, private, and academic sectors, as well as internationally. Will the roles of the sectors shift in importance, and how? What can institutions do to maintain their relevance, to be agents of change rather than dinosaurs that history passes by?

The future of the profession of meteorology. Growing societal needs for more widely-available professional help at reduced cost are motivating innovative application of IT to all the professions, including but not limited to medicine, education, law, accounting, journalism, and more, transforming the very nature of these professions in the process. Meteorology will be no exception. What will it mean to be a meteorologist 10-20 years from now?

The uncertainty of these forecasts. Finally, predicting the future of meteorology, like predicting the weather itself, is fraught with uncertainty. The biggest uncertainties lie not in the technological end, but on the societal side. What will be the policies governing such work? How will those policies balance public good with private interest, both domestically and internationally? Will current trends to politicize science grow, or will they prove a passing phase? And particularly, what will be the effect of public education on society-wide engagement across these issues? What other uncertainties compete with these?

This latter set of issues raises further questions for meteorologists. For example, consider the three questions that form the LOTRW masthead, with “meteorology” substituted for “world”:

What kind of meteorology is likely if we take no deliberate action?

What kind of meteorology do we want?

What kind of meteorology is possible if we act effectively?

Or, more broadly: to what extent will meteorologists shape our own destiny, and to what extent will it be shaped for us, by the larger society?

Unsurprisingly, these questions, and issues like them, rivet the attention of meteorologists worldwide. Increasingly, they’re part and parcel of every scientific and technical conference. They’re the subject of workshops, seminars, colloquia, and fora. They are hallway talk in government agencies, businesses, and on university campuses. They’re the stuff of international negotiations and agreements. The conversations are expanding, entraining a widening range of organizations, disciplines, and publics. But we serve a larger society, and that society’s diverse range of publics deserve a say in where and how the Weather Enterprise trends. Where are those publics in the debates over meteorology’s future? H. R 353, The Weather Research and Forecast Improvement Act of 2017 suggests that Congress is taking an interest; others are likely to soon follow.

In closing, perhaps we might all observe that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.[3] Go back to the question above: to what extent will we shape our own destiny, and to what extent will it be shaped for us, by the larger society? One answer is clear: wait long enough, and others will shape our destiny for us. Seize the reins, and we might have (and even deserve!) more of a say.

And both we and the larger society might be better served.

In that spirit, future posts in this blog will drill down on these seven points[4].


[1]Though his authorship is in dispute.

[2] The same question might be asked of geoscientists more broadly. The word meteorology is used here to encompass this much broader set of disciplines in the same way that it does when used in the name of the American Meteorological Society (which encompasses hydrology, climatology, oceanography, and space weather, among other disciplines), in order to bring some economy to the language.

[3] The origin of a family of quotes including this variant apparently goes back to 1963 and Dennis Gabor, a Nobel prize-winning physicist (holography), who said, “we cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.” The quote has proven widely popular since, as attested by attempts to attribute it to Abraham Lincoln, one of the gold standards for quotable wisdom.

[4]A few caveats. First, regular LOTRW readers will note that some of these seven topics have already been treated in earlier (numerous) posts. Second, working through all the topics will take some time, giving opportunity for Mother Nature and other events to intervene. Therefore, don’t expect the posts to be consecutive. And third, topics may not be taken up in the order laid out here.

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Thanksgiving Reflections 2017. Part 4.

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations. – Psalm 100:1-5 KJV

Thankful to Someone.

There’s being thankful for… and there’s being thankful to.

Each year, on this day of days, we’re generally thankful for many things – say, a taste of that favorite sweet potato recipe we remember from childhood, the full meal before us, banter and laughter at the table, safe travels to that table, the break from work, and the work itself (that adds so much meaning to our lives, and without which there could be no break), the freedoms and other blessings we share as Americans, the health that permits us to enjoy fully these things, and so on.

Of course, behind all these things, we find people. And when it comes to those people, we have expanded options. We certainly should be thankful to them: to the grandmother who baked the sweet potatoes. To our fellow travelers. To co-workers and colleagues who constitute our work community and make work meaningful and share in the load. To the life partner, the children, the extended-family members we love and treasure. To the men and women past and present who worked and sacrificed in many different ways that we might enjoy what is good today about America. People are the immediate authors of much of what we’re thankful for. Thankful to people? Absolutely.

We could stop there.

But should we? Our family, our friends, and many more[1] have contributed much, but not all, to what makes us thankful. Others may have added in small ways to our health, but can’t take total credit for it. Neither can we. We may have habits of rest and work and diet that matter, but we know only too well the limitations of these practices. The awesome Thanksgiving sunset on the late fall sky? No one we know can claim the credit. And what about our capacity for thankfulness? How and why did we come to value and practice gratitude? Who do we thank for that?

It’s possible to have a secular Thanksgiving. That’s certainly the status of Thanksgiving in the law today. That’s as it should be; we’re free to be content with – and even be thankful for – that, and the freedom that underpins it. But for many, perhaps most, people that’s not enough. It’s not the status of Thanksgiving in many households, or in many hearts. Throughout human experience, people have grasped the possibility, maybe even the likelihood, that something greater – Someone greater – is the author of it all. And, going a step further, have considered that same Someone as deserving thanks. Many centuries ago, the Psalmist expressed it. More recently, Thoreau alluded to it. Along the way, Presidents made it plain in language establishing the holiday[2].

We can be thankful to that Someone today. Among other things, I’m deeply thankful to Him for you.

(Apologies for the extended footnotes. The good news is, you’re free to read or to ignore them. Something else to be thankful for. :))


[1]An aside: Fact is, just about every person worldwide contributed. They may not have done it with us in mind – or even deliberately. For example, those other drivers on the highway weren’t focused on our needs so much as they were conforming to rules of the road, or singing “Over the river and through the woods” with their kids. What’s more, in order to contribute to our well-being, they themselves all had to depend in countless ways on the goodness of strangers – the farmers who planted the sweet potatoes, the hands who harvested them, the ticket agents and baggage handlers at the airports, and so on – the dependencies expand to cover and thread-through the whole of society, even extending across borders and oceans to those countries who don’t observe this particular holiday. People abroad may have provided the automobile or plane, or many of its components, the coffee or tea we enjoy; they may be the market for our work. Perhaps even that special life partner – or you yourself – may have come from abroad, enriching this country and adding a touch of class in the process (thank you!).

