Missing these two ingredients? Then your transition document is still incomplete

Carpe diem.

Gratias tibi.

Starbucks may have switched to its holiday cups. Christmas and Hannukah decorations may be in all the store windows. Annual letters from friends are starting to fill our mailboxes (joining the catalogs that have been flooding in since September). But in Washington it’s not just the season to be jolly – it’s also the Transition Season, as discussed in the previous LOTRW post.

The post outlined something like a seasonal recipe for producing transition documents, listing essential ingredients and the thought process and procedure for putting them together. Looked at in that way, you might have thought of two ingredients missing from the transition-document recipe that you’d like to add. In the language of holiday recipes, think of these as spice, and sugar.

The spice? It’s the hinge of history.

Any election, and the 2016 election in particular, represents a critical turning point for the country. And when the country is the United States, it’s also a hinge point for the world. In a similar way, is the year 2016 also something of a turning point for the special issues and the community of interest and practice that are the focus of the transition document?

Usually the answer is yes. What makes the present moment special will vary from issue to issue and group to group. Two examples: for the aerospace industry it might be the critical need to modernize and restructure national defense occasioned by changes in world security threats, and the opportunities for doing just that as a result of technological advance. For the health care sector it might be the need to tweak (or radically change) aspects of the Affordable Care Act to raise coverage and cut costs and red tape.

What about for the Earth observations, science, and services world? Again the answer is yes. The moment to be seized? Hundreds of people are writing about it, from every angle[1]. The LOTRW post from March 23, 2016 provides just one example. You can find supporting detail there, but it describes the convergence of four trends:

1.Resource scarcity and declining margins, especially in regions of the world where resources are already scarce and margins already small. The resource challenge – most visible with respect to water, food, and energy – is global and long-term. However, the shortages don’t manifest themselves that way. Instead, they present in the form of acute local episodes – drought here, famine there, power outages or incidence of water pollution in this or that city for brief periods… our need for these elements is foundational and continual. We can’t tolerate even momentary or localized gaps or interruptions. What’s more, we all need them, whether rich or poor. Those who can afford it will pay any price to ensure continuity. The economic shocks that accompany these episodes are devastating to the world’s disadvantaged, from whatever nation.

2.The holistic nature of the resource problem. Speaking of food, water, and energy, it turns out that the three are intertwined. Just one of myriad examples: the U.S. policy shift of recent years flirting with the use of corn-based ethanol as a renewable fuel source reverberated in worldwide spikes in the price of maize. More generally, agricultural production is highly water-intensive, amounting to something like eighty percent of fresh water use here in the United States. Most fossil-fuel electricity generation makes additional water demands. Economists, scientists, and policymakers are increasingly absorbed in the task of understanding these and similar interconnections and their implications for nations and the world…

Fortunately – indeed providentially – we’re not forced to meet these future challenges armed only with today’s tools. This is where our other two big trends come in.

3.The increasing diagnostic power of Earth observations and science. Thanks to continuing investment in Earth observations and science by Congress and the American public, sustained over decades, our ability to monitor and predict what the Earth system will do next is growing by leaps and bounds. Satellite platforms combined with ingenious remote-sensing instruments now provide unprecedented global coverage, temporal resolution of environmental conditions. Drone aircraft aren’t just being used for war or contemplated to make amazon.com deliveries; they’re being harnessed for detailed, problem-specific atmospheric and land-surface monitoring. Remotely-operated undersea probes are also coming online…

4.The growing reach and power of Big Data and data analytics. This emerging ability to combine high-volume, high-velocity, diverse data sets, even in its nascent stage of development – promises to be transformative. The new power to merge Earth-system data with data on the human system – populations, resource use, habitat, income level, trends and details in all these – makes it possible to contemplate modeling of coupled human-natural systems with the same skill that we once could bring to bear only on the weather alone. To imagine where these capabilities will take us? We’ve no more idea than cavemen and women who invented the wheel could visualize the link between that invention and space travel. The difference is that we’ll make this next leap in a century instead of ten thousand years.

Carpe diem! That’s the spice.

The sugar? It’s gratitude.

Jack Fellows taught me (really all of us) this lesson, back in 2001. The Bush administration was early in its first term, and it had finally selected a science advisor, Jack Marburger. (A side note: recall that history, and you might remember that the appointment took a while, for several reasons; something to keep in mind as we impatiently look for signals from the new administration on this score.)

Jack Fellows was vice president of UCAR at the time, but his background had included time on the Hill as a Congressional Science Fellow, and several years at OMB, where he worked with the federal agencies and the George Herbert Walker Bush administration to formulate the U.S. Global Change Research Program. (No mean feat!) The experience had given Fellows a unique perspective on how it felt to be at the receiving end of a blizzard of transition documents. Armed with those insights, Fellows led UCAR and the community in the construction of a two-page document that consisted of two elements: (1) thanks to the Congress and seven presidential administrations spanning every political persuasion for forty years of unflagging support for the atmospheric sciences. (2) An account of the geosciences community’s stewardship of those investments. Advances in understanding. Translation of those advances into improved forecasts and outlooks. Savings in lives and property, improved decisions with respect to agriculture, energy, water resource management, and more.

Jack then used the document to as the skeleton for conversations with Jack Marburger, staff at OMB, and staff on Capitol Hill, where he would put flesh on the bones.

Do I need to tell you that it worked?

Gratias tibi. Gratitude? Sugar?

Versus complaints about shortcomings or deficiencies in past Congressional funding levels and other forms of support? Versus skepticism about where the Bush administration night be taking us? (They hadn’t had a chance to make a move one way or the other at that time). A summary of how we spent that money, and what the nation and the world got for that investment?

What a novel idea! And what an appropriate tone for the holiday season.


A final footnote. Jack Fellows graciously played a lead role in constructing the 2016 AMS transition document; you can see his hand in the final product.

[1] The-more-than-seven-hundred LOTRW posts all touch on it, in one way or another.

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Presidential transition? Time to show spine.


“To thine own self be true” – Shakespeare (Polonius’ advice to Hamlet)

“Plans are nothing. Planning is everything” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Periodic, fair, and open elections define any representative democracy, and the United States is no exception. For all their imperfections, these regular governmental re-sets offer opportunity for reflecting as a country on where we’ve been, re-committing to, re-articulating, and on occasion re-defining our national priorities, surfacing options for how we might get there, and much more. Elections draw us all in, even those who wind up not registering, or failing to vote in the actual event. And after each election, it’s always time to move on. No one escapes. And no one dodges the consequences, good and bad. We’re truly all in it together, whether we’re “driving the car” or “along for the ride.”

With such high stakes, elections are also almost always stressful and exhausting, not just for the candidates but the nation as a whole. These days the politicking is almost unending. There’s little or no respite. Back in the day, even-numbered years were for public posturing and campaigning. Odd-numbered years were for getting things done. There’s no longer such a clear-cut distinction[1]. What’s more, elections tend to be close. And in our currently polarized, gerrymandered society, in which the country is diverse even if neighborhoods aren’t, fewer people see election choices as questions of degree. Most see the possible outcomes as radically different. Tensions are high.

Multiply all this by two if you live in or around Washington, DC. This is a company town, with the federal government as the company. Here, every aspect of life revolves around one or more of its three branches – executive, legislative, and judicial. Huge national and global businesses make their headquarters or support governmental affairs offices here. Even universities have DC offices to look after their policy and financial interests. Some 3000 or more non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) also call DC home. Although these organizations have diverse concerns, they share one common view:

The one thing standing between any incoming administration (and Congress) and their complete happiness is (our) advice.

The result? A two-year, four-year rite of passage like no other – the preparation of hundreds if not thousands of transition documents to share wisdom with the newcomers. Incoming political leaders are met with a blizzard of advice and requests on every aspect of the national agenda. Some documents speak to the well-publicized issues: jobs, foreign policy, education, health care, national security, immigration… Others speak to the less-visible detail: the needs of the elderly, pistachio growers, coal miners, patent lawyers – even Earth scientists and service providers.

Document development can begin more than a year before the election. Small writing teams are assembled, and rough out several iterations over as many months, making periodic refinements in response to broader corporate input or NGO membership.

