Remembering James Richard Mahoney (1938-2015).

“Think forward. – masthead on the LeMoyne College Website

Living on the real world – reality – is personal.


James R. Mahoney – Le Moyne and MIT-educated meteorologist, Harvard academician, private-sector entrepreneur, government leader, family man, larger-than-life human being – passed away last week at the age of 77.

It’s standard on such occasions and essential in Jim’s case to mourn the loss, to recognize that the world is diminished by his passing. In one sense, that’s evident enough. However, the opposite is equally true. The world he leaves behind is the better for him – and in fact, continuing to improve every day. His impact on his family and colleagues and on the geosciences community is only beginning to be felt. The positive ripple effect will not just endure but grow for years to come as that host of people he inspired and whose lives he changed pay it forward in their turn.

Meteorologists, better than most, understand this. Thanks to Ed Lorenz, a professor at MIT when Jim was there, we know what a single butterfly can do. And if by mindlessly flapping its wings, a butterfly can create a hurricane a world away three weeks later, and influence the course of weather forever, how much more can a man or woman, acting intentionally over a lifetime, change the history of the world?

In part, that’s why the work and lives of meteorologists – and, for that matter, the lives and work of all seven billion of usis sacred. As you and I go through the ordinary circumstances of each day, whether mountaintop experience or mind-stupefying slog, we are indelibly and profoundly altering the future.

(No pressure!)

Jim’s career and contributions were extensive and must be seen in their entirety to be appreciated. (The Boston Globe obituary reprinted here at the end of the post provides a quick overview.) At the same time he made those contributions at a richly personal level, one at a time, day by day, and year by year. You probably have your own favorite story from the larger Mahoney narrative. But here and in the next post(s?) is mine: Jim’s tenure as the director of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, or NAPAP, from roughly 1987-1991.

A little bit of background before we dive in: As the Boston Globe piece reminds us, after getting a meteorology Ph.D. from MIT, Jim was on the faculty at Harvard’s school of public health for seven years. About 1968, he co-founded Environmental Research and Technology, Inc., which grew into one of the first large companies devoted to environmental services and engineering, as it capitalized on the new need for corporations to file environmental impact statements. After selling ERT in 1983, Jim went to work for Bechtel. 1987 found Jim and Bechtel playing a major role in the Three-Mile Island cleanup, which was still ongoing after the 1979 nuclear accident. Reactor radiation levels were so high that the robotics of the era, though primitive by today’s standards, had to be harnessed to the task. To operate the robotics, the Bechtel crews were dependent on the views provided by cameras. However, in the heat generated by the radioactivity, the coolant water remaining in the chamber had turned the reactor core into a huge Petri dish. Algae and mold were growing profusely on all surfaces, including the camera optics. Jim and his team were engaged in a crash course in image enhancement science and technology in their efforts to keep the billion-dollar cleanup moving.

As it happens, in that same year, problems with the National Acid Precipitation Program (NAPAP) reached the breaking point. We’ll pick up the story here in the next post.

A final footnote, demonstrating the influence of a single human being. As the bio below shows, Jim received his undergraduate degree of LeMoyne College, a small Jesuit school only founded in 1946. A Penn State meteorology professor by the name of Charles Hosler, now in his 90’s, came to campus and gave a talk at the time Jim was a student in physics. Hosler made such an impression on Mahoney, and vice versa, that it wasn’t long before Jim was going to school in meteorology – and at MIT. During his tenure at Penn State, Professor Hosler also inspired hundreds of other students, including a young man by the name of Joel Myers, who founded AccuWeather, and another young man by the name of Richard Hallgren, who went on to become a director of the National Weather Service and subsequently executive director of the AMS.

Well, back to work, everyone. Who will you influence today? And how will you and they change the world as a result? Think forward!


From the Boston Globe:

Mahoney, Dr. James Richard Whose distinguished career as an academic, a scientist, a business executive, and the director of key U.S. Government environmental programs spanned five decades, died peacefully on September 23, 2015 at his home in Eagle, ID. Jim was also a devoted husband, father of eight and grandfather to twelve. Before retiring to Idaho in 2006, Jim was based in Washington, DC and served as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. During his tenure at NOAA, Jim also served as the Director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, and was responsible for overseeing the Federal Government’s numerous research studies and developing policy directives on climate change. Jim was born on September 19, 1938 in Syracuse, NY, and attended Christian Brothers Academy followed by Le Moyne College, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree Magna Cum Laude in Physics. He then proceeded to MIT, earning a Doctorate in Meteorology and Geophysical Fluid Dynamics. In 1966, Jim moved across town to Harvard, as a well respected Associate Professor of Applied Meteorology in the School of Public Health for the next seven years. In 1968 Jim co-founded Environmental Research and Technology, Inc., one of the earliest environmental engineering and services companies, serving as Senior Vice President until the sale of ERT in 1983. His excellence in environmental management issues continued on the West Coast, where Jim became Director of Bechtel’s global environmental industries business group, based in San Francisco. In 1988, Jim accepted an important role in the Executive Office of the President under the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, merging his scientific and leadership talents as Director of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program. Upon completion of that government assignment, Jim returned to the private sector as Senior Vice President of International Technology Corporation in Los Angeles until his assignment at NOAA. He is survived by Taya, his wife of 25 years, their daughters Courtney and Caitlin of Eagle, ID. He is also survived by his former wife, Margaret (Eells) Everbeck and their six children: Deborah Briggs and her husband Geoff Briggs of Randolph, MA; James Mahoney and his wife Jane Chung of Columbia, MD; Robert Mahoney and his wife Marcia Mahoney of Byfield, MA; Peter Mahoney and his wife Joanne Mead of Newton, MA; David Mahoney and his wife Elizabeth Mahoney of Roslindale, MA; and Paul Mahoney and his wife Mary Tamer of West Roxbury, MA. Jim is also survived by 12 grandchildren. Jim’s family already celebrated his life at a Funeral Mass in Idaho and a memorial service will take place on Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 2 p.m. at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church, 54 Lincoln St, Newton, Massachusetts.

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The sacred work of meteorologists.

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. – Yogi Berra (?[1])

The confluence of three events this past week shapes this post:

yogi berra

yogi berra

At age 90, former New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra passes. My generation knew him as one of the great catchers of all time. Growing up, I got to see him play a couple of times in the old Yankees stadium (as in, the original stadium built in 1923 before its 1970’s renovation, and its eventual replacement by today’s Yankee Stadium in 2009). Back then, the pillars of the old structure and the fedoras and the haze of cigarette smoke from the adults obscured my view of the field but didn’t diminish the excitement of seeing Yogi, and Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford, Allie Reynolds and other legends actually play the game).