[2]The framers of Thanksgiving understood this distinction. This addendum to post provides a bit of the history. To start, Wikipedia tells us:

In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar. Before 1536 there were 95 Church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church and forego work and sometimes pay for expensive celebrations. The 1536 reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, but some Puritans wished to completely eliminate all Church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The holidays were to be replaced by specially called Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving, in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of special providence. Unexpected disasters or threats of judgement from on high called for Days of Fasting. Special blessings, viewed as coming from God, called for Days of Thanksgiving. For example, Days of Fasting were called on account of drought in 1611, floods in 1613, and plagues in 1604 and 1622. Days of Thanksgiving were called following the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and following the deliverance of Queen Anne in 1705. An unusual annual Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and developed into Guy Fawkes Day on November 5…

 …In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is traced to a sparsely documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts, and also to a well recorded 1619 event in Virginia. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. Pilgrims and Puritans who began emigrating from England in the 1620s and 1630s carried the tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The 1619 arrival of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group’s charter from the London Company, which specifically required “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”…

  As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”…

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln piled on, issuing the following:

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

 In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

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Thanksgiving Reflections 2017. Part 3.


At Thanksgiving, you and I can and should be grateful for our colleagues, writ large – everyone with whom we work. What follows is mostly personal, but the larger takeaway message, up-front, is simply this. Thanksgiving and its brief respite from work provide opportunity to experience gratitude for the fuller context – the entirety – of our lives. But that includes the occasion to reflect on what a great debt we owe our coworkers in particular – extending to our bosses and others who might work for us – and how deeply grateful we are for them. The way work plays into your life story will necessarily be different from its role in mine, so please make it personal. As you reflect, you’ll find that even with respect to work’s darkest moments, there was and remains room for gratitude.


The personal part: We’re dealing with thanksgiving the act, and with Thanksgiving the event, in the context of work. You may be forgiven for failing to notice the fine print in the previous two LOTRW posts on this topic. Part 1 spoke to scientists as a “community of scholars engaged in common search for knowledge,” and how that phrase held magic for me and was a lodestone from junior-high on. But Part 2 mentioned that some thirty years later, my NOAA work was “all physical science and engineering, all the time.”

(Hmm. “community” vs. “all-physics… all the time;” putting it kindly, isn’t that at best a contradiction, Bill?)

Yes – a contradiction, and perhaps worse. Looking through life’s rearview mirror, I recognize this with painful clarity. For the first three decades of my life, I knew about the importance of people largely as an abstraction. I saw treating others as if they mattered more as a superficial skill to be learned and plastered-onto the way I did life, rather than the essence of life – of living (as in living on the real world) itself[1].

(What changed, Bill?)

Curiously enough – and this goes back to being grateful for work as well as other spheres of life on Thanksgiving – one triggering event was making the transition in 1973 from bench scientist at a NOAA lab to a manager of a group. That same year I took a five-day R&D-management course at a Denver hotel…

…One particularly memorable module was taught by the Director of Personnel at Texas Instruments. He entitled his talk “People and their value systems.” He told us

that the people who worked for us were individuals and therefore motivated in different (individual) ways. (I know what you’re thinking, but remember, we were scientists and engineers, and this was 1973, and we were not a particularly diverse or enlightened group – virtually all young to middle-aged white males. We needed to hear this!)

Here were his categories.

  1. Reactive. Remembers his phone number but not why it’s important.
  2. Tribalistic. Doesn’t care whether working conditions are good or bad so long as they’re the same for everybody.
  3. Egocentric. Works only because he has to.
  4. Conformist. Cares most about following organizational policy and procedure.
  5. Manipulative. Work is all about finding clever ways to get things done even if that means – or especially if that means – bending the rules.
  6. Socio-centric. Forget the goal of the work per se – it’s all about relationships (remember – “flower children” were very much with us back then).
  7. Existential. Work’s all about big-picture, inherent meaning, self-actualization.

(In addition to taglines, he had vignettes for each of these, which is why I remember this catechism with clarity even to this day.) He then went on to say that “seven-categories” was of course arbitrary as well as an idealization, and also that we and our workers were blends of these. Lastly, he said that each of us tended to blend primarily the even-numbered or the odd-numbered values.

A small light went on. I was one of his odd-numbered guys!

A second light went on. A lot of other people weren’t!

I realized that if I was going to be an effective manager, I’d have to get a lot better at understanding what motivated people (both up the chain and down – not just the people who worked for me but also my bosses), listening to them, understanding their vision for what our group should be doing and why, reconciling their differences, seeking win-win, etc. At first, I still saw this more as an additional superficial “skill to be learned and plastered-onto the way I [already] did life, rather than life’s essence,” but as time when on, and I practiced this skill more and more, it became an ingrained habit more than a tactic, and it ultimately morphed into an integral part of who I was.

I became a new person.

Two other events factored into this. In 1989, Steven Covey published his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. To say this book was popular is to understate. It sold 25 million copies[2]! But it was not any single Habit so much as Mr. Covey’s global motivation for writing the book that made the biggest impression. He said that a century earlier, success literature had focused on the importance of values (integrity, industry, fairness, etc.). But the years just prior to 1989 had seen a shift from emphasis on values to manipulative techniques. He decried this, and wrote his book to bring the conversation back to fundamentals.

And, thirteen years prior, in 1976, I met my wife. Appropriately, given this context, I met her at work – to be more precise, attending another course, this one on time management.

That had implications that are the subject of the next post.