Such teams operate under structures and procedures unique to each institution, but they share certain common approaches. They ask themselves questions such as: Who is the intended audience? (Usually, the incoming Congress and/or administration.) What is our message? What do we want that audience to do after they’ve finished reading our document? (Usually, a blend of policy decisions and actions toward certain desired outcomes for society as a whole, plus beneficence toward the corporation’s or NGO’s community.) Recognizing that the incoming political leaders and even their staff are powerful, busy people: With all the competition, how can we we get our audience’s attention and hold it? Can we keep this document under 1000 words? Or to no more than 1-2 pages?

 Of course the reality is that the inbound political teams are laser-focused on each other, and on their personal place in the power scheme that’s about to make up the new political landscape(to say nothing of more mundane matters such as finding a place to live). What’s more, an incoming group such as the 2016 crop might be forgiven for thinking they were elected precisely to ignore establishment advice. Breaking through this mindset, or for that matter getting any single NGO’s signal to stand out against the white-noise background of all the competing documents is not quite so unlikely as winning the lottery, but it comes close.

Why then, do the private sector, academia, and NGO’s devote so much energy, brain power, and effort on transition documents? One answer might lie in that idea of the “intended audience.” In reality, the “intended audience” is not just the incoming administration/Congress, but also includes the corporation’s employees, or the university’s faculty, or the NGO’s members. In light of Eisenhower’s maxim, what matters far more than the low-probability of developing some silver-bullet-message in the contest for the ear of the incoming national leadership is the sharpening or redefining of the organization’s view of its own overarching ideals and purposes. In the context of Polonius’ advice, if an organization can articulate to its satisfaction a vision of its truest self, then, as Polonius goes on to say, “it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Vertebrates, as pictured here and discussed in the previous LOTRW post, provide another parallel. Think of the 1000 words, or the page or two that comprise a transition document as the rudiments – nothing more than a skeletal framework for a national agenda, or an NGO’s functions and purposes. But as the diagram shows, skeletons reveal a great deal about vertebrates. With the skeleton alone, it’s still easy to distinguish birds from fish, or predators from herbivores, or mammals from reptiles, etc. And with the skeleton in hand, it’s possible to put flesh on the bones, and bring the vertebrate to life.

If Polonius had thought to, he could have said, “To thine own spine be true.”

Recent LOTRW posts have attempted to show how rich that fleshing out of the bones looks for the environmental intelligence community. The intelligence bits themselves indeed span hurricanes, air quality, water resources, single-point societal vulnerabilities, threats to biodiversity, but also much, much more. Hundreds of other topics could have been substituted for any one of these. The topics themselves are fractals; they can be subdivided again and again, and still reveal more environmental intelligence that needs to be gleaned. The posts also covered needs of the environmental intelligence community – for observations, for workforce education, for close collaboration with end users (America’s leaders, corporate end users, and the general public, at a place-based level). And finally, but most importantly, the narratives and the flesh on the bones reveal a connection between all that work and the larger national interest: jobs and infrastructure and health care and foreign policy and national security and immigration and all the rest.

Fact is, at an individual level, each of us in the Enterprise has flesh to put on these bones. Each of us has a unique narrative that merits the telling. And transition documents provide a framework for the telling.

What is that framework? Well, in the case of the American Meteorological Society, it goes something like this:

  • we are all about the advance of science and associated technologies and their application for societal benefit
  • we do this through public-private-academic partnership
  • that partnership exists not to feather our own nests but to serve the larger society, both domestically and internationally.

Read the AMS transition document and look for those elements. Read the Front Page commentary provided by AMS president Fred Carr and the Washington Post piece by former AMS President Marshall Shepherd. Put your own narrative on that framework. Then go out and build the relationships and trust with the new administration and Congress.

And together the United States and the rest of humanity will make a little progress on our biggest 21st-century challenge: Living on the Real World.


Read this post with a critical eye? Then you’ll have noticed that two elements that make for a successful transition document have been missing from the discussion. They merit a separate post! More next time.

[1] Much as “rush hour” seems an outworn concept for many of today’s urban commutes. Today’s traffic is snarled all the time.

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Recent environmental intelligence. Part 5. Will the world of the future lack spine?

reindeerAs documented so far in this LOTRW mini-series, environmental intelligence from the past several weeks has told us that:

  • when it comes to hurricanes and other extremes, what matters is vulnerability;
  • air pollution isn’t just causing momentary health hazards, but irreversible damage to large numbers of children to an extent that imperils humanity’s future problem solving ability;
  • single-point vulnerabilities of special societal assets pose special risks that are both difficult to anticipate and hard to avoid; and
  • coming water scarcity is of such great scale as to test societal will and attention span.

But the environmental intelligence just seems to keep coming, and taking diverse forms. For example, last month also brought word that vertebrates are declining in numbers worldwide. According to the World Wildlife Federation’s Living Planet Report 2016,

Global biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, putting the survival of other species and our own future at risk. The latest edition of WWF’s Living Planet Report brings home the enormity of the situation – and how we can start to put it right. The Living Planet Index reveals that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. We could witness a two-thirds decline in the half-century from 1970 to 2020 – unless we act now to reform our food and energy systems and meet global commitments on addressing climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable development.

New media were quick to pick up the story. Here are excerpts from the Washington Post coverage:

According to this year’s Living Planet Report, released by the WWF every two years, wildlife populations have already suffered tremendous losses in the last few decades. Vertebrate populations have plunged by 58 percent overall since 1970, the report states. And organisms living in freshwater systems, such as rivers and lakes, have fared even worse, declining by 81 percent in the last four decades…

…The biennial report relies on data from the Living Planet Index, an ongoing project that monitors changes in more than 18,000 wildlife populations composed of nearly 4,000 animal species around the world. Habitat loss and overexploitation are the two biggest current threats to wildlife, the report suggests. And much of the problem has to do with the growing human population’s ever-increasing need to feed itself…

…In the last century, the population has grown from about 1.6 billion people to more than 7 billion today, and it’s expected to exceed 9 billion by mid-century. As a result, many of the problems facing wildlife involve being over-fished or hunted for food and losing their habitat as more and more land is cleared for agriculture. The WWF estimates that farmland already occupies more than a third of the planet’s surface

…Other growing threats to wildlife include pollution, competition from invasive species and the ever-increasing influence of climate change, which can change the temperature and precipitation patterns animals have evolved to tolerate, strain their food resources and force entire populations to migrate or face extinction.

Is this cause for concern? The answer of course is yes. But the level and nature of the concern depends on you ask. Foresters, farmers, ranchers, and fishermen are torn between a rich day-to-day appreciation for nature that those of us in urban settings can only dream about, and the interference of nature with their own managed ecosystems. For many of the rest of us, the concerns vary depending on where and how we live, etc. – in short, how many degrees of separation isolate us from direct experience of the planet we live on[1]. As for academics? Economists, trained to see everything in terms of substitutable resources, may tend to minimize the problem. Ecologists, who have had growing opportunity to investigate the delicate balances and interconnectedness that shape ecosystems, are at the opposite end of the spectrum – far more worried. Everywhere they turn they uncover hitherto unsuspected links connecting flora and fauna, including vertebrates and each other and between vertebrates and simpler life forms. At a time when the web of the Internet is thriving, ecologists see the web of life unraveling.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of detail to the sweep of the larger narrative. Here’s just one example from the past two months: Russian reindeer. Science tells us that this population numbered around one million in round numbers, but then declined to some 700,000 around 2013. And this month we learn that 60,000 reindeer starved to death as a result of a single weather event[2]:

In November 2013, 61,000 reindeer starved to death on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. It marked the largest regional “mortality episode” of reindeer ever recorded, as ecologists wrote in a new study in the journal Biology Letters. An additional 20,000 had succumbed to famine in November 2006. The immediate cause, according to the team of researchers from Europe, the United States and Asia, was an unusual ice barrier that smothered the reindeer pastures.