Today’s generation, at least those who don’t confuse him with Yogi Bear, remembers Mr. Berra more for his malapropisms and mis-pronouncements, many captured in spirit in his classic, The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said! One of those quotes frequently cited is the lead-in reflection above, on predictions.

That quote holds particular salience for meteorologists, and well it should. More than one writer (Nate Silver and David Orrell come to mind) have suggested that meteorologists are better at predictions than most – including, for example, economists, election pollsters, and sports prognosticators – and perhaps even the oracle at Delphi. Meteorologists are right to take pride and satisfaction in harnessing science and technology to the task of protecting lives and property in the face of weather hazards.

Meteorologists are also right to recognize that improved predictive skill is urgently needed. Here’s an analogy: Imagine that you’ve been driving a car for several daylight hours on the interstate highways of the high plains of Nebraska and Colorado. You can see miles ahead in the bright sunlight, and the road seems to stretch on straight and true, without limit. But night falls as you reach and enter the Rockies. Suddenly, just as visibility is limited to that provided by the headlights, a dense fog rolls in and the road ahead becomes a succession of twists and curves. It hits you: you’re driving too fast for conditions.

In microcosm, that’s the predicament of the human race. For all of history, our numbers have been limited and our weather-, water-, and climate-related decisions could be based on persistence. We could usefully assume that conditions we’d face in the future with regard to extremes of flood and drought, storm and calm would be similar to those we’d faced in the recent past. Today – whether we’re trying to provide for public safety in the face of weather extremes; or keeping surface and air traffic moving in rain, snow, and ice; or meet food production goals from the coming growing season in light of growing global demands; or storing water to protect us from flood or sustain us through a drought – we’re essentially driving blind. We’re making weather-sensitive decisions based on hope and guess rather than knowledge. We have to start evacuating cities before we know to a certainty that the hurricane will actually hit. We have to decide what crops to plant before we can be sure the coming season will be wet or dry. We are making huge investments in coastal critical infrastructure in the face of indeterminate sea-level rise. The time horizons of these and other decisions greatly exceed the extent of our predictive capability.

Here is where the analogy breaks down. An individual driving too fast for conditions can and does slow the vehicle speed, either in response to the external realities or in response to the pleas and demands of concerned passengers in the car. That’s not what’s happening when it comes to the human race and weather-, water-, and climate-related decisions and actions. Simply “slowing down” the seven-billion-person “vehicle” is not a viable societal option. Crops need to be planted on a rough timetable. Critical coastal infrastructure – the roadways, the waterworks, the electrical grid, and more – needs to be constructed and maintained at a pace dictated by social and technological necessity – even if we can’t yet discern what future natural extremes will stress the system.

For a society that can’t “slow down,”, the alternative of intensifying the headlights, or supplementing them with radar and collision-avoidance gear and GPS thus looks attractive and relatively cost-effective; hence the keen interest in extending the time horizon and improving the specificity of weather, water, and climate prediction, and quickly integrating any new progress into improved decision support tools.

Which brings us to the second event of the past week…


“Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.” – Pope Francis, speaking to the U.S. Congress


Pope Francis visits the United States. Here in Washington, D.C., prior to the pope’s visit, the news focus was on the likely impact of his schedule on the DC-area commute and the availability of papal-bobblehead dolls. But during his visit, the news coverage morphed into something deeper. The video and audio revealed not a celebrity but a simple man, someone like the rest of us – in this case, a former-barroom-bouncer-turned-parish-priest, an immigrant. And this was not a man needing – hungering – to feed on the adulation of the crowds and the dignitaries. Instead, throughout, he had something to offer: food-for-thought to the great personages, and true material food and blessing to the homeless, the sick, the children, those in prison, young and old alike – all on an individual basis. Whatever his company or circumstances, he was happy, at peace.

And he gave us the greatest gift of all: he reminded us that our individual lives have profound meaning. In fact, here is what he said at the beginning of his address to the Congress, leading in to the quote above: “Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility.”

Each of us. A personal and social responsibility.

Though the pope used the phrase “social responsibility” here, what he was really saying in words and actions here and throughout his visit was that our lives and work are a sacred calling. Though he didn’t mention meteorologists by name, he included us in remarks both to the Congress and to world leaders at the United Nations. For example, when it came to climate change, he didn’t frame the issue as a mere technological or even a social challenge, but as a spiritual one – a matter of providing simple justice for those poor and weak and otherwise disenfranchised who will bear the brunt of the problem and who are in no position to make their voices heard.

Meteorologists have made great strides over the past several years in recognizing the opportunity to combine forces with social scientists to improve risk communication. But social science tells us that when meteorologists speak of protection of life and property in the abstract, and in relation to large numbers of people versus individuals, we risk falling prey to so-called “psychic numbing.”[2] By contrast, whether addressing climate change, or poverty, or war, or the sexual predation of (a minority of) prelates, or (in a positive vein), the importance of families, the pope found language to articulate the issue, again and again, in terms of the sacred value of the individual.

Which brings us to the third event of the week…



Hundreds die in Hajj stampede. Talk about psychic numbing. This terrible tragedy – the loss of 770 lives and injured numbering countless more – was not the worst in the history of the hajj but only the worst in the past quarter-century. In 1990 over 1400 pilgrims lost their lives in a similar episode. It is in the nature of these events that sectarian feelings run high and accusations fill the air. Iranian leaders are calling for investigations; some 130 0f the 770 victims were from Iran.

Why mention this here?

Because, in many respects, “evacuation in the face of weather threats” is “stampede” by another name. The 2005 evacuation of Houston under threat of Hurricane Rita and the mobilization of Oklahomans in the face of the El Reno tornado come to mind. In the case of Hurricane Rita, we’re told that in chaotic road conditions some 100 people (many probably with pre-existing health conditions) died from the traffic gridlock and excessive heat prior to hurricane landfall, including 23 elderly who were killed when the bus that had been evacuating them from their nursing home caught fire. The El Reno tornado event saw thousands of people leaving their homes and took to the roads in an ill-advised effort to avoid harm. Some estimates suggest that hundreds of lives might have been lost had the tornado maintained its form and transited the clogged freeways.

If meteorologists have a sacred responsibility for the protection of lives and property, then we have a similar responsibility for encouraging leaders and the public at local, state, and national levels to do everything in their power to reduce the need for evacuation in the face of weather hazards, versus merely to attempt to manage evacuations of ever-increasing scale and complexity. In evacuations of hundreds or even thousands, deaths will be rare. But in emergency responses mobilizing hundreds of thousands or millions, fatalities are inevitable. We need to be strong advocates for better land use and building codes, and increased priority to uninterruptible critical infrastructure.