In closing, on this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for each and every person I’ve ever worked with or for, and for each and every person who ever worked for me. You know who you are! You’ve shown me what it means to be human, first by example, but also by word – whether encouragement or rebuke or a blend of the two, I’ve needed and benefited from it all. I’m thankful not just for what you’ve done for me, but what you’ve done and continue to do for every other person in your circle of influence. You alone would be reason enough for me, and others, to celebrate Thanksgiving.


[1] In the years since I’ve tended to fix blame for this in the way I was treated socially in high school – I was a “nerdy” science kid before nerdy became a thing, but if I’m honest, the basic truth is I was and am a slow learner—whether the issue is science, or policy, or life. As a kid and a young man I’d read a lot of great literature, and accumulated years of social relationships with family, friends, and then co-workers, but there had always been this blind spot. In today’s vernacular, when it came to people I would never really get it. All this had consequences – not just for me but everyone around me, at home and at work.

[2]It comes up in LOTRW, the book, and is the subject of several LOTRW posts. I read and reread Mr. Covey’s book a total of three times.

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Thanksgiving Reflections 2017. Part 2.

Another story excerpted from the book, Living on the Real World (this from Chapter 3) to start us off…

“At the start of 1986 I was running a 200-person, 20-million-dollar-a-year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. Our work spanned climate, meso-meteorology, and weather modification research, as well as systems development and rapid prototyping for decision support in weather. It was all physical science and engineering, all the time.

 My career, and my perspective, were about to change.

 Frank Press, a seismologist and former science advisor to President Clinton, was then president of the National Academy of Science (NAS). For several years he’d been working with counterparts across the world, trying to establish a United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR). He felt an NAS National Research Council report was a necessary start but had been disappointed with an earlier result. He formed a new committee, which was supposed to have included Dr. Joseph H. Golden, a meteorologist with an extraordinary history. Among other achievements, Golden founded the Tornado Intercept Project in Oklahoma, which has since given rise to today’s widespread tornado chasing, both for research purposes and as a form of eco-tourism.

 For some reason, Golden stepped back from participating. Through the ensuing series of coincidences that so often shape our lives, I found myself appointed the committee’s token meteorologist in his stead.

I knew nothing about disaster reduction.

Worse yet, I thought I did. After all, wasn’t it obvious that the high winds and storm surge from hurricanes or the ground shaking from earthquakes cause the damage? What else was there to know?

The first committee meeting in Washington, D.C., was a revelation. The room was full of engineers, sociologists, emergency managers, and leaders of relief organizations. Geophysical scientists were in the minority, hardly to be found. Through the committee work over the next year I first learned that extremes are nature’s way of doing business. But disasters—disruptions of entire communities that persist after the extreme has come and gone, and that exceed the communities’ ability to recover unaided—are a human construct. They are the result of poor land use, inadequate building codes, poverty and other pre-existing social inequities and vulnerabilities, lack of preparedness, poor emergency response, and more…”

To say I’m thankful for this experience is to understate. It transformed my career and my life.

Why? Because my work, which to that point had been enjoyable enough, was elevated – to something consequential. The committee’s work, the IDNDR that followed, and the years of attending the Boulder-now Broomfield Hazards Workshop proved eye-opening. There’s never been a day since when I haven’t awakened to the idea that We have a chance today to make life a bit safer and more satisfying and meaningful for seven billion people.”

Emphasis on we.

Because, as described in the previous LOTRW post, none of this work would make sense, or be fruitful, unless your small bit and mine add-in to the shared objective of a larger community[1].

Some argue that political leaders cynically use the expression “live for a purpose greater than yourselves” or something like it (e.g., John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”) cynically – to get us to make sacrifices for causes that might be counter to our values. But this call, and other instances like it (such as Kennedy’s subsequent invitation to Americans to join the Peace Corps) are in a way just the opposite. We have built into us (coming up in Part 4 of this LOTRW series) a desire to matter, to make a difference, to do something meaningful – as measured by our values, not in contradiction to them. Leaders provide context and framework that don’t redirect so much as ignite our latent passion, and help make that passion effective, rather than lead to frustration and burnout.

So it turns out, that a better articulation of “live for a purpose greater than yourselves” would be “don’t sell your greatness short! Expand your idea of your abilities, your character, and how much you matter, by expanding your idea of your purpose – why you were put here.”

Chances are that as you’re reading this, you’re already mindful of the larger purpose that motivates you. Bravo! But maybe you see yourself as still searching. If that latter is the case, a blend of wager/encouragement: chances are you’re closer to such self-awareness than you realize; your call is lying just beneath the surface of your thoughts. Set aside a bit of time for yourself these next few days to reflect on why you’re here in this world, what you want to contribute – and you’ll likely be rewarded with some new insight, depth of vision.

Turns out our friend Thoreau had advice for this as well:

A greater purpose – one congruent with our dreams? Another reason for (perpetual) thanksgiving.


[1] A community that includes the so-called Weather Enterprise, or Global Weather Enterprise, yet is far larger – comprising emergency managers, city planners, critical-infrastructure providers, myriad NGO’s… and much, much, more.

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Thanksgiving reflections 2017. Part 1.

“Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common among almost all religions after harvests and at other times. The Thanksgiving holiday’s history in North America is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation. It also has aspects of a harvest festival, even though the harvest in New England occurs well before the late-November date on which the modern Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated.Wikipedia

There’s so much to like about the Thanksgiving holiday! To give thanks is an act that has no parallel. To give thanks in the company of family and/or friends adds powerful texture and richness to the experience – especially as our bonds to those family and friends are the very essence of what makes us most thankful. Add this: the occasion is almost always centered around a shared table and a meal. The simplicity of Thanksgiving – the atmosphere of love and hospitality, and the perishability of everything about the moment save for the indelibly-etched, treasured memory – overshadow, at least for a few days, the seeming brokenness and all-too-evident troubles of the world we live in and of our daily routine. We’re reminded of what truly matters[1].