 Reindeer can stamp through ice about three-quarters of an inch thick, using their feet to access the nutritious lichen and plants below. But in early November 2006 and 2013, the ice was an order of magnitude deeper — up to several inches, too tough even for the reindeer’s sharp hoofs. Unable to eat, the animals died…

This particular environmental intelligence is coming in belatedly – recognized only in hindsight. For local Siberians, the problem surfaced with little warning, and the impacts were severe:

…In early November 2013, it rained for a continuous and anomalous 24 hours. After the rain, temperatures plummeted. By Nov. 10, more than 10,000 square miles of the southern part of the Yamal Peninsula were blanketed in ice. The temperatures remained below freezing until spring 2014. By that time, the scientists wrote, “the private herders who had lost most or all of their animals to starvation were functionally stranded in the tundra. With no draft reindeer to haul their camps, they resorted to full-time subsistence fishing and borrowed breeding stock to rebuild their herds, a multiyear process.”

Two points to emphasize: Once again, it’s not the extreme event per se that matters, but the vulnerability. And second, this is just a single story: reindeer in Siberia. The population collapse of vertebrates is the aggregate of thousands of such stories, only a handful of which are widely recognized and told. Most are going unrecorded.


All of this prompts the question: will the world of the future lack spine? Some might leap to the existential issue: will the animal world of the future be returned to “lower” forms of life – with insects, say, at the top of the food chain? But there’s a shorter term human context in which this question also matters.

Trends and events suggest you and I may be called upon to display more backbone in our everyday lives in the near term. That’s not backbone as in hot-temperedly seeking, provoking, and entering conflict, but rather the simple act of remembering who we are and remaining true to our deepest values and convictions.

Social scientists tell us that to do this is hard. The phrase they use is that “knowledge is socially constructed,” but it’s not much of a leap from that to the conclusion that “we believe what the people we want to like us believe.” In the old days, this might have been called peer pressure. Most of us, most of the time, go along with the crowd.

A special degree of focus, courage and conviction is needed to work this issue in the rapid flow of our daily lives: when should we be listening, and open to reexamining and perhaps replacing old preferences and habits of thought with something new? When are events, and circumstances, and people running up against those values and beliefs that we need instead to preserve? When should we push back? And in that latter case, how should we go about that in word and deed? And in such a way that we don’t burn bridges but maintain our ability to collaborate with and even continue to pushback against those around us with undiminished effectiveness? Come to think of it, could pushback itself be overrated?

The day after Thanksgiving seems a particularly important time to bring up such questions. Hopefully, millions of us have had a chance to press the spiritual RESET button, to be more receptive to the idea that we can be people of peace, but also people of spine.

In the way life sometimes works, this topic has bearing on transition documents. That’s the subject we will turn to in the next post.


[1] Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, (AMS 2014) covers this in Chapter 3.3 The Age of Virtual Reality (pp 33-36).

[2] The original article appeared in Biology Letters. It’s available here: Sea ice, rain-on-snow and tundra reindeer nomadism in Arctic Russia,Bruce C. Forbes, Timo Kumpula, Nina Meschtyb, Roza Laptander, Marc Macias-Fauria, Pentti Zetterberg, Mariana Verdonen, Anna Skarin, Kwang-Yul Kim, Linette N. Boisvert, Julienne C. Stroeve, Annett Bartsch Biol. Lett. 2016 12 20160466; DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0466. Published 16 November 2016

[3] (footnote added, from Wikipedia material). Reindeer are also known as “caribou.” The name caribou comes, through the French, from Mi’kmaq qalipu, meaning “snow shoveler”, referring to its habit of pawing through the snow for food. Reindeer hooves adapt to the season: in the summer, when the tundra is soft and wet, the footpads become sponge-like and provide extra traction. In the winter, the pads shrink and tighten, exposing the rim of the hoof, which cuts into the ice and crusted snow to keep it from slipping. This also enables them to dig down (an activity known as “cratering”) through the snow to their favorite food, a lichen known as reindeer moss.

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Giving Thanks? It’s not only an end. It’s also a beginning.

cornucopiaAs always, Thanksgiving promises a cornucopia. But this year the bounty is more than the abundant dinner-table spread. It extends to food for thought. News and social media have issued an abundance of material on how to talk with friends and family who may have voted differently in the national election. Unsurprisingly, the advice is all over the lot.

Truth is, this national holiday was in fact born and built into the American fabric out of a strong – even desperate – need to bridge cultural distinctions, differing goals, build communication, even end deep enmity.

Why is that?

The answer lies in logic, and in history.

First the logic. Before you and I can be grateful, we have to take stock. Just what is it we’re thankful for? In many homes, it’s a tradition to go around the table and ask this question of everyone present, from the youngest to the oldest. Answers vary from the sacred to the profane. They range from a joke, or a trivial crisis that was happily resolved, or the Thanksgiving banquet, or the warm house on a cold day, to larger things – the blessings of material wealth, or rude good health and vigor, or the meaning we’re finding in our relationships and our work, or just the joy of still being alive at the end of another year.

But in the process of building this inventory – of sharing and listening – a realization emerges. Everyone present, both the kids and the oldsters, get it. Those things we’re thankful for? We didn’t achieve them through our individual talent or skill or effort. We don’t deserve them because of any inherent special qualities or goodness. We didn’t earn them. They lie largely outside our circle of influence or control.

Instead these blessings came to us as acts of love, and mercy, and grace, from someone or something very close but yet separate. In some cases that someone is as close as the Thanksgiving table. It’s the way family and friends rallied around when we went through a difficult patch. In some cases, the gifts came from strangers. The food for the table and the energy running the house came from the effort and the sweat of the brow of countless others; so did the transportation system that got us “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.” The freedom and stability we enjoy comes at the cost of sacrifices made by our military. The structure, stability, and yes, even justice, flawed though it sometimes seems, was provided by thousands of federal, state, and local government workers. The Skype and Facetime that enlarge the number of those with whom we can now share the day came from IT nerds.

Hmm. We need to give thanks.

In itself, this increased self-awareness is a huge step forward. And at a number of homes and tables, that’s where it ends. But for many, there’s a renewed understanding that all this comes through others, and circumstances, but comes from a Higher Power – that at the very core, Love, and Mercy, and Grace rule the real world on which we live. For some, this is clearly evidence-based. For others it’s a matter of faith or belief. For others, it’s no more than a hope. But at every level, with this understanding comes awe. Humility. Patience. Acceptance, perhaps even embrace, of our circumstances. An ability to forgive and put the past aside. A new appreciation, a new willingness, even determination, to make common cause with those around us. A new courage and spirit with which to do life, beginning with the coming week.

Abraham Lincoln understood all this.

Which brings us to the history. The Thanksgiving narrative usually goes back to 1621 when Pilgrims and native Americans celebrated the conclusion of a successful growing season and solemnized their common bond despite quite different histories, cultures, and circumstances. But in the early days of the United States, Federal declarations of the holiday were hit or miss.

Until the Civil War. In 1863 Thanksgiving got a big boost when President Lincoln issued a proclamation[1]. Not so well known as his others of his proclamations, it nevertheless reads well, and is pertinent to today’s political climate:

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 had 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 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, tranquility and Union…

Much to take to heart, even today! Lincoln was wise enough to see that if instead of focusing on our differences, we reflected on shared blessings – blessings not taking the form of some zero-sum game, but rather coming from some external yet close-by Divine Providence, and bestowed without regard or special favor toward any side or point of view, but rather out of a spirit of love and grace – we might move more toward accommodation and peace[2]. Thanksgiving has been observed every year since.

Perhaps we can all be on the lookout for these blessings around our tables today – and find new hope and shared purpose in what we see.

That’s my prayer for you. I’m thankful for each and every one of you and all you’re doing to make this world a better one.


You might want to listen to a song for the day. Here’s one: Nichole Nordeman’s “Gratitude” captures some of the uncertainty, tentativeness and nuance she sees in our relationship both with the Earth we live on and our Creator. You can hear it sung here, but the printed lyrics below will help you follow along:


 Send some rain, would You send some rain?

‘Cause the earth is dry and needs to drink again

And the sun is high and we are sinking in the shade

Would You send a cloud, thunder long and loud?

