What We Talk About When We Talk About the Weather…

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.[1]

Several years ago, the American Meteorological Society held its Annual Meeting in San Antonio – concurrently, as it happened, with a major ice storm. In fact, the ice  storm was the worst the city had seen since the AMS had last visited, a quarter-century prior.

This past week proved to be Atlanta’s turn. A few inches of snow combined with icing conditions and a less-than-perfect community-level and state-level response to produce a nightmare ordeal for thousands either trapped on the region’s roads, or separated from children or parents, in some cases overnight. Traffic conditions have largely returned to normal, but nerves are still frayed. The experience is raw and fresh in minds. As the American Meteorological Society opens its annual meeting here over the weekend, taxi drivers, hotel staff – and myriad other locals – have horror stories to share with their meteorologist-visitors. The snowstorm, its impacts, and its political consequences still dominate the evening news both locally and nationally. AMS travelers are dealing with flight cancellations and delays as they make their way here.

When you and I talk about the weather, we tend to discuss:

The forecast for the most likely weather. Weather forecasts, as everyone knows, are inherently uncertain. A particular weather development may be expected, but the actual changes in the weather may follow a quite unanticipated and different path. As a rule, most of us ignore the full range of possible alternatives and consider and discuss just one scenario.

What happened the last time the weather was “similar.” Successive events such as the San Antonio and Atlanta ice storms can easily be separated by decades. Over ten or twenty years a city’s vulnerabilities may change so gradually as to go unnoticed but may accumulate to a point where the impacts are radically different.  What we recall about what happened last time is all too often a poor guide to what lies ahead.

How others have failed to meet their responsibility. When things go wrong, and when society is so interdependent and responsibility so widely distributed, it’s easy and tempting for our conversations to point an accusing finger at others. For example, in this week’s Atlanta event, political figures blamed each other, and blamed public and private weather services, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

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What We Could Talk About When We Talk About the Weather. Although such conversational choices are likely or easy, they needn’t be inevitable. We could choose instead to go a different direction – to discuss, for example:

The forecast range of possibilities. We could discuss with friends, family, and co-workers the forecast uncertainty and the full gamut of possibilities, including extremes. Instead of hoping for the best, we might contemplate what the worst-case scenarios might look like, and share any concerns with those we care about.

The present and future risks posed by “similar” weather. Rather than limit our dialogue to what happened the last time out, we might do a bit of brainstorming about what might happen now.

Planning for and meeting our own responsibilities. You and I might use conversation to hold ourselves accountable to each other… our families, our neighbors, and our larger community.

So, when we talk about the weather, let’s be forward-looking, action-oriented, and responsible. Such talk is far more likely to prompt effective action.


[1] Mark Twain? Charles Dudley Warner? Take your pick.

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2 Responses to What We Talk About When We Talk About the Weather…

  1. John Knox says:

    Bill, I think you should have referenced this Christian Science Monitor story (see link below) in your piece. It illustrates how when a climatologist talked about drought (factually and without political content), he and his assistant were fired. And how this dismissal probably affected in a negative way what was talked about in Georgia emergency management circles about an impending winter storm over 2 years later–the one that paralyzed Atlanta this week, but didn’t have to.

    Quite frankly, I think you and others are jumping the gun by saying/implying ‘we need to get beyond the blame game’ when not all the facts are in yet about how politically driven decision-making could have played a role in this mess. Sometimes others really *are* to blame.

    Just trying to hold you accountable. ;-)

    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2014/0130/Atlanta-gridlock-fiasco-Did-politics-play-a-role-in-snowstorm-gamble-video

  2. Edward O'Lenic says:

    I am certain that the Georgia government leaders want to protect their citizens. I am also betting that they had afforded themselves only a limited understanding of the possible outcomes in the days and hours before the storm. Rather than being roundly criticized, in hindsight, for missing a huge opportunity to lead, they might look pretty good right now. Perhaps the recent storm and its impacts have been a learning experience.

    One can imagine an alternative scenario in which state leaders had in-place within the government, the scientific expertise, advance planning, scientific and technical staff and culture needed to 1) understand and take the forecasts and other scientific and technical information, including uncertainty, seriously, 2) confidently coordinate with business, local governments, and media to take measures and convey messages informed by the science before and during the event.

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