Our colleagues the dentists know this. Their offices feature happy-tooth signs over the caption “you don’t have to floss all your teeth; just the ones you want to keep.” We need to say something similar: “you don’t have to evacuate all your homes; just the ones you don’t build to code and situate on the floodplain.”

NOAA’s Weather-Ready-Nation initiative and similar programs offer many opportunities to proclaim such a message and build upon it.

In closing, perhaps it’s worthwhile to return to the idea of the sacred value of the individual. I don’t know each and every person who clicks on this blog, or bothers to read each post through. But I do know some of you. And every single one of you already sees your work as a calling, already sees your family, and those who follow your research or use your forecasts or sit in your classes or discuss these matters with you across the backyard fence as persons of inestimable value. And they in turn see you as performing a role not dissimilar to that of the pope. You’re not necessarily in front of an audience of millions, but those who know you and watch you in action come away inspired a bit and thinking the world is a better place because of you. Give yourself the grace to see that noble element that others see in you. Nurture it. Allow it to grow.

Good job! Keep it up!

More on the sacred work of meteorologists soon.


[1] Quote Investigator tells us this is really an old Danish proverb. Yogi was Danish? Who knew?

[2] The great psychologist of risk, Paul Slovic, quotes Mother Teresa and adds this: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This statement, uttered by Mother Teresa captures a powerful and deeply unsettling insight into human nature: Most people are caring and will exert great effort to reserve “the one” whose needy plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of “the one” who is one of many in a much greater problem.” The fuller article available by via the link is worth the read in its entirety. This same idea has been succinctly captured in a quote widely attributed (but again possibly falsely) to Joseph Stalin: A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

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Remembering Katrina (and the human condition).


These past weeks, you’ve likely found yourself struggling to stay afloat in a storm surge of ten-year Hurricane Katrina remembrance. News/social media outlets have been awash with reflections on the 2005 storm itself, which killed 1000-2000 people (yes, the range of estimates is that great), and inflicted $100B of losses in the form of property damage and business disruption. Media coverage has explored the subsequent enhancements to flood-protection infrastructure; recent improvements in weather- and storm-surge warnings; the progress of the recovery with respect to housing, demographics, poverty, education, the economy of the region, and the lives of individual survivors (those who have since returned and those permanently displaced); and much more. No aspect has gone ignored. The narratives have been poignant and gripping.

The Katrina retrospectives come on top of a worldwide tide of recollection. This past month has also marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed tens of thousands, and brought a close to a decade of conflict which saw 50-80 million deaths (50-70% civilian), some 3% of the world’s population of the time. And, these days, each week calls to mind centennial reminiscence of particular World War I events, which killed another 15-20 million people over the period 1914-1918.

Statistics such as these impoverish the respective discussions. It is the individual deaths that consecrate the events. Abraham Lincoln famously captured this point in his Gettysburg address, saying about that Civil War battlefield:

“…we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Some might wonder, or even take umbrage, with the idea of lumping together those who died from so-called natural disasters with those who died heroically in war, but the reality is that there’s no clear dividing line between the two groups. Many who have died in combat were drawn in by degrees – through accident of birth and position and a series of small decisions and a process of acquiescence – rather than making any dramatic, conscious decision to sacrifice their lives for others or for a cause. And many who die from so-called natural hazards find much the same thing – that it was the last climactic consequence of the poverty and associated assumption of risk imposed on them by life’s circumstances and the actions and failures of others as much as any personal shortsightedness of their own making. They had, in effect, been in a war all along.

Back then, Lincoln noted that there was (and is) only one decent way for the living to respond: through renewed and enlarged determination, to avoid any repetition of the tragedies of wars and natural disasters.

As we look around, we see evidence that we’re doing a far better job of remembrance than such rededication. Media coverage on Katrina and its aftermath has been thorough and eloquent. Katrina recovery efforts – still underway, and likely to be needed for yet another decade – on occasion provide reasons for cheer. But New Orleans hasn’t seen the back of the hurricane threat. Those risks are ongoing – if anything, growing. That is even more true of the hurricane threat to the United States more generally, and truer still of the broader risk exposure – to floods and drought; sea-level rise; earthquakes and volcanism; pandemic; acts of terror; and cyber-vulnerabilities. Disasters, like snowflakes, are all different. Each day we draw 24 hours closer to a diverse range of catastrophes that we’ll then add to our growing calls to remembrance.

Often it feels that we’re sleepwalking into this problematic future. But there’s good news buried in this reality. First, not all future disaster scenarios are hidden from us. Thanks to advances in the geosciences and social sciences we know where many of the vulnerabilities and risks lie. What’s more, we don’t have to “guess exactly right” when it comes to the next disaster. We can take many measures now to build a generalized resilience to those future events, whatever precise form they may take (much as our immune system provides continuing protection against infections we’ve survived, and as an autumn flu shot provides added protection not just to the few strains in the serum but to a broader class of viruses). What’s more, to enlist in and prosecute the effort to build societal resilience to hazards can be profoundly satisfying. Ask any emergency manager, or NOAA National Weather Service forecaster, or anyone working toward a weather ready-nation or emergency healthcare or business continuity; they’ll tell you.

But this doesn’t have to be a spectator sport for the rest of us. We actively build societal resilience whenever and however we work to create a more equitable and just society, to provide health care to all, to enhance public education, to create meaningful jobs, to protect habitat and the environment.

And at the core, it’s about values. As we respect others, love each other, make opportunity for action and participation available to all, both locally and nationally – in short, as we respond to Lincoln’s age-old call for a new birth of freedom – we’ll find community-level resilience to hazards arises as a co-benefit. (By contrast, attempt to build hazards resilience while refusing to address or even acknowledge the challenges posed by basic human values, and we’ll likely fail at both.)

Are you in?


closing note: I started the blog LOTRW back in August of 2010. One of my earliest posts was on Katrina five years on. If you’ll compare this post with that, you’ll find a similar perspective… including drawing on Lincoln’s remarks. In the five years since, I haven’t really been any more successful in putting my arms around that tragedy.

At the time, I followed the Katrina post with a short series of posts outlining broad policy recommendations:

  • No adverse impact (an ASFPM analog to environmental impact statements)
  • learning from experience (an NTSB analog)
  • keeping score of losses in the national economic statistics
  • building a strategic-level public-private partnership
  • making fuller use of the U.S. Department of Commerce remit and connectivity toward these ends

You can reach these by clicking on the old Katrina link and then scrolling forward in time through the successive string of posts. The same recommendations are in my 2014 book by the same title. All of these ideas continue to merit further attention and work. Hold a serious national and international conversation on these ideas, and we’d progress toward a safer, happier, more satisfying world.