Let the sky grow black and send some mercy down

Surely You can see that we are thirsty and afraid

But maybe not, not today

Maybe You’ll provide in other ways

And if that’s the case…


We’ll give thanks to You with gratitude

For lessons learned in how to thirst for You

How to bless the very sun that warms our face

If You never send us rain


Daily bread, give us daily bread

Bless our bodies, keep our children fed

Fill our cups, then fill them up again tonight

Wrap us up and warm us through

Tucked away beneath our sturdy roofs

Let us slumber safe from danger’s view this time

Or maybe not, not today

Maybe You’ll provide in other ways

And if that’s the case…


We’ll give thanks to You with gratitude

A lesson learned to hunger after You

That a starry sky offers a better view

If no roof is overhead

And if we never taste that bread


Oh, the differences that often are between

Everything we want and what we really need


So grant us peace, Jesus, grant us peace

Move our hearts to hear a single beat

Between alibis and enemies tonight

Or maybe not, not today

Peace might be another world away

And if that’s the case…


We’ll give thanks to You with gratitude

For lessons learned in how to trust in You

That we are blessed beyond what we could ever dream

In abundance or in need

And if You never grant us peace…


But, Jesus, would You please…

[You can find further Thanksgiving background for today in the previous LOTRW post.]


[1] Actually written by William H. Seward, then Secretary of State.

[2] Slavery was an evil of colossal magnitude, eroding the soul and fabric of America. The Civil War climaxed centuries of rot, and the repercussions of that rot and upheaval persist to this day. By contrast, the polarization attendant on this last election has been growing only for years, not centuries, and much less blood has been shed. We might therefore hope that this recovery could prove more swift.



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Giving Thanks? It’s what we do. What we’ve always done.

psalm-104The post that immediately follows says a bit about the history of Thanksgiving, picking up the thread in 1621 with the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. They gave thanks together for a successful harvest.

But giving thanks for harvest is a practice that goes back much earlier. It’s as old as agriculture itself. In those times, by contrast to today, most people ate food they themselves had planted, grown, and harvested. Their experience of all this was direct and personal, and they saw evidence of God’s favor or anger in their (twofold relationship at the time) with the Earth: as resource or threat. In addition to giving thanks on a designated day or days each year, they would also give thanks for such grace much more frequently.

Psalm 104 (NIV) captures some of this spirit:

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Lord my God, you are very great;

   you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

2 The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;

   he stretches out the heavens like a tent

3     and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.

He makes the clouds his chariot

   and rides on the wings of the wind.

4 He makes winds his messengers,

   flames of fire his servants.

5 He set the earth on its foundations;

   it can never be moved.

6 You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;

   the waters stood above the mountains.

7 But at your rebuke the waters fled,

   at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;

8 they flowed over the mountains,

   they went down into the valleys,

   to the place you assigned for them.

9 You set a boundary they cannot cross;

   never again will they cover the earth.

10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines;

 it flows between the mountains.

11 They give water to all the beasts of the field;

   the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

12 The birds of the sky nest by the waters;

   they sing among the branches.

13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;

   the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.

14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,

   and plants for people to cultivate—

   bringing forth food from the earth:

15 wine that gladdens human hearts,

   oil to make their faces shine,

   and bread that sustains their hearts.

16 The trees of the Lord are well watered,

   the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

17 There the birds make their nests;

   the stork has its home in the junipers.

18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats;

   the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.

19 He made the moon to mark the seasons,

   and the sun knows when to go down.

20 You bring darkness, it becomes night,

   and all the beasts of the forest prowl.

21 The lions roar for their prey

   and seek their food from God.

22 The sun rises, and they steal away;

   they return and lie down in their dens.

23 Then people go out to their work,

   to their labor until evening.

24 How many are your works, Lord!

   In wisdom you made them all;

   the earth is full of your creatures.

25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,

   teeming with creatures beyond number—

   living things both large and small.

26 There the ships go to and fro,

   and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

27 All creatures look to you

   to give them their food at the proper time.

28 When you give it to them,

   they gather it up;

when you open your hand,

   they are satisfied with good things.

29 When you hide your face,

   they are terrified;

when you take away their breath,

   they die and return to the dust.

30 When you send your Spirit,

   they are created,

   and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;

   may the Lord rejoice in his works—

32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,

   who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

33 I will sing to the Lord all my life;

   I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,

   as I rejoice in the Lord.

35 But may sinners vanish from the earth

   and the wicked be no more.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Praise the Lord.

Of course, in those times, the Psalms were not simply read, but sung. Here’s a modern rendition. If you’re old school, you might prefer a cantor.

Again, this post is really background and context for the post that follows. I hope you’ll read that as well. And I hope you’ll be blessed by the day.

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Lacking the needed environmental intelligence – will we build $26 Trillion of pipes to nowhere?

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” – Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1746

California's Lake Cachuma, at only 7% of capacity.

California’s Lake Cachuma, at only 7% of capacity.

The November 5, 2016 print edition of The Economist included Liquidity Crisis, an article on water scarcity, making three crisp points: As water becomes ever more scant the world needs to conserve it, use it more efficiently and establish clear rights over who owns the stuff.

The article merits a complete read, but starts out in this vein:

Where water is available, when and in what condition matters hugely. About 97% of the water on earth is salty; the rest is replenished through seasonal rainfall or is stored in underground wells known as aquifers. Humans, who once settled where water was plentiful, are now inclined to shift around to places that are less well endowed, pulled by other economic forces.

Climate change is making some parts of the planet much drier and others far wetter. As people get richer, they use more water. They also “consume” more of it, which means using it in such a way that it is not quickly returned to the source from which it was extracted. (For example, if it is lost through evaporation or turned into a tomato.) The big drivers of this are the world’s increased desire for grain, meat, manufactured goods and electricity. Crops, cows, power stations and factories all need lots of water.

To make matters worse, few places price water properly. Usually, it is artificially cheap, because politicians are scared to charge much for something essential that falls from the sky. This means that consumers have little incentive to conserve it and investors have little incentive to build pipes and other infrastructure to bring it to where it is needed most. In South Africa, for example, households get some water free. In Sri Lanka they pay initially a nominal 4 cents for a cubic metre. By contrast, in Adelaide in Australia, which takes water conservation seriously, an initial batch costs $1.75 per cubic metre. Globally, spending on water infrastructure faces a huge funding shortfall. A hole of $26trn will open up between 2010 and 2030, estimates the World Economic Forum, a think-tank.

from The Economist article

from The Economist article

It is typical of The Economist that every word matters. And the article goes on – worth the read. But this last figure – that the world needs to play catch-up in water infrastructure to the tune of $26T before the year 2030 – ought to bring us up short.

Three points come immediately to mind. First, compare with the more familiar (at least here in the United States) and much smaller dollar figure that comes to us from the American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card: America needs $3.6T investment in infrastructure (of all kinds[1]) between now and 2020. Second, large though it is, $26T compares with $80-100T global yearly GDP which works out to, say, $1300T between now and 2030. The needed water infrastructure makes claim on 2% of that total. For water – the foundation of all life itself? In reality, $26T may be a small price to pay – entirely manageable.

That brings us to the third point. $26T is manageable – but by no means negligible. It’s important to make the investment wisely. We can’t fly blind as we build these assets. We can’t afford to build pipes to nowhere – to where there is no water to be had, or to where there is no compelling necessity for its use.

We need environmental intelligence.

How capable is that environmental intelligence now?

To oversimplify: it turns out after centuries of scientific advance made in parallel with the rest of human progress, we generally know how much water we have worldwide. We know how much is stored in the oceans. We know how much is stored in lakes, rivers, and stream, in ice, in the atmosphere, and even underground. We know when and where we use that water – how much we all drink, what we use for agriculture, for energy, for transportation, and so on. We have good estimates on the quality of that water – which water is contaminated, and in what ways. We have a good bead on present-day mismatch between water supply and demand worldwide. And finally, we know something about how all these pieces of the puzzle are trending[2]

…at the moment.

But because so much of water infrastructure investment is long-term, to invest wisely requires a predictive understanding of how water supply and water use are trending over the next several decades, out to mid-century and beyond. Again, to oversimplify: we lack such predictive capability, at least to the requisite specificity (and minimal uncertainty).

