Memorial Day, Environmental Intelligence, and the Commercialization of Data.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

 Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

 But, in a larger sense, 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.” — Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

Crowd of_citizens soldiers and etc. with Lincoln (red arrow)at Gettysburg.

Crowd of citizens, soldiers and others with Lincoln (red arrow) at Gettysburg.

When was the last time you read the Gettysburg Address? It might not immediately come to mind as a fitting remembrance on Memorial Day. The Civil War and the terrible brokenness behind it don’t constitute one of America’s greatest chapters. Perhaps far better (or at least less painful – safer!) to contemplate World Wars I and II.

But read Lincoln’s words. Reflect a bit. Who has better articulated what we honor this weekend? Don’t these words challenge America today – in 2016 – just as they did in 1863? Don’t we hope that those men and women who over history died for freedom and democracy – for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – shall not have died in vain? Don’t we fervently pray for a new birth of freedom – not just in America, but worldwide?

Which of course brings to mind environmental intelligence and the commercialization of data.

Really, Bill?

Really. Let’s start with environmental intelligence.

We call life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness inalienable rights. But to guarantee life when the planet we live on does its business through extreme events – devastating cycles of flood and drought; breathtaking hurricanes and tornadoes; the upheaval of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions – seems a promise we can’t keep. Perhaps the only right we might guarantee is a right-to-a-warning, and even that can be problematic. In the same way, as men and women pursue happiness and economic well-being that is directly and indirectly weather- and climate sensitive, the forecasts and predictions supporting agriculture or transportation or energy or water-management sectors don’t guarantee success. Fact is, when Jefferson and his contemporaries penned these famous words, no one had any idea that useful forecasts would even be a possibility. No one fought or died in the Revolutionary War, or the War of 1812, or the Great World Wars thinking it was for the right to a better weather forecast.

But times change. And in the way that events and history work, our awareness of the ways weather-, water- and climate forecasts contribute to public safety and overall economic well-being has grown as those forecasts and services have advanced and matured. In our efforts to squeeze the last bit of profit out of the economy and minimize the margin needed to ensure public safety, we’ve pushed our dependence on such forecasts to the max. Along the way, we’ve come to see accurate forecasts, especially life-saving and property-saving warnings, as a guaranteed “right” and complain when this right is abrogated.

Until “recently” (before World War II, say), we also saw such forecasts as a “public good:”

A public good is a product that one individual can consume without reducing its availability to another individual and from which no one is excluded. Economists refer to public goods as “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable”.

However, as the value of accurate weather-, water-, and climate forecasts has grown and become more obvious, governments, private enterprise, and individuals have grown more willing to pay a bit extra to gain strategic or economic or personal advantage. And a private sector has emerged in response to that demand – providing services far more tailored to individual customer needs than might be required of or appropriate for public weather services, providing the means through which such services could be made rivalrous and excludable, and creating profit opportunity in the process. All this seems fair enough. Why should the taxpayer subsidize special weather support to a particular airline or trucking company, or to agribusiness, or to a private electrical utility?

But at the same time, our society has grown far more interconnected and interdependent – a far cry from the relative independence of even Lincoln’s day. So the benefits provided by the private forecasts and services aren’t limited to the companies who pay for them. They’re passed on to customers and the public through better, lower-cost products or, should those companies chose to retain the benefits as profits, then they show up in improved health of financial markets and the overall wealth of the nation. In this world, just as there is “no black or white but only shades of gray,” there are no truly private or public goods but only so-called mixed goods, which have varying degrees of the properties of each.

Enter the term “environmental intelligence.” Current leadership at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has made many substantive contributions to national well-being. But taking its place alongside these is their introduction and sustained use of the frame “environmental intelligence” to frame their work and its relation to the national interest. The simple use of this phrase propels the hearers into an instant appreciation of the stakes and how they’ve exploded in value from the bygone day that the weather forecast was limited to decisions about whether to carry an umbrella. It’s been a good thing for all of us.

Which brings us to commercialization of data.

(Every aspect of what follows is a gross oversimplification; the intent is to redress this in future posts.) Think of this for now as a proposed transition from an age-old process to a new way of doing business. Back in the day, federal agencies bought Earth-observing hardware (satellites, radars, ground systems, computers, etc.) from private-sector vendors and then owned the data, which were in turn made freely available to everyone, since the taxpayer had paid for them. Some companies have been suggesting (and some for a long time) that the government (and taxpayers) could save, and foster innovation, by instead allowing companies to assume the risk of owning and operating the hardware, and instead buying the data streams. This is what governments do routinely for example, when purchasing electrical power or communications. Recently the calls for such new approaches have grown with the explosion of IT, use of the internet, and the emergence of big data and data analytics.

But there’s often fine print. Some want the data streams provided to the federal government to be available only for government use, and not for use by the private-sector, or by other countries, in contradiction to long-standing agreements; the private-sector data providers would like to be able to charge for that additional access to the data.