That said, this is a largely professional blog. While virtually all of us would say that family comes first, we spend a large fraction of our waking hours working. It’s consequently reasonable to hope, and perhaps even to expect, that work will offer us additional reasons for gratitude.

It therefore seems appropriate to observe this year’s Thanksgiving season with a short series of LOTRW posts on four attributes of my work that make me thankful. If all goes accordingly to plan, you’ll find four posts, dealing consecutively with:

  • a community of scholars (1956, 1965)
  • a higher cause (1986)
  • colleagues (present day)
  • thanks to Someone (1976).

The four posts will be a bit personal – more so than usual – but that’s not the point. My hope is that each will prompt you to develop your own, equally personal short lists of those aspects of your work for which you are profoundly thankful – inventories of special meaning for you, self-assessments that will encourage you in the weeks ahead.

So here goes:

I’m thankful to be a member of a work community. I’m the son of mathematicians, and it never really occurred to me I’d be anything but a physical scientist or an engineer. In ninth grade, in 1956, I was in a not-particularly-good junior high in a tough section of greater Pittsburgh (my ambition was to graduate with all my teeth)[2]. Our science text wasn’t that great (interestingly it was about weather) but the book’s first page offered a line that struck me as magical. In the 60 years since, it’s never left me: “Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.” At the time, I thought of my Dad, and his friends, and my uncle the plasma physicist, and his friends, and I knew I wanted to be part of that community.

It’s the reason I’m in the geosciences today. I majored in physics in college, and spent my first year in graduate school at the University of Chicago in physics, but there found the atmosphere to be strained and competitive. A friend suggested I look into the university’s Department of Geophysical Sciences. So after my first year (in 1965), I transferred – and walked into the sunshine[3].

In the geosciences at the time, nobody was going to win a Nobel Prize. No one was going to get rich. But there were more than enough research problems to go around. Fascinating problems – dealing not with abstractions but phenomena you could see, occurrences that people confronted every day. Whether the global weather forecast challenge forced cooperation, or whether it attracted scientists who were inclined to cooperate – collaboration, the sharing of data and insights and technique – were the order of the day. I started making lifelong friends. We were a community. Engaged in a common search for knowledge.

Of course, since then, Molina, Rowland, and Crutzen shared a Nobel for their ozone work. A handful of entrepreneurs have achieved a modicum of wealth. Rapid technological advance and the dizzying success and growth of the big-data firms and social networks, with their accompanying emphasis on scale and market share, challenge the existing social contract among meteorologists, and between meteorologists and society. The demands of society for help with every aspect of the human agenda – escalating needs for food, water, and energy; management of hazard risks and environmental degradation – strain the social fabric. But to date, meteorologists and social scientists speak of the Weather Enterprise, comprising government, private-sector, and academic components, as a coherent community, and continue to see service to the larger society as a common, shared goal, rather than a competitive, exclusive one, with winners and losers, or winner-take all.

Such community may prove temporary. It’ll require much hard work, and corporate will, to maintain it.

But for now, in 2017, for all of us, whether meteorologists, or part of the larger society counting on help from meteorologists, this community is cause for Thanksgiving – indeed, (channeling Mr. Thoreau) perpetual Thanksgiving.


[1] Search the LOTRW website for “Thanksgiving” reflections from prior years and you’ll find several entries.

[2] In this respect I failed, but not because of the classmates who’d been my concern; I was blindsided by an orthodontist.

[3] You’ll find a longer version of this story in Chapter 10 of Living on the Real World.

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Floods, litigation…and social change?

Wednesday and Thursday, the American Meteorological Society hosted a policy workshop and held a Capitol Hill briefing, focused on the 2017 hurricane season here in the United States and the Caribbean[1], and on the need and opportunity to re-set U.S. hazards policies. We are developing the Workshop Report, which we hope to make available online sometime soon.

Hurricane Harvey’s flooding received a lot of attention at the workshop. Unsurprisingly, with billions of dollars in losses and relief changing hands in the world’s most litigious society, Houstonians are lawyering up. Yesterday Bloomberg News tells us why, in a story entitled The U.S. Flooded One of Houston’s Richest Neighborhoods to Save Everyone Else. Some excerpts (the fuller article merits a careful read):

decisions made by [the U.S. Court of Federal Claims] could, as after Katrina, set important precedents for the federal government’s liability in the wake of disasters.

This situation, though, has two key differences. In New Orleans, economically disadvantaged communities, some of them historically black, bore the brunt of the loss, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths. The victims in West Houston include white, wealthy, Republican-voting energy executives. They live in neighborhoods where the main employers are BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc, the median income is triple that of the rest of the city, and second homes and weekend-spin sports cars aren’t unusual. Their debris piles include wine fridges, coffee table books about Renoir, and Chinese bar carts from overseas assignments.

The West Houston cases are unlike the Katrina cases in another way, too: Rather than make a legal argument about official neglect, they speak to what happened when the federal government intentionally flooded one of the richest areas of a city to save everyone else [emphasis added]

…[Sunday, August 27th] , the Harris County Flood Control District held a press conference at which it announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would begin controlled releases at the Addicks and Barker dams surrounding West Houston. The two massive reservoirs retain water that gathers in the prairie west of the city, forming Buffalo Bayou, which runs down the Energy Corridor, through downtown, out the Houston Ship Channel and, finally, into the Gulf of Mexico. The water behind the dams was rising more than 6 inches an hour, and the flood control district said residents should be prepared to leave the next morning.

But the water level rose even faster than expected that night—Harvey brought 51 inches of rain, all told. The Army Corps won’t confirm exactly when the releases began, but legal complaints and residents say the floodgates opened at about 1 a.m., sending a rush of water toward Buffalo Bayou while many people were sleeping. Just after 1:30 a.m. the Corps posted a press notice on social media stating that the dam releases would amount to 8,000 cubic feet of water per second. “If we don’t begin releasing now, the volume of uncontrolled water around the dams will be higher,” Colonel Lars Zetterstrom, the Corps’ Galveston district commander, was quoted as saying. “It’s going to be better to release the water through the gates directly into Buffalo Bayou.” The danger was that the water would flow uncontrolled into homes located upstream from the reservoir, crest the reservoir walls downstream, or crack a section of the Barker dam that was under repair. Had either dam failed, the Houston Chronicle later wrote, West Houston would have been left with “a week of corpses by the mile.”