Countries worldwide, including the United States, are racing to develop that intelligence. A few domestic examples – out of many: NOAA, USGS, and the US Army Corps of Engineers have joined forces with academia to establish a National Water Center, and develop a National Water Model. Agencies and research groups worldwide are scrambling to advance climate modeling and outlooks to the point where they can provide quantitative estimates of future global water storage and supply. New satellite technologies are improving our estimates of water storage and trends in underground aquifers (GRACE) and in ice (ICESat-2).

That’s the supply side of the equation. To foresee demand requires we understand where population increase, economic growth, and technology advance are taking us. We also need enough social science to connect these trends to individual and group behavior: how will peoples and nations respond to water scarcity? Where will they move? Will they see anticipate what’s coming, and respond in good order? Or will they be blindsided and respond in crisis? Will refugee populations bloom?

The reality? At the current pace of geoscience, social science, and engineering with respect to these matters, we’re likely to gain the intelligence we require only in time to look at the return on our water infrastructure investments through the rear-view mirror – and realize belatedly at, say, mid-century, what we should have done differently between now and then.

Minimal value in that[3].

But we’re tantalizingly close to learning what we need to know in time to make a real difference; to see what’s coming. Worldwide, something like $20B/year is being invested in the Earth observations, science, and services, to provide environmental intelligence with respect to water. Suppose we were to double that, to take $20B a year – a mere 1% of the $2T/year water infrastructure bill we’re told is coming due – to make a corresponding investment in environmental intelligence infrastructure.

Our ROI[4] on the $2T/year would dramatically improve. And the public would not just tolerate but actively support the needed work.

Seems worth a try.

In closing, note that the challenge goes beyond environmental intelligence to include policy. For us here in the United States, think of policy (again, with great oversimplification) as entering in three ways. First, as The Economist article points out, it’s vital to price water appropriately in order to sift through the value propositions represented by all the options. This means keeping the price of water low for basic human consumption – protecting the public good and especially the needs of the poor. But it also means pricing the use of water for energy and agricultural production fully – eliminating subsidies – to better guide choices about when and where to produce what foodstuffs, compare renewable versus non-renewable energy options, investments in electrical grids, etc. Second, as the post-election U.S. ponders options for funding infrastructure investments and putting people to work it is important we find the right balance between public and private funding of that infrastructure. And finally, it requires that we innovate – that we view our country as a development laboratory where we can explore investment options and strategies with an eye toward how we might develop expertise, products and services, and market these internationally – a chance to do well while doing good.


[1] Including, but not limited to: energy, roads and bridges, ports, waste management, levees, drinking water, transit, rail, aviation, and more. Note that much of this ASCE figure is itself for water infrastructure.

[2] That’s how those folks at The Economist can write their article now.

[3] Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, (AMS 2014) covers this in Chapter 5.2 The Value of Knowing (pp 70-75).

[4] Return on investment.

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The successful launch of GOES-R… and the resilience of Cushing, OK.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Age-old investment advice dating at least to the 17th century.

Do put all your eggs in one basket – but then watch the basket. – attributed, variously, to Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie, among others.

At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41, an Atlas V rocket with NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, or GOES-R, lifts off at 6:42 p.m. EST. GOES-R is the first satellite in a series of next-generation GOES satellites for NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. It will launch to a geostationary orbit over the western hemisphere to provide images of storms and help meteorologists predict severe weather conditionals and develop long-range forecasts.

At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41, an Atlas V rocket with NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, or GOES-R, lifts off at 6:42 p.m. EST. GOES-R is the first satellite in a series of next-generation GOES satellites for NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. It will launch to a geostationary orbit over the western hemisphere to provide images of storms and help meteorologists predict severe weather conditionals and develop long-range forecasts.

Environmental intelligence took a huge step forward this week, with the successful launch of GOES-R. News coverage has been extensive, and uniformly upbeat – even celebratory.

As well it should be – for several reasons. First and foremost, geostationary orbit comprises some of the most valuable real estate in Earth’s vicinity. It’s the only site enabling constant surveillance (as well as continuous line-of-sight communication with) of a specific patch of Earth (in the present case, the Americas). Such observations contribute vital protection against the threats posed by severe weather such as tornadoes and hurricanes.

Second, for the milestone to be fully appreciated, GOES-R needs to be seen in its larger global context. Angela Fritz, writing for the Washington Post, details the history and the  implications for international public safety (and other benefits) anticipated from this new satellite platform and its instruments. As her article reminds us, this 24/7 weather observation of the full globe requires a network of geostationary satellites. The European Union, Russia, India, China, Japan, and Korea are all supporting such observations. The successful launch of GOES-R means that the United States continues to hold up its end, just one piece of a larger puzzle.

Third, the existing geostationary satellite platforms are inexorably aging. Each needs periodic refreshing. GOES-R represents a decade of work and an important start to what is scheduled to be a $10B investment building three more satellites expected to serve the country for two more decades, out to 2036.

Fourth, societal needs for such observations constantly grow more demanding. As Jon Malay describes in a post on The AMS Front Page, GOES-R represents a significant upgrade with respect to its predecessors. It offers four times the spatial resolution (much as today’s cellphone cameras offer far more pixels per image than earlier versions). It will provide five times faster coverage, and real-time lightning mapping to augment the information content of the satellite’s images and corresponding radar and other instrumentation on the ground. The same satellite platform also supports a suite of instruments monitoring solar conditions including x-ray fluxes, flares, and coronal mass ejections that affect electrical power grids and communications here on Earth. Later geostationary platforms will continue to improve upon existing capabilities and add new ones.

Fifth, again as Jon Malay points out, the accomplishment is a truly national – even multinational – one. The GOES-R team spanned public- and private-sectors and included NASA, NOAA, Lockheed Martin Space Systems and the Advanced Technology Center, United Launch Alliance, Harris, Exelis, ATC, LASP, as well as other contractors and subcontractors.

To the rejoicing we can add a sigh of relief. Launch is a risky phase in the life of a satellite platform and its instruments. There’s a lot that can go wrong, sometimes catastrophically wrong. Odds are good; 2016 statistics suggest that the record so far this year is 71 successes, 2 failures, but the U.S. environmental intelligence community had a lot of eggs in this basket. All participants in this venture – and the nation itself – can now exhale.

A lot of eggs in one basket? That brings us to today’s two quotes.

Every adage has its equal and opposite. That includes this old investment advice, so obvious on its face – what could be riskier than having all one’s net worth tied up in, say, a single company’s stock, or a solitary parcel of real estate, or gold or coffee futures? One individual event – the equivalent of tripping and dropping that egg basket – could decrease the value of the holding, and the net worth of its owner, to zero.

But others argue that to diversify is to lose interest in, and ability to see emerging risk to, any single element of the resulting portfolio – risking a slow and steady decline. Instead, they see the path to wealth as focus, combined with nimble response to seize opportunities or head off threats as they arise.

In much the same way, critical infrastructure leads to the same debate. If water, or electricity, or transportation is a continuing need, then no city, or state, or nation can heedlessly risk disruption of that need. Of particular concern are so-called single-point-of-failures (or SPOF’s), that can bring down an entire system – flood inundation of a water treatment plant, or a space weather power surge that knocks out a transformer and triggers shutdown of a regional power grid, for example. The rise of interlocked, computerized SCADA’s (supervisory control and data acquisition systems) that in turn control such infrastructure, and their vulnerability to hacking, have aroused particular apprehension. The engineering and building of critical infrastructure is a continuous quest for redundancy, for system designs offering “self-healing” properties, and for continuity in the face of all manner of threats ranging from natural hazards to terrorism, or even to the untimely death of key individuals.

Not withstanding such concerns, single-point vulnerabilities continue to proliferate. Sometimes this is deliberate, because of the appeal of a special opportunity (in the case of GOES-R, that represented by geostationary orbit), attractions of economies of scale and the value of certain technologies. Major airport hubs, high-voltage electrical transformers, nuclear reactors – even urban centers themselves – might fall into this category. Participants assess and manage known risks by employing a mix of strategies, including insurance. In the GOES-R case, for example, the launch was accomplished while the existing satellites, GOES-East and GOES-West, were still operational.

In other cases – and the growing vulnerability of IT infrastructure across the world might fall into this category – hidden single-point vulnerabilities grow as the unintended consequences of social change and innovation.