This discussion is not unique to environmental intelligence. It also underlies current debate on universal healthcare and public education, to name just two examples. The value of all three sectors has grown immeasurably since the country’s founding. And in part because of that increased effectiveness and in part because of other social change, the country has seen an erosion of the historic idea that these three sectors represent public goods, and ought to be somewhat equally available to everyone. Instead we seem to be coming to favor making only minimal services freely available and charging extra for all the rest. Thus in the span of a few generations we have seen the rise of private healthcare over and above what the standard insurance will buy. We’ve seen seriously-ill patients, at the point in life when they’re most vulnerable, being asked to raise funds for the hospitals treating them over and above the nominal fee for their care. Families used to work with their school boards to improve public education for all – their neighbors as well as themselves. Now, if they can, they simply pick up stakes and move to pricier neighborhoods located in better school districts, or pay to send their children to private schools. The social fabric – the idea that we’re all in it together – is fraying at the ages, and manifesting itself in the stridency of today’s political process.

There are no simple answers. There is no black and white. These and other issues are woven and tangled all together in ways that defy simple prescriptions. The result is universal frustration. Those who want change chafe at what seems to be simple resistance to any ideas, especially “outside” ideas, in favor of the status quo. Those charged with responsibility see a need to “look before you leap,” to understand the emergent and unintended consequences of policy changes before embracing them. As we move forward, we need much more national conversation. This blog will try to contribute to that in a small way in the days and months ahead.

Some points to ponder over coffee or barbecue on Memorial Day. What did our ancestors fight and die for? What does it mean for us today 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?”

Enjoy the weekend!

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John Knox election to Board of Education

You may have accidentally missed the latest edition of The Flagpole, a locally-owned newspaper in Athens, Georgia. Just in case, here’s an update.

john knox victory

The headline of interest? Collins, Knox, Meadow win Athens elections. As in John Knox, the University of Georgia geography professor and atmospheric scientist and holder of the 2010 T. Theodore Fujita Research Achievement Award from the National Weather Association (and much other recognition). Congratulations to John and to Clarke County. They’ve made a distinguished selection in their non-partisan Board of Education race. Here’s an excerpt from the Flagpole article:

Paul Broun, the controversial former congressman from Athens, failed in his bid to return to Washington tonight, losing in the Republican primary to incumbent Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville.

Collins received 61 percent of the vote in the 9th District, which runs from the northern edge of Athens through the Northeast Georgia mountains. Broun won 22 percent in the five-man race.

UGA geography professor John Knox edged out lawyer Kamau Hull in a much-watched nonpartisan Board of Education race. Knox received 431 votes (52 percent) to Hull’s 394 in the Eastside district.

Why make note of this here (full disclosure, I’ve know John and have been a member of his fan club for years)? Well, it’s because the 2016 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium is coming up (June 5-14). This will be the sixteenth cohort. Each year I’m reminded of what then-AMS-executive-director Ron McPherson said to me back in 2000 when he was giving me the marching orders to get things going:

“Brother Hooke, I don’t expect every Colloquium alum to run for Congress and win, but I’m going to be disappointed if someone doesn’t achieve that goal after participating in the program.”

(He might have even put a time-certain on that, saying within twenty years.)

Well, we’ve put 500 people through the program to date, and despite our best efforts they’re amounting to something, working today in every sort of responsible position – except member of Congress.

Non-partisan Board of Education is not membership in Congress, but it is how things get going. Participants in the 2003 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium[1] may recall an after-dinner talk from Vern Ehlers, a university physics professor who was at the time also a Republican member of the U.S. Congress from Michigan. He told the group that he and others had been active in supporting political candidates in Grand Rapids Michigan and one day decided “why spend all that effort to elect someone else when we could elect one of our group?” They put him up for a small local office, which he won. He added (modestly) “that there’s then a tide which carries you forward,” giving the account of how that led to a position in the state legislature, and ultimately the Congress.

Professor Knox’ achievement reminds us that while 500 men and women have participated in the Colloquium, seven billion people haven’t done so and yet are leading happy, productive lives. And it highlights the closing assertion in the previous LOTRW post that in these turbulent times, scientists can and should think creatively about their options for engaging in the policy process.

Inspired and motivated, anyone?


[1] Ken Carey, Daniel Cohan, Julia Cole, Martha Conklin, Steven Cooper, Heidi Cullen, Aimee Devaris, Joanne Dunnebecke, Pamela Emch, Kristie Franz, Joseph Green, Kenneth Hart, Kevin Kelleher, Robin Kennedy, Chris Keyes, Laura Klein, Genevieve Maricle, Jonathan Martin, Renee McPherson, Eric Miller, Sreela Nandi, Kathleen O’Neil, Jim O’Sullivan, Wendy Parker, Randy Peppler, Paul Pisano, Julie Pullen, Waldo Rodriguez, Jason Samenow, Kevin Schrab, W. Jim Steenburgh, Scott Swerdlin, Suzanne Tegen, Sarah Tessendorf, Jeremy Usher, Kevin Vranes, Ben Webster, Marian Westley, Justin Wettstein, Shelby Winiecki, David Young – a distinguished group!