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Remedial reading… from the Huffington Post and The Economist


“Our job is to ensure that NOAA is as relevant fifteen years from now as it is today.” – John Knauss, during his tenure as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, 1989-1993.

President George Bush[1] had initially considered John A. Knauss for the position of NOAA Chief Scientist, which at the time was also a Presidential appointment subject to Senate confirmation. But as a search for NOAA Administrator candidates dragged on, the President and his staff came to realize that Knauss would make an excellent leader for the agency as a whole.

Knauss did not disappoint. He was not only respected but revered by those who worked for him.

The Chief Scientist job would certainly have suited Dean Knauss’ temperament and background. As an academic oceanographer and Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, he was renowned for his science and his leadership of science. And he certainly saw that the key to making NOAA as relevant fifteen years in the future as it was at the time was not administrative so much as it was the advance of science and its application. He’d have enjoyed far more the chance to shape that future for the agency than to spend his time putting out fires: cost overruns in the NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring, Congressional calls for downsizing and/or privatizing the NWS, delays in both the polar and geostationary satellite builds and launches; the torrent of digital data engulfing the NOAA line offices and the data centers; uninvited Congressional earmarks; and coastal-zone management crises; all of which plagued his tenure. (Yes, Millennials, today’s problems aren’t unique to this generation; they’ve long abided with and vexed us.)

That fifteen-year challenge was from the perspective of the early 1990’s a very high bar. At the time, more than 150 of the world’s leaders, including President Bush, were preparing to assemble in Rio De Janeiro in 1992 for the first-ever United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And they were convening at such a high level and for such an extended period – and setting into motion an international conversation that continues to this day – for two reasons: (i) a data time-series showing the inexorable increase of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, started by Charles David Keeling at Scripps but by then maintained under NOAA auspices, and (ii) NOAA/GFDL models showing that a CO2-doubling would lead to several degrees Centigrade of global warming.

NOAA science was behind the global fuss.


The science challenge doesn’t simply face NOAA, or the environmental agencies. It spans the whole of the national agenda. Today, many if not most federal agencies continue to focus on the advance and application of innovation as a necessary means to fulfilling their mandates. To lead this function, they have installed Chief Science Officers. Recently, several of these officials, including Rick Spinrad, currently NOAA’s Chief Scientist, and some of his counterparts at USDA, NASA, DoE, and NIH, shared some of their common concerns and aspirations in a Huffington Post op-ed . Referencing another Bush –in this case,  Vannevar – they identified three areas where they believe America must make headway if we’re to retain preeminence in science:

First, we need more American pioneers to develop the innovative technologies needed to build more resilient, sustainable communities, protect human health and make progress in improving quality of life. We can do this through continued support of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, which is the catalyst for spurring and maintaining a highly-skilled American workforce.

Second, we need a renewed commitment for critical investments which provide the funding and resources our scientists in basic and applied research fields need to do their jobs. And in following these tenets, we need to fund projects that our well-trained scientists believe will lead to major breakthroughs.

And now more than ever, we need more policy champions to keep the trust in his vision and help promote the basic research our agencies, our research partners and our commercial industries need to keep the U.S. on the leading edge.”

As our chief science officers pointed out in their fuller article, Vannevar Bush realized that America’s geographic frontiers were finite, but its science frontiers were, and will remain, endless.

If you’re harboring any doubts on this latter score, then you might be interested in this short piece from The Economist (also dating a couple of weeks back) which speaks to science’s unsolved mysteries. It’s eloquent and inspiring, and reproduced here in its entirety:

“I SEEM to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Those words, ascribed to Sir Isaac Newton, might still be spoken, with the appropriate correction for sex, by any scientist today.

The discipline of natural science that Newton helped found in the second half of the 17th century has extended humanity’s horizons to a degree he could scarcely have envisaged. Newton lived in a world that thought itself 6,000 years old, knew nothing of chemical elements or disease-causing microbes, believed living creatures could spring spontaneously from mud, hay or dirty bed-linen, and had only just stopped assuming that the sun (and everything else in the universe) revolved around the Earth.

Yet even today, deep problems and deeper mysteries remain. Science cannot yet say how life began or whether the universe is but one of many. Some things people take for granted—that time goes forwards but never backwards, say—are profoundly weird. Other mysteries, no less strange, are not even perceived. One is that 96% of the universe’s contents pass ghostlike and unnoticed through the minuscule remaining fraction, which solipsistic humans are pleased to call “ordinary matter”. Another is how, after billions of years when the Earth was inhabited only by single-celled creatures, animals suddenly popped into existence. Perhaps the deepest mystery of all is how atoms in human brains can consciously perceive the desire to ask all of these questions in the first place, and then move other atoms around to answer them.

Known unknowns

Over the next six weeks we will be running a series of briefs that explore these unsolved scientific questions. Some are more tractable than others. Our first brief, on life’s origin, looks at a chemical puzzle that may well be elucidated over the next decade or so (see article). The nature of the unseen 96% of the universe may start to manifest itself later this year, as the newly cranked-up Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest particle accelerator, begins creating things massive enough to be particles of the “dark matter” that theory predicts.

Other mysteries, such as the unidirectionality of time, probably await lightning-strikes of insight of the sort that produced the theories of relativity a century ago. By contrast, discerning the early history of animals will require a lot of hard graft—the painstaking reconstruction of a jigsaw in which the pieces include palaeontology, genetics and embryology.

Some mysteries may remain so for ever. The idea of a multiverse containing an indefinite, possibly infinite, number of universes, each with its own laws of physics, is mathematically plausible and would deal with the puzzling fact that if the physical laws of the actual, observable universe were only slightly different, life could never have come into existence. With multiverses, every possible set of laws would exist somewhere. Unfortunately, unless the separate universes intrude onto one another, the idea is untestable. As for the nature of consciousness, this is one question which science has not yet fully worked out how to ask. Studying the bits of the brain that seem to generate consciousness does not answer the question of what such perception really is.

Does it all matter, a cynic might ask? Will humans really be better off for knowing such things? The answer, written on the tomb, in St Paul’s Cathedral, of Newton’s contemporary, Sir Christopher Wren, is: “If you seek his monument, look around you.” For the monument to Newton’s pebble-collecting child is no less than the modern world.