Here’s a small example, one of thousands or millions worldwide:

Cushing, Oklahoma. Google this and you’ll find the entry starts out this way:

Cushing is a city in Payne County, Oklahoma, United States. The population was 7,826 at the 2010 census, a decline of 6.5 percent from 8,371 at the 2000 census.

The city was established after the Land Run of 1891 by William “Billy Rae” Little. It was named for Marshall Cushing, private secretary to U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker. An oil boom that began in 1912 led to the city’s development as a refining center…

cushing-paradeSmall town, middle America. But the next bit changes the picture: … Today, Cushing is a major trading hub for crude oil and a famous price settlement point for West Texas Intermediate on the New York Mercantile Exchange.


That describes what some have called the world’s largest oil storage facility, holding 55-60 million barrels of oil, some 13% of total U.S. oil storage capacity (enough to fill the tanks of half of all the cars on the road in the United States). It’s all stored in something roughly 300 tanks above ground, spread over several square miles, fed by half a dozen major pipelines (someday, possibly, to be joined by the so-called Keystone pipeline).


This adds up to a significant single-point vulnerability – especially for a site squarely in the middle of tornado alley. But on November 6, the Cushing oil pipelines and storage facilities withstood a threat of a totally different nature – a 5.0 earthquake. The town itself was not so resilient. According to this news source, The state emergency management office said there has been major damage reported at a senior living apartment complex in Cushing.

The American Red Cross has set up a shelter at the Cushing Youth Center, 7 S Little Ave., for anyone displaced by the earthquake damage. They are supplying cots, blankets and food.

Cushing Schools canceled Monday classes to assess earthquake damage and to ensure the safety of its students. Faculty and staff have been asked to check with building principals for instructions.

Cushing police evacuated the downtown area due to reports of gas line leaks and infrastructure checks. City officials said the leaks have been contained.

City officials asked Oklahomans to not go into the downtown area until the damage has been surveyed and the area is deemed safe.

Fracking may be contributing to the risk. The U.S. Geological Survey notes:

Between the years 1973–2008, there was an average of 21 earthquakes of magnitude three and larger in the central and eastern United States. This rate has ballooned to over 600 M3+ earthquakes in 2014 and over 1000 in 2015. Through August 2016, over 500 M3+ earthquakes have occurred in 2016.

Bottom line? Human efforts to provide energy, food, and water for seven billion people are constantly introducing new and unanticipated risks. We can’t prevent these, but at the same time we must build the environmental intelligence needed to manage the newly-emerging, constantly-shifting risk landscape. [Weather-Ready Nation? What does it mean, in the 21st century to make even population-8000 Cushing weather-ready?]  In responding to such challenges, multiplied by 3000 counties nationwide (each critical in some similar way) environmental intelligence itself is growing so substantial and so essential to society that even its internal single-point vulnerabilities (such as satellite launches) call for extra measures of risk management.

Don’t take your eyes off that egg basket!

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Recent environmental intelligence. Part 2. Air pollution and kids.


We know that air pollution, which takes many forms, including fine particulates, poses risks for all life on earth. But the recent environmental intelligence, in the form of last month’s UNICEF report, Clear the Air for Children, developed by Nicholas Rees et al., details how air pollution’s impacts on children can be particularly severe[1].

From the report’s foreword, written by UNICEF’s Executive Director, Anthony Lake:

[Air pollution] causes miscarriages, early delivery, and low birth weight.

It contributes to diseases that account for almost 1 in 10 of all deaths of children under the age of five.

It can harm the healthy development of children’s brains.

It is a drag on economies and societies, already costing as much as 0.3 per cent of global GDP – and rising…

… the magnitude of the danger it poses – especially to young children – is enormous.

Children breathe twice as quickly as adults, and take in more air relative to their body weight. Their respiratory tracks are more permeable and thus more vulnerable. Their immune systems are weaker. Their brains are still developing.

Ultrafine, airborne pollutants — caused primarily by smoke and fumes — can more easily enter and irritate children’s lungs, causing and exacerbating life-threatening disease. Studies show these tiny particles can also cross the blood-brain barrier, which is less resistant in children, causing inflammation, damaging brain tissue, and permanently impairing cognitive development. They even can cross the placental barrier, injuring the developing fetus when the mother is exposed to toxic pollutants.

So urban children growing up too close to industrial sites, smoldering dumps, and electrical generators that burn biomass fuels like dung … rural children living in unventilated homes where food is prepared on smoking cook stoves … refugee and migrant children staying in tents filled with wood smoke … All these children are breathing in pollutants night and day that endanger their health, threaten their lives, and undermine their futures.

Many of these children are already disadvantaged by poverty and deprivation. Some are already at heightened risk from conflicts, crises and the intensifying effects of climate change. Air pollution is yet another threat to their health and wellbeing – and yet another way in which the world is letting them down.

The sheer numbers of children affected are staggering. Based on satellite imagery, in the first analysis of its kind, this report shows that around the world today, 300 million children live in areas with extremely toxic levels of air pollution. Approximately 2 billion children live in areas where pollution levels exceed the minimum air quality standards set by the World Health Organization. These data don’t account for the millions of children exposed to air pollution inside the home[2].

The impact is commensurately shocking. Every year, nearly 600,000 children under the age of five die from diseases caused or exacerbated by the effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution. Millions more suffer from respiratory diseases that diminish their resilience and affect their physical and cognitive development.

If the language seems breathless, perhaps it should be.

To help see this, compare some complementary material from the October 29th print edition of The Economist – a publication not given to overstatement – which spoke to the global importance of early childhood development (naturally, the term has an acronym in that world – ECD). A sample of what The Economist had to say:

multiple benefits…come from putting more emphasis on early childhood development (ECD), a term that includes everything that can be done to boost the physical and intellectual health of youngsters before they reach the age of eight.

According to the Lancet, a medical journal, in 2000 just seven developing countries had a comprehensive approach to ECD. Now almost half do. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, a well-meaning set of targets launched in January, call for universal access to good-quality ECD by 2030…

…The youngsters themselves are the main, though not the sole, beneficiaries. Another recent study in the Lancet reckons that 43% of under-fives in poor countries, in other words about 250m kids, will fail to meet their “developmental potential” because of avoidable deficiencies in ECD.

Their young brains are sensitive. In the first three or so years after birth, when up to 1,000 synapses are formed per second, they are vulnerable to trauma which triggers stress hormones. Though some stress is fine, too much is thought to hinder development. Neglect is also corrosive. Young children benefit from lots of back-and-forth dealings with adults. Research by the Rural Education Action Programme, based at Stanford University, suggests that rural children in China have “systematically low cognition”, partly as a result of being reared by grandparents who pay them little attention while parents work in cities.

Supporters of ECD add that its benefits go well beyond the children. Better-raised toddlers mean less need to cope with dysfunctional adults at public expense. The World Bank says every dollar spent on pre-school education earns between $6 and $17 of public benefits, in the form of a healthier and more productive workforce with fewer wrongdoers. Many developing countries seem to have accepted this case. China has vowed to provide pre-school facilities for all youngsters; India has the same goal. African countries are also investing in toddlers. Ethiopia says it will increase pre-school enrolment to 80% by 2020, from 4% in 2009; Ghana has added two years of pre-school education to its system. Uganda wants every state primary school to have a nursery.

This burst of enthusiasm is welcome and overdue. In the OECD club of mainly rich countries, spending on ECD amounts to around 2.4% of GNP; in poorer countries, where there is so much scope for improvement, the share is less than 1%, says the World Bank. Poor countries spend far more on regular schools. In Latin America, for every dollar spent on children under five, $3 is spent on those between six and 11.

…ECD must focus as much on physical well-being as on training the mind[3]. That element is now missing: most ECD policies put the stress simply on educating kids aged four or five. In fact, health and nutrition are at least as important. A paper in 2008 by Cesar Victora of Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil tracked cohorts of children in five countries (Brazil, Guatemala, India, the Philippines and South Africa) and found a strong correlation between height at the age of two, school results and wages in later life. So correcting the bad nutrition (of expectant mothers as well as infants) that leads to stunting should be a priority. Supplements like iodine and iron for pregnant mothers and vulnerable babies can boost educational performance.