Buffalo Bayou quickly overflowed, washing over the surrounding area. The several dozen West Houstonians I spoke with portray the reservoir water as mixed in with bayou funk, distinct from the rains. “That rainwater ran clear,” one says. “This water stank.” Another resident, who lives a block from Buffalo Bayou, describes a muddy wave blasting open his back French doors.

 By Tuesday, the water was being released at a rate of 13,000 cubic feet per second. With their measuring equipment inundated, people assessed the water filling their homes against their bodies: belt, then chest, then neck. Elderly people reported waking up confused, believing they were in waterbeds. For most, evacuation became the only option. Medians turned into boat launches. Dads hopped in bass-fishing boats or on air mattresses to lead rescues of people, pets, documents. Some residents who’d left in a panic returned, at their peril, to recover what they could. One man died after being electrocuted as he tried to retrieve a cat…

It says something about the fast pace of 21st-century innovation that Katrina, Harvey, and the twelve years in between show some signs of social change, but let’s go back a bit further, 128 years, to the Johnstown flood of 1889. David McCullough’s eponymous book brings the event to life, but the Wikipedia entry captures more than we can incorporate here.

Again, some excerpts:

The Johnstown Flood (locally, the Great Flood of 1889) occurred on May 31, 1889, after the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam broke after several days of extremely heavy rainfall, releasing 14.55 million cubic meters of water. With a volumetric flow rate that temporarily equaled the average flow rate of the Mississippi River, 2,209 people, according to one account, lost their lives, and the flood accounted for US$17 million of damage (about $453 million in 2016 dollars).

 The American Red Cross, led by Clara Barton and with 50 volunteers, undertook a major disaster relief effort. Support for victims came from all over the United States and 18 foreign countries. After the flood, survivors suffered a series of legal defeats in their attempts to recover damages from the dam’s owners. Public indignation at that failure prompted the development in American law changing a fault-based regime to strict liability…

 …In the years following the disaster, some people blamed the members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for their modifications to the dam and failure to maintain it properly. The club had bought and redesigned the dam to turn the area into a vacation retreat in the mountains. They were accused of failing to maintain the dam properly, so that it was unable to contain the additional water of the unusually heavy rainfall…

 …The club was successfully defended by the firm of Knox and Reed (now Reed Smith LLP), whose partners Philander Knox and James Hay Reed were both Club members. The Club was never held legally responsible for the disaster. The court held the dam break to have been an Act of God, and granted the survivors no legal compensation.

Two quite different cases: today’s, featuring deliberate decisions and actions of the federal government, intended to save the lives of the many at the expense of more-well-to-do – and yesterday’s, featuring alleged negligence of the wealthy, resulting in death and suffering to more ordinary folk. Yesterday’s, resolved in favor of those wealthy – and today’s, with the outcomes yet to be decided. Only after the Harvey cases have been adjudicated and resolved will it be possible to tell what’s stayed the same in our American social contract over the period, and what has changed.

We will all watch and learn.

Meanwhile, we can see four constants. (1) Flooding itself – reflecting nature and human decisions. (2) An appetite for litigation. (3) Overwhelming, gut-wrenching pain, loss, and personal upheaval for those who experience disaster. (4) Repetitive loss, resulting from our individual and societal difficulty in learning from such experience.

Not much prospect for changing the first two! The latter two were the focus of the AMS workshop – exploring policy options that might move the needle towards greater resiliency.


[1]Shaping up to be named the HIM event, after hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

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Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences within the Weather Enterprise. Part 3. Road Weather

“…I am the master of my fate,  

I am the captain of my soul.” – William Ernest Henley, from his poem Invictus  

In this third piece on Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences within the Weather Enterprise, we zero in on road weather. To some, the NAS Report chapter focused on this this might superficially seem the result of a special pleading, or an accommodation to funding from the Federal Highway Administration.

But that would be miss-identifying cause and effect. U.S. highway deaths with weather as the cause or contributing effect average some 7000 each year. This is an order of magnitude great than the sum of other weather related deaths combined. Add in some 400,000 weather-related traffic injuries and you have a massive public safety challenge. By themselves, these statistics motivate interest in whether social science, properly applied, might be able to bring losses down.

And the statistics relate well to our individual experience. Ask yourself: when were you ever terrified by the weather? Chances are good your answer would include incidents in an automobile. You drove into a thunderstorm with heavy rain and/or hail, or into a blizzard or snow squall – and suddenly, with little or no warning, found yourself with zero visibility front and rear. In rain or hail, the noise was deafening, so there were no audible cues. And at the same time the car’s traction was compromised. You were in trouble if you stopped, and in trouble if you kept moving.

But an even bigger factor comes into play. At home, when hunkering down in the face of tornado- or hurricane-force winds, or hail and/or lightning, your options are limited, and your personal responsibility limited in like measure. But on the road, especially when driving, you’re responsible, not just for the lives and well-being of family and friends in the car, but also the safety and well-being of those in every vehicle around you, and the health and safety of some number of others behind them. You might argue that commercial airline pilots, who shoulder similar responsibilities for larger numbers of passengers in an even more weather-vulnerable environment, deserve equal focus. But the fact is, their problem has over many years received a great deal of highly-structured attention. Pilots get weather-related training from the get-go, fly through inclement weather repeatedly in simulators, operate under protocols established (on the basis of decades of well-documented experience) by their airlines, the airframe manufacturers, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the  National Transportation Safety Board. By contrast, automobile drivers are winging it. They’re operating on the basis of little more than a couple of questions on a drivers’ exam they last took decades ago, and perhaps their most-recent memory of driving on snow or ice or in rain. Pilots are subjected to competency and fitness tests on a regular basis. They’re always operating in constant communication on weather and air-traffic conditions and within a highly disciplined framework. Drivers represent diverse ages, multiple languages, a spectrum of abilities (and attention) and their communication is rich in distractions like texting and calls to people on every topic but road and weather conditions. Discipline is limited to passive lane markings and traffic signals.