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The individual as “value proposition.”


A value proposition is a business or marketing statement that summarizes why a consumer should buy a product or use a service. This statement should convince a potential consumer that one particular product or service will add more value or better solve a problem than other similar offerings.”

“No wife ever shot her husband while he was doing the dishes.” – origin unknown

“I wonder if any wife ever shot her husband while he was at the computer?” – idle question asked by a (totally anonymous) bystander while I was typing in the quote above.

A recent series of four LOTRW posts dealt with the value of information. Here are some reflections on a related topic: the so-called value proposition. As the first quote above suggests, this is normally considered in terms of a good or a service offered by a company or other organization. But the latter quotes remind us that as individuals, whether at home or at work, you and I represent “value propositions” to family members, or friends, or prospective or actual employers.

We need a starting point for this conversation. Let’s take Gaston Bruton.


gaston bruton

You may not have heard of the man, but that’s because you didn’t grow up in my house. Dr. Bruton was a mathematics professor at the University of the South (in Sewanee, Tennessee) who ultimately went on to chair their math department and then become dean of administration. During the 1940’s he hired my father to join the faculty there. Some excerpts from the departmental history:

“A perhaps decisive influence during this period was Robert Hooke, a Princeton Ph.D. and a great admirer of Bruton’s, who had joined Sewanee’s faculty to bring much-needed expertise in modern mathematics… Unfortunately, Hooke soon left Sewanee to become chief statistician for the Westinghouse Corporation. The costly medical attention needed by a family member [note: that might have been me] had forced him to seek more lucrative employment. Hooke later published a short and witty paperback book entitled How to tell the Liars from the Statisticians, which became widely known.”

“Great admirer” was absolutely correct. Dad used to talk about Dr. Bruton frequently, in reverent tones (that he reserved for Bruton and very few others), at the dinner table. One frequent story?

“Dr. Bruton would say,” my dad would remind us every so often, “that everybody the same age knew the same amount. One of those people might have traveled the world, and/or devoted his or her life to disciplined scholarship. Another might have just sat in the same single room all the while, staring at a clock and a wall, but that person sitting in the one room knew a lot about that clock and that wall.”

The takeaway from these dinner conversations was twofold: humility, and respect for others. Those were Bruton’s values and our dad worked to pass them along. But for our purposes here there’s an additional lesson. The traveled, learned person and the wall-gazer likely represent quite different utilities to others.

We can see this by reflecting on another conversation, this one quite recent, and involving DJ Patil – who got his start in numerical weather prediction, publishing in Phys. Rev. and similar journals (a distinctive choice in the meteorological community) and then went on to become an entrepreneur, and co-coiner-of-the-term “data science.” He’s currently the Chief Data Scientist of the White House, and still only in his early 40’s. Dr. Patil gave a keynote talk to the AMS Washington Forum on April 12, and in the course of his remarks repeated two comments he’d made as part of a commencement speech a few years back at UC Santa Cruz, entitled Fight for YES[1]:

“End each day ten times smarter than you had been at the beginning.

“Return a value ten times your employer’s investment.”

 Some hearers, perhaps many, might dismiss these goals, especially the first, as hopelessly unrealistic, but both remarks bear reflection. The first reminds us that the ways we spend our time each day themselves offer stunningly different value to us – and ultimately to those we serve, whether family or workplace. Start with what we learn. Sometimes we come across an idea or stumble across a finding at home or work that is truly life-changing. But too often we spend much time in habit and ritual (more complex forms of wall-gazing) or worse – procrastination. Time spent looking at cat videos, epic fails, or the hundredth analytical piece on the current political campaign yield diminishing marginal returns.

What we learn makes a difference.

Patil’s second quote reminds us that learning per se is of limited value – unless and until we put that insight to work, using it for the benefit of others. Whether at home or at work, the benefit versus the cost we represent to others ought not to be a close call. Here again, where and how we choose to spend our time matters hugely. During each workday we confront an array of tasks. Their relative importance to us and our organization and customers span the range from existentially important to vanishingly small or even negative.

What we work on makes a difference.

An aside? How we work matters as well.

Two days ago I heard a talk on human cognition. In passing, the speaker warned of the dangers of multi-tasking, presenting evidence that multi-tasking results in serious deterioration of performance. To drive the point home, the speaker referred us to a video clip used in Great Britain to warn of the dangers of texting, etc., while driving. You might take a look.

A closing thought, at the same time signaling where we’re going next. The value proposition we represent individually is a microcosm of a larger context; the value proposition the Earth-observations,-science,-and services-community represents to the larger society. That’s important to consider in and of itself. But the current political season in the United States and events worldwide each and every day reveal a society that sees itself as frustrated and angry about the present and fearful and unprepared for the future. That preoccupation doesn’t change the value of our work. But it has to change the way we engage.