“Environmental intelligence”? The term calls to mind an analogy with intelligence agencies such as CIA and NSA. Worldwide collection of diverse data from disparate sources. Highly-trained analysts sifting through it all (these days with the help of big data, data analytics, and AI), teasing out important connections, and identifying options for action.

Taken together, today’s two scraps of intelligence remind us: if we know big challenges are coming, if we want to equip tomorrow’s society and workforce to deal with them, we have invest in our youngest children today. We have to do more to monitor and clean up the physical environment where they’re growing up. We have to provide the blend of nurture and mental stimulus that will help them develop their fullest potential. We will need to strengthen K-12 education across the board and STEM education in particular.

Interestingly, these insights come at a moment in history when we’re better able than usual to see the consequences, good and bad, of such investments. Take just one example: not just the outcome but the entire conduct of the election campaign just concluded might have been different had we Americans invested differently over the past half-century to nurture and educate the children who grew up to become today’s voting public. Perhaps a larger percentage would have voted. Maybe they’d have focused less on past grievances and more on how to move forward. Perhaps they’d have looked at more substantive issues, and demanded more specifics on those issues from both parties. But we may have equipped them poorly. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) argues[4], in A Crisis in Civic Education, released at the beginning of the year, that: Our vast national expenditure on higher education has had little or no measurable effect on giving students the skills and knowledge they need for effective citizenship.

To back up their claim, ACTA offers these statistics (among others; the report is worth the read in its entirety):

  • Only 20.6% of respondents could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. More than 60% thought the answer was Thomas Jefferson—despite the fact that Jefferson, as U.S. ambassador to France, was not present during the Constitutional Convention… College graduates performed little better: Only 28.4% named Madison, and 59.2% chose Jefferson.
  • How do Americans amend the Constitution? More than half of college graduates didn’t know. Almost 60% of college graduates failed to identify correctly a requirement for ratifying a constitutional amendment.
  • We live in a dangerous world—but almost 40% of college graduates didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.
  • College graduates were even confused about the term lengths of members of Congress. Almost half could not recognize that senators are elected to six- year terms and representatives are elected to two-year terms.
  • Less than half of college graduates knew that presidential impeachments are tried before the U.S. Senate.
  • And 9.6% of college graduates marked that Judith Sheindlin—“Judge Judy”—was on the Supreme Court!

The ACTA emphasis was on facts… but the recent election campaign suggests we’re also struggling with values – including but not limited to the importance of listening to and respecting each other, and working toward the unity needed to keep our interconnected society humming. Things we’re supposed to learn at home and at school. And though the ACTA focus has been domestic, the same comments pertain to democracies and voting publics worldwide.

Protect, nurture, and educate kids?

There’s plenty to do. And compelling reason to do it.

(Full disclosure… my daughter works in ECD; she lives and breathes the issue. As a result, so do those of us in her orbit. She’s a force of nature.)


[1] Chances are good you’ve seen this already; the report occasioned a spate of news media coverage.

[2] [Emphasis added. Yet another example of innovative application of space-based Earth observations for societal benefit. Increasingly, NOAA and companion agencies are moving into environmental forecasting – air quality, harmful algal blooms, and more.

Watch for it. Society will internalize the new intelligence – first to warn of pollution episodes, and over time to motivate and guide strategies and actions to improve air and water quality.

[3] [Emphasis added.]

[4] George Will’s recent column first brought this report to my attention.

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Matthew? It’s not the hurricane, it’s the vulnerability.


The previous three LOTRW posts took up the topic of environmental intelligence – addressing, tangentially, the state of the environmental intelligence community itself. The first provided a snapshot of the collaboration between NOAA and the larger Weather Enterprise. The second looked at the academic pipeline producing the stream of environmental intelligence analysts needed in the near future. The third considered what matters the most to any intelligence community: how attentive is the host society to the intelligence provided? Is it used to save lives? Build the economy? Protect critical ecosystem services? In sum, does it make a difference? Or is the host society oblivious to environmental intelligence, focused on other matters? Do the alerts and outlooks go unheeded?

The next several posts shift the focus from the environmental intelligence community of practice to what recent environmental intelligence has to tell us. What have we been learning over the past few months? What is the Earth system saying to mankind?

We start with Hurricane Matthew. Wikipedia offers this account: Hurricane Matthew was a very powerful, long-lived and deadly tropical cyclone which became the first Category 5 Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Felix in 2007. The thirteenth named storm, fifth hurricane and second major hurricane of the active 2016 Atlantic hurricane season, Matthew wrought widespread destruction and catastrophic loss of life during its journey across the Western Atlantic, including parts of Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Lucayan Archipelago, the southeastern United States, and the Canadian Maritimes. Over 1,600 estimated deaths have been attributed to the storm, including 546 to 1,600 in Haiti, 1 in Colombia, 4 in the Dominican Republic, 1 in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and 49 in the United States, making it the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Stan in 2005, which killed more than 1,600 in Central America and Mexico. With the storm causing damages estimated in excess of $10.5 billion (USD), it was also the costliest Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, as well as the tenth costliest Atlantic hurricane in history.

 (The fuller text and other on-line accounts of Matthew merit a read.) Numbing statistics, but they reveal a simple story.

Matthew presented two faces.


To the poor, Matthew threatened life itself. It killed, and compromised public health, and drove home to the survivors a message that life might not be worth living. Take Haiti. For Haitians, Matthew wasn’t a one-off. It hit before the country had recovered from the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, which according to accounts took between 100,000 and 200,000 lives – and indirectly left a cholera epidemic in its wake, courtesy of UN troops who’d been brought in to help restore order. Fact is, order and hope have been hard to come by in Haiti for as long as anyone can remember.

Though tragically pronounced there, the vulnerability of the poor was not confined to Haiti; it was also on display here in the United States as well. More than forty days later, FEMA is still extending deadlines for requests for help; the last shelters for those driven from their homes are finally closing only now. Here too, the loss was repetitive. Some of those driven out of their homes had been forced out earlier – by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. And the timing of the flooding – coming in the middle of the political season – may have affected voting in the area. (The Atlantic provides a more extensive look.)

Richer areas experienced economic loss. Much of this was in the form of damage to coastal property, especially homes. But let’s zoom in on one particular aspect, which illustrates how vital natural resources, hazards, and environment are woven together, and how in today’s interconnected world, local, placed-based challenges are tied to global interests and trends:

Damage to North Carolina’s hog farms.

2300-ncanimalwaste10171The Washington Post reported at the time: A filthy brown sea, a slurry of mud, debris, chemicals and waste, has overtaken miles of rural counties in North Carolina. Against the drab water, the shiny metal roofs of hog houses are impossible to miss, visible from the air, as are the rectangular and diamond-shaped outlines of massive lagoons constructed just feet away.

When those lagoons are doing their job, the liquid excrement they hold is a deep reddish-pink. Berms and pumps are designed to keep that bacteria-laden sludge from spilling out. But across coastal plain here – home to one of the highest concentrations of hog farms in the country – the lagoons’ content now looks more like the surrounding floodwater.

In a state already reeling from lost lives, homes and livelihoods, the color is evidence of major environmental risks.

Hundreds of hog and poultry farms may have been inundated last week as the Neuse, Lumber and Tar rivers roared over their banks, a rampage powered by the deluge of Hurricane Matthew. The carcasses of several thousand drowned hogs and several million drowned chickens and turkeys were left behind. An incalculable amount of animal waste was carried toward the ocean. Along the way, it could be contaminating the groundwater for the many people who rely on wells in this part of the state, as well as threatening the delicate ecosystems of tidal estuaries and bays.

This is just the beginning of the story. The Washington Post article goes on to discuss the scale of the hog farming, and the contentious dialog swirling around to what extent the state and the industry had learned the lessons of Hurricane Floyd and whether more should have been done over the past fifteen years.

A further sidenote (not explicitly covered by the Post this time around), indicating the connectedness of all things in today’s world: Smithfield Foods, cited in the story, and one of the big producers in the region, is owned by Chinese interests. Much of the North Carolina hog production is in fact destined for China; in fact, the industry took off in the 1990’s in order to satisfy a growing Chinese appetite for meat in what had hitherto been a more grain-and-vegetable-based diet. That trend in turn has been enabled by rising Chinese prosperity fueled by global trade. (Because some ten pounds of grain is needed to provide and pound of meat, this change in eating habits by one nation was equivalent to, say, a 30-50% increase in world appetite.)