And yet in the spirit of Invictus, we drivers are captains – like captains, we don’t get to duck responsibility when behind the wheel.

Individual driver behavior, and social behavior of the clusters of drivers and vehicles, aggregating all the way up daily urban commutes or, as the case this fall, massive and extensive evacuations in the face of hurricanes Harvey and Irma (Caribbean islands, by contrast, lacked the same kind of evacuation option in facing Irma and then Maria) constitute an important area of research and application for social sciences, and more than a little urgency.

(Getting a bit beyond the realm of the Report), this picture is complicated further by rapid social change and technological advance. Urbanization and coastal development are on a stunning pace, proceeding on time frames short compared to the recurrence of extreme events and therefore allowing little opportunity for automobile drivers to learn empirically and make incremental adjustments to changing circumstances in the face of extreme weather. Meanwhile, battery-operated autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence are coming. The first trend promises to change the vulnerability of vehicles to weather extremes, their utility in the face of bad weather, and the availability of recharging at times of great urgency and peak demand, including evacuations. Speaking of evacuations , if current approaches to car ownership are replaced by ride-sharing of a variety of types to reduce the number of vehicles on the road during fair weather, there may simply not be enough individual vehicles available for evacuation during weather emergencies. Lastly, it’s not hard to imagine that emergency managers will turn to artificial intelligence to supersede and suspend individual control of vehicles during major evacuations, taking over every detail of their management and execution.

A little social science on the implications of all this would seem welcome – with the goal of anticipating and heading off problems in advance versus doing post-event autopsies after things went disastrously wrong.  Please give Chapter Four of the Report a special read.

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Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences within the Weather Enterprise. Part 2. Findings and Recommendations.

Okay, Bill. The previous LOTRW post introduced us to this NAS report and the motivations behind it. We see the need. But what does it mean to become “as disciplined in our approach to social realities and the social science underlying them as we are with respect to physics of the atmosphere?” And what did the Committee find, recommend?

Doesn’t make sense to repeat in detail all the findings of the fuller Report, but here’s a sampling that gives the flavor:

  • Innovative SBS research activities have already contributed both to the social and behavioral sciences and to meteorology. Exciting opportunities exist for advancing this research to address important societal needs.
  • Existing federal agency data collection activities could, with modest additions and greater interagency coordination, significantly expand our understanding of the social context of hazardous weather.
  • The accumulation of knowledge has been hampered by the relatively small scale, intermittency, and inconsistency of investments. [Emphasis added.]
  • Meteorologists and others in the weather enterprise need a more realistic understanding of:
    • the diverse disciplines, theories, research methodologies used within SBS;
    • the time and resources needed for robust SBS research; and
    • the inherent limitations in providing simple, universally applicable answers to complex social science questions.
  • Organizations across the weather enterprise—federal agencies, private sector weather companies, academic institutions, professional societies—have shared motivations for actively contributing to the integration of SBS within the weather enterprise.
  • Numerous previous reports going back many years have highlighted needs and challenges similar to those noted here—yet many of the same challenges remain today. Overcoming these challenges and making progress is not idea limited, but rather, is resource limited.

To my mind, and this is a personal view – not necessarily the view of the Committee or the NAS (or the AMS for that matter) – the highlighted finding is pivotal. Increasing numbers of early-career scientists from both the meteorological side and the social-science side have been drawn to the interface of weather and social science in recent years. They’re attracted by the room for scientific discovery, and by the huge potential for societal benefit. A wonderfully innovative program – WAS*IS – introduced scores to the opportunity, not just in the United States, but across the world. But funding for work at this interface has amounted to no more than “sales tax” compared with funding for meteorology per se. That by itself wouldn’t be a showstopper (social science doesn’t require expensive platforms such as satellites and radar for its observations). The real barrier has been the intermittency of the funding to date. Young scientists can’t see the stability needed for sustained pursuit of a line of inquiry and/or to launch a career, or the critical mass/framework for such research that would be necessary to tackle the larger, more significant problems facing the field. These scientists have demonstrated the passion and the vision[1], but lack the means. Sooner or later, most are being allowed or forced to drift into different fields or research and application.

The Report’s recommendations – boiled down/synthesized to three, with a connecting logic captured in the diagram below – pick up on this:

(Working backwards through the diagram, and with great over-simplification), the idea is that to build community-level resilience to weather hazards across the Nation and the world, research is needed on a wide range of critical knowledge gaps (spelled-out in detail in the Report). But that work can’t be accomplished in a timely manner without a much more robust capacity and corresponding framework spanning the Weather Enterprise in place to support and then use such SBS research. The needed infrastructure just isn’t there. (Still working backward), this brings us to the starting point; the need for leadership across the Weather Enterprise (and indeed in the larger society) that sees such work as foundational to “the protection of lives and property in the face of weather hazards,” articulates such a vision in full throat, and follows through with sustained allocation of resources and commitment.

Some of this might sound a bit general, so let’s drill down on the middle step – building the needed capacity and infrastructure. How might leaders, if they so desired, make their investments? What are some of their options? Again, synthesized from the Report, these include but are not limited to:

  • Create an interdisciplinary research program supported by NOAA and NSF for support of larger-scale proposals.
  • Establish a NOAA/OAR Laboratory or Cooperative Institute dedicated to SBS-weather research.
  • Develop strong social science programs within one or more existing NOAA Cooperative Institutes.
  • Build more connections between NWS Weather Forecast Offices and SBS-related campus departments.
  • Develop a UCAR-based program, operating in a distributed fashion across some or all of the member campuses.
  • Strengthen SBS research capacity at an existing FFRDC (like UCAR/NCAR), or establish a new FFRDC focused specifically on the application of social sciences.
  • Establish a Center of Excellence as a mechanism to directly link research to operational actors.