Bacteria and Brontosaurus. Oxygen and octane. Quarks and quasars. All are the offspring of Newton’s child. Moreover, it is the manipulation of nature which science permits that has brought today’s unprecedented plenty and prosperity. Most of all, though, science has brought self-knowledge, for it has put humans in their place in two contradictory ways. It has dethroned them as the centre of the universe, by showing that mankind is a Johnny-come-lately, living on a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star in an unremarkable galaxy that is, itself, one of more than 150 billion such galaxies. But it has also enthroned humanity, revealing the extraordinary nature of the universe’s inner workings in ways that Newton’s contemporaries were only beginning to glimpse. Simultaneously demoted and exalted by science in this unprecedented era of discovery, Homo sapiens still has oceans to survey.


So, let’s introduce our schoolkids and university students to the beckoning excitement and challenge of science’s endless frontiers. Let’s sustain professional scientists as they mount expeditions into that unknown. And let’s champion this vision, whether we work in halls of Congress, or lead agency science, or serve in more ordinary ways.

Let’s get this done.

[1] That’s George Herbert Walker Bush, aka Bush 1 or Bush 41.

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Weekend thoughts… on “Agency.”

Social scientists stress the importance of agency, defined along the following lines:

“In the social sciences, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.”[1]

This issue arises in multiple ways across the full natural hazards/weather-resiliency context, as discussed in the previous LOTRW post. That post prompted some comment on Facebook. Here’s the meat of the exchange:

“Giving people more agency works great if they can be trusted to make good decisions, but it can backfire horribly if the people are uninformed or overwhelmed by the decisions to be made. A 401(k) offers much more agency than a pension, but most people would have more retirement money with a pension than a 401(k) because most people are not finance experts. A middle route of training people to make good weather decisions plus offering a curated set of decisions when disaster does strike seems like best way to go.”

“Have to agree. Full agency is great as an ideal, but far from practical in the real world. A forecast of 1 to 13 inches WILL be ignored by a lot of people and likely result in a loss of credibility. I suppose presented on some sort of probability curve it would have a bit more value, but even then a lot of folks just aren’t equipped to interpret that either.”

“I’ve been saying for decades that the NWS shouldn’t be telling people what to do. They should provide information about the weather that, in combination with other types of information, allow the recipients to make their OWN decisions. Including decisions that might on occasion go terribly wrong for them, since no one can mandate only “good” decisions.”

The three perspectives capture the heart of the dilemma. When it comes to public safety, where does responsibility ultimately lie? In various levels of government? With forecasters? With emergency managers? With their private-sector partners? Or with individuals in harm’s way? What’s the right balance between “agency” and “structure?”

Of course the puzzle extends across the whole of life. Here are two weekend examples that might have something to teach us.

Football. On any fall weekend, and even as early as August, as training camps open, Americans turn to thoughts of football. Picture this practice or game scenario. The coaches are working hard with the quarterbacks and the wide receivers to nail down a variety of pass plays. The wide receivers are constantly missing their assignments, running the wrong patterns. One approach the coaches could take would be a special sensitivity-building session, focusing solely on the quarterbacks: “You guys are thinking too much about the technicalities of these pass plays, the x’s and o’s! You’re calling plays that are just a jumble of numbers and code words. You all clearly need to sign up for social-science classes and communication. You need to start delivering impact-based messages in the huddle!”

But that’s not all they do. Instead, coaches also grab the wide receivers by the shoulder pads as they come off the field and give them a message, delivered from a distance of less than eighteen inches[2], along the lines of “stop thinking about how hot it is or that girl friend of yours in the stands or how much money you stand to make some day. Get your head in the game!”

In the same way, we’ll never achieve a weather-ready nation until most Americans see safety for themselves and their family in the face of the real-world’s hazards as a cultural value rather than an unforeseeable interruption of, or irritating distraction from, real life. By the way, perhaps the most important part of the social contract between professional football players (indeed all athletes) and their respective teams also contains the A-word: free Agency. Players had to fight for this right.

Faith. Football isn’t the only religion observed on the weekend. And much of faith, whatever flavor you and I subscribe to, centers around the issues of free will and agency, and questions like, “If God or Allah or Yahweh (or whatever deity, however defined or named) isn’t good loving and all-powerful, then why is any religion worth the bother? But on the other hand, if God or Allah or Yahweh or whomever or whatever is good and loving and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the real world?” And the answer that invariably comes back from every theology and every scholar has to do with “agency.” Unless you and I have free will, it’s impossible for us to experience love and to truly love in return.

A quick aside for the social scientists and risk-communicators in the crowd: the Judeo-Christian faiths show a God who has throughout history been experimenting with impact-based messaging:

Attempt #1. You are my partners and collaborators here in the Garden of Eden. We’ll live eternally, and in perfect love and harmony, so long as you meet one condition: you don’t eat fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What could go wrong?

Attempt #2. You, Israel, otherwise a puny and no-account nation, are to be a chosen people. I’ll lead you out of slavery in Egypt, and so long as you obey a set of ten simple commands you will live lives of miraculous abundance, power, and peace, even in the midst of nations larger and seemingly stronger than yourselves.

Of course we know that didn’t work.

Attempt #3. A series of prophets, laying out clearly the blessings that would follow obedience and the personal and national downside to going it alone.

Generally speaking, we ignored this advice, preferring to experience repetitive loss. But first we’d kill those pesky prophets.

Attempt #4. God says, I get it. You want free will. And I want you to have it. I’ll solemnize this by sending my Son so that we can maintain your Agency and Mine but keep the lines of communication open.

Social scientists should quickly recognize that Jesus was/is the ultimate boundary-spanner, negotiator, bridger (insert your favorite term)… and churches major boundary organizations spanning physical and spiritual realities.

So.. on this particular weekend, football coaches are going with “structure.” But as for the rest of us, we all say, “Even though it often brings brokenness, and dysfunction, and even pain and loss, we prize Agency.”

And God says, “Amen!


[1] Excerpted from material you can find here.

[2] :) A tip of the hat to Susan Jasko. (Those of you who attended the AMS Summer Community Meeting know what I mean.)

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Want a Weather-Ready Nation? If so, build “agency”.

But here’s the kicker: whether in weather emergencies, or disaster recovery, or in building national capacity and infrastructure for weather warnings, the most important “agency” isn’t a federal-sector institution.

LOTRW might not be devoting space to this topic if it had come up only once, but over the past half-month, it’s come up in three separate contexts:

1. Weather emergencies. An audience comment at the AMS Summer Community Meeting today in Raleigh, NC:

When you artificially constrain the forecast uncertainty, you deprive the public of “agency.”

Just prior to this remark from the floor, speakers on one of the panels had been discussing presentation of forecast uncertainty, and struggling to articulate some middle ground that might stop short of expressing the full uncertainty often displayed in ensembles of forecasts. The rationale was something like this: “when you forecast ‘between 1 and 13 inches of snow,’ the public thinks you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The audience speaker called this idea to account. She was making reference to how social scientists use the term:

“In the social sciences, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions. The relative difference in influences from structure and agency is debated – it is unclear to what extent a person’s actions are constrained by social systems.