As individuals and a community, we need to reset our outreach itself and the accompanying language. More soon.


[1] You might want to watch the video in its entirety. It may not be the best commencement speech you’ve ever heard, but if it’s not in the top ten, you can have your money back.

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A procrastinator’s “Hair of the Dog.”

“If your job is to eat a frog, eat it first thing in the morning, and if your job is to eat two frogs, eat the big one first.” – Mark Twain (with a tip of the hat to Ana Swanson and Tim Pychyl)


Hair of the dog refers colloquially to alcohol consumed the morning after to cope with a hangover from drinking the night before. If, like me, you’re prone to procrastination (another form of addictive behavior), you might want to click on the link and learn more of the fascinating etymology. That’s what I did first thing this morning, while waiting for the coffee to click in.

The proximate cause of this investigation was a link from today’s Washington Post website, this by Ana Swanson entitled The real reasons you procrastinate – and how to stop. She cites Tim Urban, among others, reproducing his cartoons on the mind of a procrastinator. Absolutely. Ridiculously. Funny.

Thankfully, Ms. Swanson’s extensive article also contains the cure and the science behind it, attributed to Timothy Pychyl (and others; I’m telling you, you have to read the entirety). Here’s what she gleaned from him:

“Most of us seem to tacitly believe that our emotional state has to match the task at hand,” says Pychyl. But that’s just not true. “I have to recognize that I’m rarely going to feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like it.”

Instead of focusing on feelings, we have to think about what the next action is, Pychyl says. He counsels people to break down their tasks into very small steps that can actually be accomplished. So if it’s something like writing a letter of reference, the first step is just opening the letterhead and writing the date.

Even if it’s an extremely small action, a little progress will typically make you feel better about the task and increase your self-esteem, which in turn reduces the desire to procrastinate to make yourself feel better, he says.

I know this works, from personal experience, because I had already started doing just this (albeit intermittently) a number of years ago, maybe around 2004-2005, in response to reading a 2002 book by David Allen, entitled, more positively, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, which is founded on the same principle. I found the book off-putting at first (told me things about myself I was reluctant to acknowledge), but have since reread it a couple of times, and each time it’s grown on me. Back then, I shared the book with my boss, who’s since made far more of a success of living by Mr. Allen’s advice than I have.

Parenthetically, (my boss) and I have someone else to thank for this, a person who shall remain anonymous, but suffice it to say, when she went off to Cornell for graduate work in communication the book was recommended to her. Recognizing my desperate need, she passed the tip along.

Thank you, anonymous person!

Oh, by the way, given all the time you’ll be saving because you’re now on your way to increased productivity, you’ll now have the time to explore one last link before you dive in – this on the single best joke told by each president, starting with Obama and working back. (This link, tragically, was next to the article on beating procrastination at the moment I was reading earlier this morning. I couldn’t resist.)

After all, laughter is good medicine, right?

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Saving for a rainy day.

“The shortest period of time lies between the minute you put some money away for a rainy day and the unexpected arrival of rain” – Jane Bryant Quinn

imrs.phpSaving for a rainy day? Ancient wisdom.

But we violate this principle. Two stories in yesterday’s print edition of the Washington Post illustrate the point. The first, on page 2, was entitled climate scientists fear losing key tool at vital time.

You may know the story. Here’s a capsule from the article:

Earlier this month, a U.S. satellite known as F17 — which was primarily used for meteorological measurements — experienced operational failures that compromised the integrity of its data. And while there are similar satellites in orbit that can take over the data collection for now, they’re old enough that scientists are unsure how much longer they’ll last.

Now, with no government plans to launch a replacement any time soon, scientists who rely on these satellites for valuable climate data are beginning to worry about the future of their research. The problem comes at a vital time, too — one when the Arctic, and other remote regions, are seeing rapid changes and scientists badly need these instruments to track them.

The second, on page 3, headlined Zika crisis costs states funds for emergency preparedness. Again, the lead:

Cities and states preparing for possible Zika outbreaks this spring and summer are losing millions of federal dollars that local officials say they were counting on, not only for on-the-ground efforts to track and contain the spread of the mosquito-borne virus but also to respond to other emergencies that threaten public health.

Los Angeles County, for example, says it won’t be able to fill 17 vacancies at its public health laboratory or buy equipment to upgrade its capability for Zika testing. Michigan is concerned about providing resources to help Flint contend with its ongoing water-contamination crisis. Minnesota plans to reduce its stockpile of certain medications needed to treat first responders during emergencies.

The across-the-board funding cuts are part of a complicated shift of resources that the Obama administration blames on Congress and its refusal to approve the White House’s $1.9 billion emergency request to combat Zika. In early April, officials announced a stopgap measure that moved money originally intended for the government’s Ebola response.