Hardly exhaustive, but demonstrating a range of feasible possibilities. Note that we’re not talking about either/or here; each of these options has strengths and shortcomings, especially if taken in isolation.

Okay, Bill, a lot to ponder. But what’s up with that Report chapter on Road Weather?

Good question! Some people might consider that an aside – but they’d be wrong. It adds a pivotal new dimension to the research challenge and to the potential for societal benefit. More on that in a subsequent post.


[1]WAS*IS is a case in point. After a promising start, it lost its funding. Despite that, the community of practice remains active and engaged.

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Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences within the Weather Enterprise

For the past year or so (depending on whether you take a scoping phase or the first committee meeting to be the starting point), the National Academy of Sciences has been conducting a study on integrating social and behavioral sciences within the Weather Enterprise. Wednesday, November 1, the NAS released the findings and recommendations in an eponymous Report. It merits a careful read[1]. (Caution: for the definitive findings, conclusions, and the underlying logic, interested readers should consult the full Report itself. What’s here in LOTRW are merely a few personal reflections around the edges, starting with some thoughts about the timeliness and motivation for the study.)


(Taking a step back) Do you self-identify as a member of the Weather Enterprise? Then you’re a major actor in helping seven billion people who aspire to live well on a generous, but dangerous and fragile planet. (Continuing the actor metaphor), you’re also on stage just as the Weather Enterprise itself is rapidly maturing in the process.

The Academy focuses on a big piece (but still only a single piece) of the Weather Enterprise role in the larger world drama. To oversimplify: merely forecasting the weather is all about observations, physics, and computation. Moving beyond that to saving lives and property, to building a Weather-Ready Nation, and to supporting impact-based decisions may superficially sound like a small step, but it’s more of a giant leap. As complicated as the Navier-Stokes equations may be, dealing with them is simple compared with dealing with another human being – or a crowd.

For most of the history of weather services, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, the utility of those services has been compromised primarily by the poor quality of the physical forecasts: their limited accuracy, time horizon, spatial resolution, etc. The challenge has resided in the realm of physical observation and science, mathematics, and computing technology.

Over the past twenty years, however, as physical forecasts have improved, the limiting factor has increasingly become the social part of the task. To be specific: engaging with individuals and institutions across sectors on all time scales – from urgent warnings themselves even out to years in advance (helping communities, local governments and decision makers balance policy-level reliance on evacuation against improved land use and building codes, siting and construction of critical infrastructure, and more).

You might have noticed this during media coverage of the 2017 fall hurricane season and the California wildfires. Often the headlines didn’t dwell on the quality of the forecasts as such. Instead they focused more on the human dilemma – individuals and families, emergency managers, local governments, and critical infrastructure providers making high-dollar, even life-and-death snap decisions – and doing all this under conditions of uncertainty. Time and again over the past three months, millions of Americans have been forced to reconcile a soup of often-conflicting information against their personal experience and larger concerns.

Throughout this past twenty years, it’s been clear that as individuals and a Nation, when it comes to such decisions and actions, we’ve been winging it, all too often in the process flying in the face of psychological, social, and economic realities as we’ve gone along. The result has been unnecessary loss, suffering, and community disruption. We can and should do better – on both sides of the Weather Enterprise-user interface. This starts with becoming as disciplined in our approach to social realities and the social science underlying them as we are with respect to physics of the atmosphere.

With this background, the NAS study charge makes sense. Here’s a condensed version:

Develop a framework for generating and applying social and behavioral science research within the context of meteorology, weather forecasting, and weather preparedness and response.

  • Assess current SBS activities and applications within the weather enterprise.
  • Describe the value of improved integration and identify barriers to better integration.
  • Develop a research agenda for advancing the application of social and behavioral sciences.
  • Identify infrastructural and institutional arrangements necessary to successfully pursue SBS weather research and the transfer of relevant findings to operational setting.

A bit on the findings and recommendations in a subsequent post. In the meantime, please give the full Report a look. Should also add in closing that the NAS and the committee gratefully acknowledge NOAA and Federal Highway Administration support for this study.


[1]Full disclosure; Ann Bostrom and I co-chaired this study. The committee roster:

ANN BOSTROM (co-chair), University of Washington, Seattle

WILLIAM HOOKE (co-chair), American Meteorological Society

RAYMOND BAN, Ban and Associates

ELLEN BASS, Drexel University

DAVID BUDESCU, Fordham University

JULIE DEMUTH, National Center for Atmospheric Research

MICHAEL EILTS, Weather Decision Technologies, Inc.

CHARLES MANSKI, Northwestern University


YVETTE RICHARDSON, Pennsylvania State University



JOSEPH TRAINOR, University of Delaware

Laurie Geller, a senior program officer at NAS was the study director – our adult supervision. It was a privilege to be in the room with this group!

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Status of the Weather Enterprise? It’s Adulting!

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became [an adult], I put the ways of childhood behind me.” –1 Corinthians 13:11 (NIV)

Even Millennials might be forgiven for not seeing it coming – the use of “adult” as a verb[1].

But by whatever label, the Weather Enterprise is adulting – growing up, coming of age, moving from a kind of professional or institutional adolescence to adulthood, a new level of maturity.

This is happening in six major respects.

Adult name. Kids grow up fending off unwelcome nicknames. As adults, with sighs of relief, they shed childhood’s “Minnow”[2] for their given names of Bob or Robert. Analogously, yesterday’s label of weather guy or weather gal has segued into today’s station meteorologist.