 One’s agency is one’s independent capability or ability to act on one’s will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one’s experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into. Disagreement on the extent of one’s agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children.”

By implication, she could have been suggesting that the purpose of forecast agencies (as in federal agencies, NWS, for example) should wherever possible aim more to equip people to make their own decisions and take action than to regulate those decisions and prescribe those actions.

2. Disaster recovery. July’s annual workshop of the Natural Hazards Center included a special session on the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Shirley Laska, one of the panelists, noted that the structure that FEMA imposed on the recovery process greatly limited the agency (there’s that word again) available to Katrina survivors. She noted that the slow provision of FEMA benefits was not the only constraint, but of particular consequence. (This deliberate FEMA pace seems to have been a conscious policy decision, as opposed to an unintended result.) This meant that Katrina survivors spent considerable time in limbo before being able to even start the process of rebuilding their lives. They therefore suffered loss twice – first from the hurricane itself, and then, from restrictions imposed by the subsequent policy process[1]. They weren’t equipped or allowed to recover and rebuild at their own pace and in their own way.

3. Efforts to build capacity and infrastructure for weather forecasts and warnings in developing countries. Nations vary greatly in the means they enjoy for providing public safety in the face of hazards. Many countries lack observations, forecast tools, dissemination infrastructure, and adequately educated professional personnel. Their plight has attracted attention and inspired action on the part of the United Nations, developed nations, commercial firms and a variety of other donors.

An expert in capacity building recently shared with me some of the pitfalls he’s seen in efforts by these donors, however well-meaning. These are numerous and pervasive, but all too often fall into the category of imposing donor structure versus building agency in-country. Combined with a donor tendency to parachute in and leave quickly, versus remain engaged for the long haul, this emphasis has the effect of perpetuating problems versus solving them.

The common lesson: in all dimensions of building a weather-ready nation and weather-resilience worldwide – preparedness, emergency response, and recovery – all experts involved might be well-advised to equip those they serve to exercise agency (and along the way shoulder responsibility) versus impose structure.


[1] apologies are in order here; space and time, and my own inadequacies, prevent my capturing the eloquence and force of professor Laska’s arguments.

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Moonshots, weather-readiness, and other human aspirations.

Doug Hilderbrand co-chairs with Eileen Shea the AMS Board on Enterprise Communication. We owe the two of them thanks for organizing this week’s upcoming AMS Summer Community Meeting, with the theme For The Greater Good: Strengthening Collaboration, Consistency, and Trust to Support Informed Decision Making.

This lofty language is not accidental but deliberate. For some time now both in private conversations and in public remarks Mr. Hilderbrand has drawn comparisons between the NASA program that put men on the moon in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and current efforts within NOAA and the larger Weather, Water and Climate Enterprise to make a great leap forward in improving weather warnings and their use. Recently he’s put those notions into print, on the AMS blog The Front Page. Some excerpts:

Have you ever imagined being a NASA scientist back in the 1960s – staring at the seemingly impossible challenge to send people to the moon and return them back to earth safely? And, doing it with the entire world watching? For the weather, water, and climate “enterprise,” that grand challenge might well be upon us…

…Is this our moonshot moment? Physical science, social science, and technological advances have aligned to where the foundational warning process can take a giant leap forward:

  • Improving how weather, water and climate threats are predicted and communicated
  • Enhancing information for risk management decisions through better expression of urgency and confidence
  • Supporting appropriate actions by the public

The challenges that we face today may not be quite as dramatic as landing astronauts on the moon, but they are certainly as important with so many lives and livelihoods at stake.

No doubt, all of us would quickly agree with this last, self-effacing remark to the effect that building weather resilience may not be so dramatic as landing astronauts on the moon. But that might be a bit hasty/over-modest. Landing astronauts on the moon (and bringing them back – repeatedly) was indeed a technological tour de force, a major triumph, especially with 1960’s technology. And it transformed mankind’s self-image. For the first time we could mentally visualize ourselves exploring and placing our stamp on the solar system and across our galaxy. But the reality is that Apollo was the actual achievement of a comparative few – funded and supported by all 200 million Americans, to be sure – but accomplished by a relative handful.

By comparison, building weather resilience, and greatly reducing our vulnerability to the hazardous extremes of our home planet might seem commonplace, humdrum. But it is immediately more consequential for all (now 320 million) of us. Perhaps more fundamentally, it can never be achieved by a few professionals in NOAA and other federal agencies, and a few cooperating aerospace corporations and weather-service providers, with an American public no more than a bystander or passive sponsor. Instead, it’s as much about the use of weather information as its provision. It calls for active, sustained participation of that entire public – a national culture change. If accomplished, it will be an achievement of all Americans.

In this respect, building American weather-readiness is less like the moonshot and shares much more in common with the eight so-called Millennial Development Goals (MDG’s), which have preoccupied nations of the world for the past fifteen years:

  • Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
  • Achieve Universal Primary Education
  • Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
  • Reduce Child Mortality
  • Improve Maternal Health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
  • Ensure Environmental Sustainability
  • Develop a Global Partnership for Development

For some, none of these eight initiatives may fire the imagination quite so readily as going to the Moon. But reflect on this: each bit of progress towards these eight aims of the past fifteen years (and a new set of Millennial Development Goals now under construction to guide us through the year 2030), creates a world more able to undertake space exploration. It’s not so evident that the reverse is true. Success in space exploration doesn’t necessarily bring us any closer to meeting these most fundamental and pervasive human ends.

A desire to live in safety in the face of Earth’s extremes would seem to fit right in with the MDG’s. What’s more, it clearly threads through the other eight. The comparison seems even more apt when we note that at this year’s Sendai 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, USAID, NOAA, and WMO agreed to work together toward building the weather-readiness of nations worldwide.

So here’s to improved environmental intelligence – earlier, more accurate anticipation of weather, water, and climate opportunities and threats, and wiser use of that knowledge by all who stand to benefit or stand in harm’s way. And here’s wishing every success to the men and women working to get us there – and their upcoming Summer Community Meeting.

In closing, we might tip our hats to one American – Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan – who as an astronaut and as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and in other roles has made unique contributions spanning three decades to both the exploration of space and building environmental intelligence here at home.

Good job! Keep it up.

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Brian Bell’s forecasts for the weather enterprise

Many LOTRW readers may know Brian Bell, one of the more visionary and just-plain-interesting people in our community. Mr. Bell is currently with the Meteorological Service of New Zealand, Limited, a state-owned-enterprise (SOE), a unique and fascinating hybrid of public- and private-sector. In this creative, ground-breaking environment, he fits right in. But he’s been around; his career includes, most recently, three years at Exelis; and prior to that, alternating stints at Global Science&Technology, Inc. and Lockheed Martin.