But in that scramble, the administration also redirected about $44 million in emergency preparedness grants that state and local public health departments expected to receive starting in July. They use the grants for a broad range of events, including natural and human disasters and terrorist attacks. Some agencies lost up to 9 percent of their awards…

The links provide fuller details, but you get the idea. Limited in our resources, we make daily choices about our spending priorities as individuals and a nation. Time was, we said Earth observation from space was so important to both national security and public safety as to merit the redundancy of civilian and military observations. But in recent years we tended to reframe this as duplication and waste, and decided a single satellite system would do. In the same way, we’ve skimped on emergency response. As a result, the limited funding is continually reallocated – we chase the latest crisis.

(Two small quibbles with these articles. The first focuses on a collateral benefit of the military’s satellite versus the risk its loss poses to military operations worldwide – its intended purpose. Regardless of your stance and mine on the climate issue, we should mourn its coming end. The second article suggests that this reallocation of emergency response funding is something new. It’s not. Following 9/11, the primary federal funding for emergency response was focused on the terrorist threat. State and local governments found plenty of funding for hazmat suits, etc., but few funds for facing that rainy day – floods – or for earthquake preparedness.)

But the larger challenge remains: (1) ensuring the continuity of the vigilance that Earth observations of all types provide against threats of every origin, and (2) preparing and building resilience with respect to all contingencies, versus picking one and hoping we’re guessing right. What’s more, enhancing our investment in Earth observations and emergency response capability comes at small cost — let’s say one or two billion dollars more out of a federal budget of several trillion and a GDP five times that. In fact it saves money, following the lines of a second piece of ancient wisdom:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

We can do better.

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Red States and Blue States.

Here in the United States, merely to mention “red states and blue states” is to activate a strong Pavlovian response. We’ve all been classically conditioned to think politically – to see red as “Republican” and “blue” as Democratic. And regardless of our political persuasion, the term triggers a frisson, a shiver, an adrenalin rush. Here’s an example, taken at the county-level for the 2008 presidential elections:


But red and blue “Arndt” used solely to denote political leanings. As in Deke Arndt, chief of the Climate Monitoring Branch at NOAA’s Centers for Environmental Information. To the benefit of the country and the larger world, Mr. Arndt and his colleagues at the NOAA National Climatic Data Center spend their days and nights teasing high-value environmental intelligence out of seemingly drear climate data – the stupefyingly large amounts of temperature, humidity, wind, and other readings gathered moment by moment, year after year, century after century, around the globe.

But that isn’t all they do. They also think up elegant ways to convey that intelligence to decision makers and to you and me.

Here’s a recent example, just one of many, reported by Jason Samenow and the Capitol Weather Gang, who are no less gifted in bringing environmental intelligence to life.


The map goes back a ways. From the 2014 National Climate Assessment, it shows climate warming in U.S. from 1991-2012 compared to 1901-1960 average. Red represents temperature increases; blue denotes decreases.

Mr. Samenow’s piece also presents a table compiled by Mr. Arndt and the folks at NCEI, and recently updated:


Some verbatim excerpts from Mr. Samenow’s commentary:

U.S. states are setting new records for extreme warmth with regularity while record cold is almost impossible to come by

Arndt’s slide shows all state records set for warmth, cold and precipitation extremes since 2010

States have set monthly records for warmth 132 times in the past six years, as portrayed by all of the red in the left-hand column.

 Blue, which represents record cold, is conspicuously absent. In 3,500 opportunities (considering that there are 50 states and that 70 months have passed), states have logged a record cold month only four times

There are some big differences between the temperature map and the political one. For starters, there’s nothing personal about the temperature data. They simply are what they are — a reflection of physical realities. By contrast, political maps such as the one shown hint at what we think — you and I and the people who live near us.

Second, the political map is far more balanced. In the United States, presidential nominees more-or-less historically have enjoyed roughly one-chance in-two of being elected leader of the free world (versus the one-in-three-hundred-million odds facing you and me). It really doesn’t matter much who’s running, or what is going on. The electoral-college system in the United States has the effect of magnifying small differences in the popular political support, and also reducing the need for and extent of recounts, but the election results are never as lopsided as those temperature trends shown here. One chance in two. By contrast, your chances of being in a cooling county are pretty much no-existent.

But there are also similarities. For one, like politics, all climate is local. Similarly, for whatever reason, climate science, even mere climate data, seem to trigger a corresponding Pavlovian response – that same adrenalin rush – in many of us that politics evoke. Finally, as big data and data analytics continue to take hold, the value of both the political and the environmental intelligence the maps reveal will each increase.

The maps, and their narratives, are not going away. They’ll figure every more prominently in our future. And, as their messages grow compelling, and as our skill in social science and data analytics continues to advance, the messages will start to thread together.

That reality might suggest that the cooling we need most – the cooling that could in turn foster actions and dialog that over time might lead to a cooling of political and atmospheric temperatures – is emotional.

Enjoy a calm spring day. Allow it to change you.