Environmental intelligence tells us: what matters as much as the natural hazard itself is the vulnerability. The good news is: we can assess vulnerability in advance of a catastrophe. Just as we subject banks these days to stress tests to hedge against repeats of the 2008 financial sector meltdown, we could subject communities and industries to similar stress tests to foresee and forestall catastrophic failure resulting from natural hazards.

The interconnectedness of all things reminds us that the stakes for getting this right are high: lives, economic growth, U.S. standing and place in the world, and, as the recent elections have shown, even our social fabric and the vitality of our Nation. NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program and Weather-Ready Nation initiative, and similar programs, take us in the right direction. But the signs are that increased investment in these efforts and others like them would realize a substantial return.

In the next LOTRW post: air pollution.

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Environmental intelligence, and the National Sea Grant Program at 50.

50-yearsStart with this: environmental intelligence[1] faces two big challenges in the 21st century.

The first is scientific/technical. The second is social. Both are profound[2].

The scientific challenge: Do we want a safer, more prosperous, more secure future that will endure throughout the 21st century? We’ll never get there flying blind – ignorant of what the planet we live on is going to do next, either on its own initiative or in response to the pokings and proddings of 7 billion people.

Instead, we need a predictive understanding[3] of the Earth system up to the task of 21st-century decision-making – guiding government and business actions with respect to agriculture, energy and water; public health, public safety and emergency response; and protection and extension of ecosystems services. What’s more, the zero-margin world we now live in no longer allows us to make any of these decisions in isolation. Everything’s tied together in a tangle. Take a few examples from recent news stories. Profitable location and long-term operation of hog farms requires we know the likelihood and impacts of hurricane rains and riverine flooding. $20T of water infrastructure will be needed worldwide between now and 2030. But we need to know how much water will be available where and when if we’re to avoid laying “pipes to nowhere.” The job creation and prosperity promised by manufacturing based on cheap and widely available fossil fuels turns out to expose a billion kids worldwide to levels of atmospheric particulates that limit their promise to develop into the workforce needed for tomorrow. Fracking makes such fuels cheaper still, yet leads to earthquakes – some of which threaten major oil storage hubs. Fifty-percent reductions in vertebrate population in just fifty years are driving the natural world into an uncharted future that might last for millennia.

Who knew? And what will happen next?

The short answer is: No one knew. And no one knows what will happen next, at least with the specificity needed on the future time scales that matter for planning and decisions.

Fact is, such questions have only recently been tabled. The hard-won predictive skill we enjoy today remains limited compared with what’s needed. Growing economies and populations are driving up the stakes. The value of incremental skill is growing, as are the costs of prediction errors and uncertainty. But improvements in that skill are stubbornly slow in coming.

Today, worldwide, though the science is complex and daunting, some have developed a glimmer of what’s in store. Hundreds of thousands, indeed several millions of men and women working in disciplines covering every aspect of the Earth sciences and related observing and information technologies are racing to forecast what lies ahead, with respect to specific bits of this puzzle as well as the big picture.

All that brings us to

The social challenge: A few million people working the scientific problem might seem like a lot, but it’s a mere handful of the world’s seven-billion+ population.

And coping is a far bigger task than understanding.

If we are to cope successfully with these present and future challenges, all 330 million of us here in the US, and all seven billion of us worldwide, though necessarily focused on other concerns – manufacturing, IT products and services, healthcare delivery, (and what’s for dinner tonight?) – have to have a shared awareness of what lies ahead, and enough trust and willingness to explore and test a variety of options for moving forward, together. What’s more, this can’t and won’t ever lend itself to top-down, command-and-control. Instead it will take the form of short- and long-term problem solving at local and regional levels, with heavy emphasis on the communication needed to develop some harmony of approach across boundaries, while making constant, incremental adjustments along the way in response to early signs of success or failure, and all the while building trust.

How well are we doing with this second task? U.S. elections, just concluded, provide a data point. Throughout the year of campaigning, with all the ups and downs, the vitriol, the polarization – the focus remained on which presidential candidate was least likeable and trustworthy and why, with back-and-forth on jobs and global trade, immigration, health care, and war and terrorism thrown in. The environment, natural hazards, and natural resources? These topics received the merest and some cases derogatory mention. But our domestic experience isn’t unique. It’s reflecting a worldwide trend. Abroad, we see the same sharp disagreements and division regarding international trade, preoccupation with the balance and projection of national power, armed conflicts, the resulting growth and mass movements of refugee populations, etc. Our leaders have their hands full just on these bits. As for trust, it’s faded into the background.

Two meta-lessons have emerged. First, from either side, and whatever the topic, the task is not a matter of bringing “others” to “our” point of view. Communication is vital, but it’s not communication as manipulative marketing technique. It’s about starting with listening, and patiently allowing communication to build understanding. Second, it’s hard, if not impossible to reach consensus on environmental intelligence without first, or at least in tandem, building shared vision about other issues: Jobs. Immigration. Trade. Education. Healthcare…

Okay, Bill, but a bit abstract, high-level. Can you bring all this down to earth, make it a bit more tangible, concrete?

Yes, I can – and furthermore, I can offer something positive.

Last month, at the age of fifty, NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program held its biennial strategic planning retreat in Newport, Rhode Island. It was my privilege to be with the group for a few hours of their week together. Throughout my NOAA career, I’d admired Sea Grant from afar. In 1963, on the 100th anniversary of the Morrill Act and the establishment of Land Grant Colleges and Universities, Athelstan Spilhaus suggested the nation ought to make a similar investment in its (coastal) oceans and coastal populations. Finally, in 1966, the deed was done. Since then, Sea Grant has had its ups and downs, depending upon successive administrations. But twin strengths have kept it going. The first is the development, state-by-state, of research networks – scientists of every stripe adding to our understanding of the coasts and coastal oceans as an integrated physical-ecological-societal system. The research has been anything but top-down. It’s built a base of predictive understanding at the local level by continuing sharp focus on place-based realities, and then aggregated that up to form a larger national picture. The second is the parallel development of what started as “extension services,”[4] but now represent strong locally-based collaborative efforts to build coastal resilience, grow coastal economies, and protect coastal ecosystem services. These benefits have been quite visible at the local level – across the 26 coastal states – and that awareness has built broad, across-the-aisle political and popular support for the research and its application even as other areas of environmental intelligence have struggled to gain traction. Further, all this has happened even as the country has grown more polarized.

What was especially striking during the week was the high positive energy of the group, and increasing scale of the initiatives they were tackling, ranging these days from offshore wind energy to aquaculture, tourism, and workforce development projects.

Sea Grant thus points the way for the larger environmental intelligence community. It’s a success story with respect to the two big scientific and social challenges that has proven small enough to be doable and show concrete results, yet large enough to motivate further progress. NOAA’s continually adding new wrinkles. One recent example:  Weather-Ready Nation Initiative, which offers the same scientifically-enabled, place-based problem solving approach, and is building enthusiasm and constituency in an otherwise divided world. Another is the current R2X set of initiatives designed to realize tangible improvements in NOAA’s services and stewardship from research advances.

Here’s a forecast: Fifty years from now, we’ll have seen another 6-12 political administrations come and go. They’ll have been of every persuasion. Sea Grant will be observing its 100th year, receiving a Nation’s gratitude for its part in navigating another half-century of sea-level rise and guiding coastal development. The country will recognize the 50-year-old Weather-Ready Nation initiative as one of the country’s better ideas, building community resiliency in the face of the world’s most hazardous weather. And NOAA’s R2X initiative, itself going on 50, will be regarded as a landmark success in sustaining an American culture of innovation.

A good time to be alive!


[1] Continuing this LOTRW mini-series on environmental intelligence and events of this past summer

[2] And both – important to emphasize this given recent events – are non-partisan.

[3] As in – answering the question what will it do next? – with the specificity needed if society is to adjust, either to capture opportunity and potential benefit or to avoid potential danger or hazard.

[4]in analogy with the agricultural extension services dating back to the Morrill Act.

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