Earlier this week he posted the following contribution on his LinkedIn site:

10 Weather Enterprise Predictions During the Next 10 Years Jul 27, 2015

  1. Major television networks will no longer broadcast weather forecasts.
  2. The largest weather company (measured in revenues) does not exist today.
  3. Weather “micronets” will be common, especially in developing countries.
  4. More than 1 billion connected weather sensors will provide reliable ground-based observations.
  5. Weather & traffic will morph as “travel & road conditions”.
  6. Energy Sector will lead disruption in the Wx Enterprise and drive new weather applications.
  7. Weather Information will get pushed away from the cloud and to the “edge” – mobile edge computing.
  8. Weather data will be inextricably fused with infrastructure (smart cities, smart highways)
  9. Major global disaster will change the value of weather data and the organizational structures of collecting and disseminated observations.
  10. Weather information will used to create “variable pricing” business models (e.g. insurance premium, highway tolls, transit fees).

A marvelously thought-provoking list as many people from the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise make their way to Raleigh, North Carolina for the 2015 AMS Summer Community Meeting, which starts this Tuesday, August 4. Hoping to see you there – and to hear your views on his crisply-articulated forecasts as well.

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Evolving the National Weather Service. 7. Get your head on straight… and keep it there.

Then Ben-Hadad sent another message to Ahab: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if enough dust remains in Samaria to give each of my men a handful.”

The king of Israel answered, “Tell him: ‘One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.’” – Ahab, King of Israel (reign approx. 870-850BC; quote from 1 Kings 20:10-11)

ahab defeats


Concluding the series of LOTRW posts on evolving the National Weather Service…

When Richard E. Hallgren and his headquarters leadership and staff (and their successors) carried out the 20th-century’s Modernization and Associated Restructuring from the 1970’s through the 1990’s, they didn’t tinker overmuch with NWS headquarters structure. Instead, they relied on their oversized personalities – there were plenty of those – and personal relationships and trust, forged over the years and in some cases over decades, to carry them through.

The current evolution of the National Weather Service stands in stark contrast in this essential respect. Today’s leadership inherited a headquarters structure that hadn’t received a serious overhaul for perhaps half a century. Decades of “temporary” fixes and patched-on workarounds had left a management structure that would have made the legendary Rube Goldberg blush:


Reorganizing headquarters to meet 21st-century demands and building a culture of change were early priorities for the new group. At the same time NWS leadership improved financial controls and accountability, and streamlined the budget structure, aligning it with the reorganization.

This was no mean feat. It has taken a couple of years, in part because it wasn’t simply an internal NWS matter. Instead it required outside approvals at NOAA, Commerce, and OMB levels within the executive branch… and the occasional Congressional okay as well. At the same time it confronted most of the NWS headquarters staff with a dual challenge: (1) preserving NWS essential services without skipping a beat while making the changes; and (2) maintaining individual energy levels and morale even as virtually everyone’s job was “under construction” – temporary, or interim, or being redefined. Think of it as a couple of years of musical chairs, only with professional stakes. Not everyone came out ahead. There were casualties and painful sacrifices.

In light of this accomplishment, it might be tempting for all parties concerned to take a moment for a deep breath and indulge in some self-congratulation. But the reality is that they’re not at the end of a journey. Rather, they’re at the start. They’ve gotten their head straight, but now they need to keep it there. They’ve simply laid part of the foundation for the true job that remains – the job of evolving the NWS, and building a weather-ready nation. That task is not just multi-dimensional, but also multi-year. It will take at a minimum one or two decades. To describe it fully would take more time and space than you and I can give to writing or even reading it. But, based on the vision guiding the current NWS evolution and its preceding Modernization and Associated Restructuring as laid out so far, we can see the main elements:

Technology and Infrastructure. Today’s NOAA- and NWS leadership face the need for catch-up from decades of obsolescence. But they don’t want to stop there. They seek not only a massive reworking and modernization of technology and infrastructure, but also to accomplish what their predecessors failed to do: make such R2O an integral and ongoing way of doing business. They want modernization to be part of their culture, versus an intermittent, disruptive upheaval.

People. People in the business of change can’t expect to be immune from its consequences. And the entire NWS from the bench forecasters on up to the leadership need to see themselves as change agents, embracing new skills and new ways of working. Rather than flinching in the face of the future, they should be boldly and busily reshaping it. This means more than finding new ways to do the same old work; it means continually reshaping that work as social change and technological advance redefine what it means for the nation to be weather-resilient.

Stakeholders. For the NWS, much of that redefinition involves restructuring its relationship with its growing legion of partners – and doing this in a way which fosters mutual interdependence versus a one-way dependency, and that builds the capacity of the entire enterprise to serve the larger public. The task extends to drawing in the public as a fully-active and prepared participant. Fact is, none of us is a spectator. We all have to pitch in.

Because all this will take decades, present NOAA and NWS personnel, especially the leadership, young though they are, can’t count on seeing this through, but will only set the stage for those who follow. This reality calls for a culture that for want of a better term might be described as everyone-a-mentor – placing high priority on equipping others versus seeking help from them.

That’s where the story of King Ahab and his nemesis, Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram, comes in. Ahab was no saint. The Old Testament tells us that “he did more evil than all the kings before him” (how would you like that on your resume?). But he recognized Ben-Hadad’s threats for what they were. And he understood that if there was a time for boasting, it would be after the war, not before. This wisdom saw him through the battles ahead. Though it would take years, he would eventually defeat the Arameans and their king.

The same laser-focus on the long term goal – building national resilience at the community level to extreme weather and water events –is essential here.

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Evolving the National Weather Service. 6. Water.

Continuing from the previous LOTRW posts


In the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was common to hear newcomers to the agency speak of “putting the O back in NOAA.” There was the feeling in some quarters that NOAA had been in the hands of the meteorologists since its founding (the famous meteorologist Robert M. White had been Administrator from 1970-1978) and that it was “the oceanographers’ turn.” Walk the office corridors, and you’d also hear talk contrasting “the wet side of NOAA” and the “dry side.”

In vain I would push back. “It’s the wet side and the moist side,” I’d argue. “Without water in its three phases, the atmosphere would be essentially uninteresting.” By that I meant that atmospheric circulations on all scales would be weak and free of the violent extremes. Picture a uniformly cloudless sky. Perhaps the occasional dust devil, but no tornadoes. No rain or snow or sleet or hail. No lightning. An impoverished hydrologic cycle. Diminished terrestrial ecosystems hugging the coasts.