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PrintActual conversation this morning between an anonymous atmospheric scientist and an intelligent, educated, cheery layperson in his life (also unnamed) but she-on-whom-his-sun-rises-and-sets, as they walked outside to the car:

He: This winter was warmer than usual.                                                                                     She (upbeat): Global warming!                                                                                                       He (unthinking, on autopilot): El Nino.                                                                                          She (only his imagination, or was there just the barest, momentary hint of chill in the air?): Is the planet warming or not?                                                                                             He: It’s warming.


As this vignette illustrates, attribution preoccupies us: why fix the problem when you can fix the blame?

Take climate change.

Atmospheric scientists have by and large agreed for some time that climate change is real, that it is largely human-caused, and that it poses possible opportunities but also serious risks for society. A recent George Mason University survey of AMS membership, though imperfect, nevertheless gives some feel for what AMS scientists think. From the executive summary:

Nearly all AMS members (96%) think climate change – as defined by AMS – is happening, with almost 9 out of 10 (89%) stating that they are either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ sure it is happening. Only 1% think climate change is not happening, and 3% say they don’t know.

A large majority of AMS members indicated that human activity is causing at least a portion of the changes in the climate over the past 50 years. Specifically: 29% think the change is largely or entirely due to human activity (i.e., 81 to 100%); 38% think most of the change is caused by human activity (i.e., 61 to 80%); 14% think the change is caused more or less equally by human activity and natural events; and 7% think the change is caused mostly by natural events. Conversely, 5% think the change is caused largely or entirely by natural events, 6% say they don’t know, and 1% think climate change isn’t happening.

Read the original report in its entirety (please!), and you’ll find that AMS opinion is more divergent when it comes to the societal implications: for example, the extent to which human action can slow or reverse the effects of any warming; and the likely consequences climate change for the economy, hazards, and the environment. This is hardly surprising, given that the answers to these questions lie beyond the nominal boundaries of AMS-community expertise.

Outside the climatological community, as seven billion people continue to awaken to these realities and their implications, the global conversation has grown from a murmur into a full-fledged discussion, and, on occasion, debate. Much of that debate has been about attribution. At first people asked, are humans really the cause? Over the past decade, in part frustrated by perceived slow uptick of public concern, scientists added the following idea: you know, climate change is not just a slow small perturbation in average conditions. It’s producing dangerous changes in the location, frequency, duration, and intensity of extremes of heat and cold, flood, and drought, and other threats. What’s more, these altered patterns of extremes are significant contributors to the changes in the averages. This did rivet minds, but at the same time it ushered in a new arena for the attribution debate. People started asking questions, many ill-posed, such as: Was Katrina a global warming event? To what extent? What about Superstorm Sandy? How about last year’s record snowfalls in Boston?

All this history makes the recent NAS report, Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change, especially welcome. The committee of experts authoring the report was chaired by Rear Admiral David Titley (retired). (Dr. Titley is currently Professor of Practice in Meteorology and the Founding Director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University and a Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Center for New American Security.)  He and the committee first addressed approaches to event attribution and then assessment of current capabilities for attribution. They suggested standards for how to present and interpret extreme event attribution studies. They closed by looking ahead, offering suggestions for improving attribution capabilities going  forward.

The March 20th episode of The Weather Channel’s Sunday program WxGeeks featured an engaging conversation on the report, featuring Dr. Titley and Dr. Marshall Shepherd, a University of Georgia professor and the show’s host – and also a member of the NAS committee. Here’s an on-line link to the show; it’s worth the viewing.

Bottom line: Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change brings a nice framing to the topic of attribution and a sound foundation for future work.

Follow its guidelines and we’ll not only improve our worldwide dialog on fixing the blame, but also maybe return our focus to fixing the problem.

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“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.” – Wendell Berry

“I am aware that one should always make room for renewal in politics. A democracy is the healthier for the turnover of the depth of talent there is in its community.” – Bob Brown

“If there are flaws they are in ourselves, and our task therefore must be one not of redesign but of renewal and reaffirmation, especially of the standards in which all of us believe. – Elliot Richardson


Much of LOTRW’s readership is addressing one dimension (or several) of sustainable development. To pursue this Holy Grail is to be obsessed with renewal. The concept has many labels, and they vary from endeavor to endeavor. For example:

When we speak of resources – food, water, energy – we want our resources to be renewable.

We want our communities and our peoples to be resilient to hazards, to recover from catastrophes.

Following a pollution event, or degradation of ecosystem services, we speak of restoration of the environment.

But, as many writers tell us – Bob Brown and Elliott Richardson are but two examples – when it comes to sustainability, the resource, the renewable, that matters most is the human spirit. At the individual level, such renewal is our paramount concern, and well it should be. In our fast-paced, innovative society, we’re challenged to renew ourselves every day, in order to continue to be useful to our families, to our employers, to society. It doesn’t matter where we live or who we are or what we do. From this renewal, all other prospects for renewability will follow.