In the same way, the term Weather Enterprise[3] is a new mantle for the former community of practice. What happened to the Weather Bureau? Local weather on the evening news? To varying-degrees, these terms are so-yesterday. Today new weather information isn’t just available at a few set times of day, on selected media. It’s available up-to-the-minute on myriad platforms and apps. Society’s need for weather information is provided by the Weather Enterprise – a diffuse but pervasive collection of public agencies, private firms, universities and individuals. They don’t just provide details on the weather – the wind, temperature, etc. In aggregate they observe, predict, communicate and provide decision support information (more on this in a moment) related to weather and associated environmental phenomena – and advance the science along the way.

Adult demands. Time was, not so long ago, when the larger society’s expectations of the Weather Enterprise were limited – rather like the demands made of a precocious adolescent in college. Parents hope for good grades – any accomplishments past that are a pleasant surprise, a bonus.

That has its analog in meteorology. A foot of snow? Back in the day, if that’s what happened, and the weather forecast had called for a-chance-of-snow versus a sunny day, that product was considered better than nothing. But in today’s zero-margin society, the needs are more pointed. Grocery retailers, the airlines, schools, utilities, insurers, emergency managers, government agencies at every level need to know not just that snow is coming – they want to know how many inches are on the way. The need to know it’ll be snow and not ice or rain. They want to know storm onset, duration, location and extent, and more – as accurately as practicable but with remaining uncertainties clearly expressed. In short, they want forecasts couched in terms of impacts: forecasts that are actionable. And they want these on all time scales, ranging from minutes at local scales to years (obviously transitioning to climate outlooks here) for long-term decisions and investments relating to energy policy, water resource management, land use, critical infrastructure, and more.

Adult tools. The adolescent Weather Enterprise had limited tools (think high-school or university lab equipment), which only hinted at the power soon to be available to field. Traditional instrument shelters have now been replaced by automated surface stations. Weather balloons used to require manual launch; that too is being automated today. The weather radars using World-War II technology have been replaced by more modern systems unambiguously detecting tornadoes, hail, and other high-impact weather features. Satellites that once provided only crude, occasional images now offer continuous coverage and unprecedented diagnostic power. And that’s only the observational end. Computing power now demonstrates dazzling capabilities that extend deterministic forecasts out several days further than had ever been dreamed possible (an important step helping maintain an uninterruptible society that increasingly needs greater lead times). Ever more computing power is also being applied to forecast dissemination – data analytics to tease out sector-by-sector weather impacts, or to craft messaging according the best social science, etc.

Adult relationships. When university students graduate, they learn that the relations with professors they’d once considered so onerous have been replaced by a greater challenge: dealing with even more-demanding bosses and institutions populating the adult workplace. Likewise, the laid-back, casual relationships between meteorologists and the rest of society are rapidly being replaced are far more formal structure. The loose cooperation spanning the public-, private-, and academic sectors daily grows more formalized and contractual in nature, with specific expectations and operating within a well-defined framework. Business used to depend on the federal government for observations and numerical weather prediction. Today’s companies want to supply such things.

That’s within the Weather Enterprise. But – and this is an essential point to grasp – the Weather Enterprise doesn’t exist solely to manage how members engage one another. The entire Enterprise exists to serve a number of larger external publics – the Public, with a capital “P,” but also many other smaller publics such as weather-sensitive sectors of the economy. The Weather Enterprise is not a closed system.

And what’s in and outside that system is being redefined. In the past, the Weather Enterprise has largely been confined to the providers of weather information. Increasingly, meteorological professionals are being found at the user side of the interface – embedded within agribusiness, the energy and transportation sectors, and more. The term will almost certainly extend to that arm of the community going forward.

This growth requires that money changes hands among all players in increasing amounts. Estimates put the current amount as some $10-$20B a year – about 0.1% of U.S. GDP. But the Enterprise may be on track to grow tenfold over the next ten years. This is partly aspiration, but probably reflects a true need – what will be required for a desired level of public safety, for an uninterruptible economy, and for national security.

Committing such large dollar sums calls for trust – perhaps the most basic asset in adult relationships. But precisely for this reason, trust is also fragile, and in short supply currently at both ends of the forecast spectrum – global climate outlooks at the one end, and the forecasts triggering evacuation decisions at the small-scale end. Society also has the right to expect that the Weather Enterprise will be focused primarily on service, and that it will avoid temptations to feather its own nest.

Adult identity. All of this change is redefining what it means to be a meteorologist. In the past, meteorological curricula provided two pathways – a purely disciplinary track and a broadcast meteorology option. Today, courses are being added to cover the social science of developing meteorological forecasts and communicating weather risk. Other courses address applications; increasingly these overlap with and look more like MBA’s. The meteorologist’s relationship with tools of the trade, especially computing – not just the numerical weather prediction but the applications of data analytics and cognitive computing – are evolving rapidly.

Continuous change. As recently as fifty years ago, adulting could be considered an event – a relatively brief transition with a defined beginning, middle, and end. In the year 2017, that initial transition is instead a portal into a lifetime marked by continuous change. The Weather Enterprise is not fixed or stable in any respect. Relationships among the several sectors are being continuously reworked. Disruptive science and technology are constantly stirring up the mix. Societal interests and needs are in flux. All these changes interact with one another; they’re simultaneous, not sequential.

The implications of all this? Profound.The stakes for humanity and the planet are high. This confluence of circumstances cries out for accompanying think-tank analysis and a range of national and international conversations to ensure that the Weather Enterprise and the world growing more dependent on it smoothly navigate our the journey into our joint future.

Time to put aside the ways of childhood.


[1] To“adult” is to behave like an adult, specifically to do the things—often mundane—that an adult is expected to do. How new is this? Well, let’s just say my laptop keeps trying to change adulting to adulating when my back is turned.

[2] A real example. Don’t ask.

[3] An aside, but an important one: this same adulting process is underway in communities with different labels and scopes: the weather, water, and climate enterprise; Earth observations, science, and services, and so on. Everything said here can be generalized to those communities as well. But all these descriptions are cumbersome, and special actions are underway with the Weather Enterprise at the moment; thus the limited focus here.


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