Fact is, it’s the hydrologic cycle including the atmospheric dimension that makes our planet the marvelously vibrant and congenial place we know and love. It’s the hydrologic cycle which knits together the oceans, atmosphere, land and life itself to such an extent that they can’t be fully comprehended in isolation but only as an integrated entity. It’s the hydrologic cycle that drives Earth’s trademark extremes: when it rains, it pours. It’s also water in its myriad forms and the great variation in its availability and form from place to place that drives a unique set of policy challenges for the agency. Water policy has historic roots that are local- and state-based, versus national. Water has precious and evident status as a scarce and easily corrupted resource that makes it an obvious subject for regulation, not just observation. It’s water that sings the siren song of mystery and challenge that draws so many early-career professionals to the NOAA ranks.

These realities have always been understood by every NOAA employee, from the bench forecaster to the fisheries biologist to the IT specialist and HR professional to the manager and the policy official. NOAA’s river forecasting role predates the National Weather Service, and predates its antecedent the Weather Bureau. It goes all the way back to its 1870-origins in the U.S. Army Signal Service.

That said, the NWS struggled to give hydrologic forecasting and water forecasting and management responsibilities their due in the late 20th-century Modernization and Associated Restructuring. Major investments in NEXRAD, ASOS, AWIPS, the reorganization of the field offices, and a new generation of satellites tested the limits of the constrained federal budgets and contentious political climate of the time. Hydrologic modernization and restructuring received short shrift.

That doesn’t look to be the case in the current evolution of the National Weather Service. In part this is because flood events of the past several years juxtaposed by drought across the south and west have combined to give the issue visibility and urgency. But in part it’s because NOAA and the NWS have received an extraordinary gift – one of the last earmarks voted by Congress – a new NOAA National Water Center (NWC), located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. From a press notice of May of this year:

The National Water Center, a new facility located at the University of Alabama, is poised to become an incubator for innovative breakthroughs in water prediction products and services. As the country becomes more vulnerable to water-related events, from drought to flooding, the innovative predictive science and services developed by NOAA and its partners at the National Water Center will bolster the nation’s ability to manage threats to its finite water resources and mitigate impacts to communities.

The center will be a hub of integrated water prediction and forecasting for the federal government. Scientists and forecasters at the 65,000 square-foot building will collaborate to provide the nation with enhanced water-related products and services to support water management decisions across the country. Bringing experts together in this new collaborative center provides an unprecedented opportunity to improve federal coordination in the water sector to address 21st century water resource challenges, such as water security, and analysis and prediction of hydrologic extremes, like droughts and floods.

 Note the reference to partners: the new entity will house not only NOAA professionals but also staff from other federal agencies such as the Corps of Engineers and the US Geological Survey, as well as academia. The NWC will cut across all aspects of the NWS evolution: management, employees; stakeholders, and technology and infrastructure.

Interestingly, the country came close to establishing just such an entity during the time of the earlier Modernization and Associated Restructuring. A National Center for Water Resources Research had been proposed in a 1983 report put out by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment: Water-Related Technologies for Sustainable Agriculture in U.S. Arid/Semi-Arid Lands. The proposal at the time called for a federally-funded R&D Center or FFRDC, modeled after the very successful National Center for Atmospheric Research. Here’s the relevant text, from pp 334-335:

Option: Establish a National Center for Water Resources Research

Congress could establish a National Center for Water Resources Research to provide a coherent and coordinated mechanism for the Nation’s university research programs in water- resources management for problem-solving and policymaking,

The mission of this center could include:

  1. Undertaking an interdisciplinary program of basic and applied research on water resources and water-resource management. In addition to research in the natural sciences and engineering, the program should include a strong component of basic and applied research in the social sciences, such as resource economics and law as they pertain to water-resources programs. The center could further assist in the conduct of site-specific research being carried out under State auspices.
  2. Developing and providing advanced and sophisticated research facilities on a scale required to cope with the broad nature of water-resources problems, and often not affordable by single universities, to be used both by the resident staff, innovative producers, and university scientists.
  3. Undertaking a program to develop and test conventional and emerging technologies for application to water-resources problems in U.S. arid/semiarid lands, including application to problems of agriculture and its sustainability in arid/semiarid lands, and coordinating work with existing Government research by USDA and State agricultural experiment stations.
  4. Serving as an objective, nonpartisan, and continuing national source of information for Congress when formulating public policy dealing with water resources, and as a link to public agencies and to the private sector for application of research findings.

The center could serve as a base for marshaling the talents of the Nation’s universities and for augmenting, but not in any sense competing with, the work already underway in the universities. Its principal function could be to enhance the effectiveness of water-resources research and to focus the full competence of the scientific community, private sector, and innovative producer on problems of water resources.

Using the example of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), an institution created some 20 years ago by an act of Congress, the center could be managed and operated by a consortium of universities with doctoral-level programs in water resources. The member universities could elect a board of trustees from member universities, industry, user groups, and the community at large. The board could be responsible for establishing broad policy guidelines, for setting program priorities and directions, and for overseeing the center’s effective management. The operation of the center could be directed by a scientist appointed by and accountable to the board of trustees,

Because a sustained effort is essential for solving crucial water problems of the West and the Nation, the funding support for the center must be stable and long term. The principal source of support for the center could be the Federal Government, with supplemental sup- port from the States and private sector,

An equally essential aspect for effective operation is that prime responsibility for program initiatives reside with the consortium of universities managing the center. This requirement is in sharp contrast with “Government-owned, contractor-operated” laboratories where program initiatives often reside in the sponsoring, mission-oriented Federal agency . This contrasting approach for the center is important since the university community is closest to research for purposes of evaluating progress and potentials. In light of this knowledge, plans and priorities designed by the consortium could take into account national, regional, and State needs. Congressional and State agency staff could be assigned periodically to the center to translate research results for policy- making and update researchers on ongoing policy debates and issues.

For purposes of administration and funding, the center could be operated by the university consortium under a prime contract arrangement with a semiautonomous scientific agency such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). Support from other Government agencies interested in water resources could be arranged through the single contract administered by the designated agency, The style of research program management proposed above is consistent with the research-overview style and experience of NSF.

As we all know, this earlier vision wasn’t implemented. It wasn’t that the idea was flawed; just the opposite. Word at the time was the NCWRR was such a prize that the fifty states couldn’t agree on a location.

Rightly or wrongly, history will likely judge the success or failure of the current evolution of the National Weather Service largely by whether the NWC realizes its immense promise… and the extent to which the whole of NOAA is able to organize itself to slake the growing national thirst for water science and services.

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