This renewal of the spirit has degrees. At the quotidian level, the lowest rung of the ladder, there’s recreation and refreshment. Most of us try to build recharging our batteries into our daily, weekly, and annual rhythm. This takes many different forms. It might be a walk through the cherry blossoms or on the beach or along the Appalachian Trail. It might be music or dance or baking. Then, moving up the scale, there’s the idea of revival, revitalization. Add a hyphen to our friend recreation, and you get re-creation, something pretty significant. Such revival might happen a few times over a life span or a career – triggered by a season of formal education, marriage, kids, a move, a change of job, or a retreat.

But there’s one word for renewal that’s in a class all by itself: resurrection.

“Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime. – Martin Luther

“Let every man and woman count himself immortal. Let him catch the revelation of Jesus in his resurrection. Let him say not merely, ‘Christ is risen,’ but ‘I shall rise.’” – Phillips Brooks

Compared with other definitions and ideas of renewal, resurrection is unique in several respects. To start, it doesn’t mean recovering from a slightly or even a drastically weakened condition. It means coming back from the dead. Second, it doesn’t mean coming back to some former state, or almost to some former state. It refers not to just to coming back, but becoming something better, something perfect, something imperishable. Third, it doesn’t just mean coming back to our current imperfect world. (For many people, the brokenness and dysfunction of our current society is so great that an eternity here – versus living, say, seventy years –might be second prize.). Instead it seems to mean coming back to life under a new arrangement, one that makes living not just tolerable, not just passable, but a joy.

Resurrection is different in another respect. To see this, try an experiment. Go to your computer or other device, google all these forms of renewal, google quotes about all these forms of renewal – and you’ll find a great variety of sources, plenty to ponder and much to like. A cross-section of great thinkers and philosophers have thought long and hard about renewal and have a great deal to say. But google the word resurrection and the sources become less diverse and the quotes a more monochromatic. There really was only one guy whom people seem to take seriously on the subject. He not only talked about it, but demonstrated it – so convincingly to those around at the time that people haven’t stopped talking about it. The buzz has been slowly but steadily increasing for two thousand years.

And at the time, he didn’t stop there. He said something more audacious – he said that this resurrection, this being something or someone better for all time – wasn’t just for him, but for everybody – past, present, and future. (Everybody, that is, who wanted in. He wasn’t going to force this on any one of us, against your will or mine.).

This latter statement, this broader accessibility, taken on its own, might not seem so credible. But coming from someone who’s shown it can be done – that’s a different matter.

There’s a final respect in which resurrection is unique and powerful. Relative to the promised eternity, our finite number of years in this circumstance can be seen in clearer perspective. But resurrection doesn’t imply these years are merely for passive waiting. They’re years of active preparation. Much as the caterpillar prepares to become Lorenz’s butterfly, you and I are constantly in the business of becoming. Resurrection powers all those other forms of renewal. Resurrection also makes it important to build a better world now – providing for public safety, lifting people out of poverty, and preserving nature’s beauty. Resurrection makes renewal for each of us as important at age seventy-two as it is at age twelve or twenty-two. Renewal is not a vain exercise. It doesn’t stop when we die. Instead it hits full stride. Eternity is not stasis.

So, whether your direct inspiration be Martin Luther’s “leaf in springtime” or whether it comes from the still, small voice inside your head, or some special community of family and friends who share your values, or from some other external source, treat today  – Easter – and every day as an occasion for renewal. And along with Phillips Brooks, allow yourself the possibility:

Christ is risen… I shall rise.


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Value of Information: the imponderable

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free…” – Edward Gibbon


Yesterday’s LOTRW post highlighted listed four powerful trends that are driving up the potential value of Earth observations, science, and services: (1) Declining margins of essential resources such as water, food, and energy are leading to spot shortages and disruptions in supply worldwide. (2) The shortages can no longer be separated and treated individually, or wholly locally. Instead, they are connected in ways that require they be addressed as a whole. Worse yet, critical resource needs cannot be considered in isolation from hazard threats and environmental challenges. (3) The platforms, instruments, and infrastructure for Earth observations, science, and services, are rapidly developing in diagnostic power. (4) Big data and data analytics offer unprecedented tools for translating environmental conditions into their likely societal impacts, and for making societal, institutional, and individual adjustments.

What could go wrong? What could possibly stunt the growth in the value of Earth information?

Well, two things to start[1]:

1.Society could ignore, or misuse, or be slow to use and act on such environmental information – not just the warnings of threat but also the opportunities for benefit and profit. Earth scientists can be quick to see this as the result of malevolent intent or indolence (the climate-change debate comes to mind), but it’s equally possible and perhaps more realistic to interpret this as a consequence of the growing complexity and rapidly evolving nature of the interaction between environment and science. Some examples – three among many – illustrate the challenge.

The California drought of recent years. This has exposed challenges in the allocation of water at state and local levels, among economic sectors such as agriculture and energy, relative to private consumption. Allocations, and distortions in allocation, are shaped by pricing and subsidies. Policies and regulations vary from county to county and district to district. All this could be accommodated in times of plenty but is problematic in the face of multi-year shortage.

Dangerous lead content in the Flint, Michigan, water supply. News media have covered this tragedy extensively in recent months, finding fault with leaders at every level and of every political stripe.

Resettlement of the Isle de Jean Charles. This Louisiana example, important both to climate science and to the task of building resilient futures, is likely not so well known to readers as the similar challenge facing indigenous peoples of Alaska’s north slope; the Guardian article provided by the link merits a careful read. More information is available at, as well as on the Tribal website and at the Lowlander Center.

As the Guardian article notes, HUD has made a $52M grant to the people of the Isle de Jean Charles for resettlement. As the case in Alaska and elsewhere, the award amount is really in the nature of a demonstration project. Full implementation of resettlement will require the people of the area to come up with (roughly comparable) additional funds. Even so, some argue that the federal government has been too generous. Others see opportunity in the award and seek to be awarded critical contracts, forcing the named recipient in the award, the Tribe, to struggle to retain control.

Each of these three accounts demonstrate the way that resource-, hazard-, and environmental issues are currently threaded throughout our society, and, at the same time, how they’re inextricably intertwined with issues of environmental justice and poverty. Now multiply by tens of thousands. Every community, every sector, every nation in today’s world can come up with its own multiple narratives of such tribulations. The stupefying size and complexity of the aggregated problems combine confront huge, entrenched financial and cultural interests in a way that paralyzes consensus building and action.

Today’s political arena reflects this. Here in the United States, the time-honored winning political message has been this one: the politician says to Americans: “look me in the eye! You’re living in a fantasy world – and I can keep the fantasy alive four years longer than my opponent.”

(Alert! First, recognize that this statement is a bit exaggerated, to make a point. Second, don’t make the mistake of blaming politicians for this. It’s our fault. If anything, politicians are extremely realistic… and they know from experience that this is the message all 300 million of us insist on hearing from them.)

This year that rhetoric has been replaced with something far uglier.

Those concerned with the value of information should view this political season with special concern. In past campaigns, fact-checking has held political leaders accountable for their campaign proposals, on down to their passing comments, on the campaign trail. Much less so this year. Facts, consistency, logic seem to be held in low regard. And this in turn implies a decline in the value of information. Remember: information has no value unless it’s used.

Which brings us to a second challenge that can derail the increasing value of information.

2.A society that sees less value in information, is less interested in maintaining the sources and supply of that information, and sustaining the associated R&D needed to move it forward. Referring back to the political campaign – the adequacy of national and world supplies of water, food, and energy; our repetitive loss to hazards; our degrading ecosystem services – this foundation (remember Maslow) for all our hopes and aspirations is receiving scant attention. Maintaining the science and R&D of all that? Even less so. That societal disinterest has implications for us. Sustained continuity in the financial support and other policies that foster innovation are just as important for our work as oxygen and water and food are for us as individuals. To the extent our community is impaired, the world is forced to fly blind into a problematic future.

This doesn’t mean we should amp-up our scolding. Just the opposite! It means we need to redouble our courtship of the society that supports our work – the entire society, not just any single political party. It also means we should put more emphasis on STEM education, on investing in a society that understands innovation and fosters it.

And the freedom we should cherish most? The freedom to be responsible.


All these and more will be considered in future posts… but in the meantime, Easter is coming up.

[1] You can likely offer additions or your own better list. Comments are welcome, including guest posts should you be so inclined.

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Four trends ratchet up the value of Earth information.

Four seismic shifts are underway that will combine to make Earth information increasingly valuable – unimaginably more valuable – over the coming two decades.

Unless they don’t.

Today we look at the four drivers of this increased value. Two are challenges. Two are opportunities. They are inexorable.

Unless they aren’t.

(The caveat? It’ll have to wait until the next post.)

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. Media have focused on these food, water, and energy crises for as long as we can remember. But here’s the point. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs described in the previous LOTRW post reminds us that 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.

But the need for holistic scientific understanding and policy approaches doesn’t stop there. In turns out that resource and environmental policies are interwoven as well, not just with each other but also with community-level resilience to natural hazards. Solving this transcendental threefold problem is the essential core of so-called sustainable development[1]. In the constrained, unified world of the future it will no longer suffice to treat any resource-, hazard-, or environmental problems in isolation.

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 deliveries; they’re being harnessed for detailed, problem-specific atmospheric and land-surface monitoring. Remotely-operated undersea probes are also coming online. Our hundreds of millions of automobiles and smartphones are being pressed into service for measuring everything from rainfall to atmospheric pressure. Numerical weather prediction is being extended to climate modeling and coupled land-surface-ocean-atmospheric modeling more generally. Understanding is flowering. We’re putting the entire planet in intensive care.

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.

These four trends our reshaping the world and human possibility. Along the way, and almost as a footnote, they’re ensuring that Valuation of Earth Information will never be a finished question but will rather remain a subject of continuing research for a century or more.



[1] As described in the 2014 book, Living on the Real World, also available at University of Chicago Press or

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