A Change in the Climate…in Cairo, and at the American Meteorological Society

It’s not only planets that undergo climate change. Nations, states – and professional communities – can experience a change in climate as well. Dictionary.com gives as its third definition of climate the following: “the prevailing attitudes, standards, or environmental conditions of a group, period, or place: a climate of political unrest.” (emphasis added)

Why mention the travails of the Mideast and (the more positive) events at AMS in the same breath? Surely the scale and scope of the former troubles far exceeds that of any good news at the latter? Please bear with me…

Political unrest is certainly very real in Egypt just now. In fact, unrest inadequately describes what’s going on today. Upheaval might be more like it! Unrest describes the state of affairs months ago. Back in July of last year, The Economist ran a special report on Egypt entitled The Long Wait. At that time, they noted “after three decades of economic progress but political paralysis, change is in the air.”

Prescient! That change has arrived, in spades. Two features of this change in the Egyptian political climate are worth noting. First, when it finally arrived, it hit suddenly. Second, even though the climax has been abrupt, it could be, and was, anticipated from a long way off – months and years ahead of time. The same could be said of the financial sector meltdown of late 2008 and 2009. Those on Wall Street and the analysts on the sidelines were worried months and years in advance. Virtually all the great social disruptions of history share this character.

Ecological processes show a similar makeup. Look at the language of ecology: population explosions; collapse. Disease outbreaks. Die-offs.

This reality is also familiar to Earth scientists in general and meteorologists in particular. The genesis of a storm has its roots over vast areas of land and sea, and is hidden in subtle differences in wind, temperature, humidity and other parameters across that land- and seascape. The calm winds and big distances mean that the concentration of energy occurs slowly at first. As time goes on, the winds grow stronger, and the distances grow shorter. The pace picks up. At the end, the development of hurricanes, nor-easters, polar lows and other extremes feels breathtakingly explosive. And it’s not just the storm itself. It’s societal vulnerability as well. For years before Katrina, New Orleans news media were running stories of the city’s growing risk. Slow at the start. Fast at the finish. But foreseeable at every stage!

It’s not just the bad stuff that comes on us suddenly. Many good things in this world develop in the same way. During the 1980’s and the 1990’s, experts following the developments in IT were saying that advances in computing power, robotics, communications and related technologies should start resulting soon in improved economic productivity. Finally, in the 1990’s the long-anticipated year-to-year productivity gains began to arrive. They’re still with us. Satellite meteorology had been around for decades before meteorologists mastered the task of assimilating millions of asynchronous data points into numerical weather prediction. But since then? The forecast improvements resulting from these and other advances have been stunning.

A few days and a little geographic distance from the AMS 2011 Annual Meeting in Seattle convinces me that a similar change is sweeping through the science- and service climate prevailing in our community. Here’s a quick (and admittedly subjective) list of just a few of the positive trends. Please apply your own reality check; add your own ideas.

Increased disciplinary breadth. Take space weather. Eight years ago, the attendance comprised only a handful of such experts. More than 250 space-weather scientists participated at this year’s meeting. Or work on societal impacts and policy research.  Another 200 or so scientists attended these sessions, including twenty academics specializing in communication research.

More emphasis on applications. This year featured the Second Conference on Environment and Health, and the Second Conference on Weather, Climate and the New Energy Economy, for example. In these and other sessions, researchers are exploring the application of Earth sciences at depth, in meticulous detail. The communication theme of the meeting inherently emphasized communication linking our community to the external world we all serve. Our new knowledge is being put to work!

A younger demographic. Student conference numbers set records. This year the Society took note of the growing numbers of entry-level scientists and engineers. The AMS provided young professionals special get-togethers, surveyed their needs, and launched mentoring programs designed to enrich the professional experience for the future leaders in our field. Young people are energized by our challenge, and we’re bringing them online.

A private sector coming of age. The intersection between public and private sector, once confined to exhibits, now pervades the Annual Meeting as a whole. At sessions on every topic – nascent national climate services, networks of surface sensors, road weather, wind energy, and many more, many presentations were authored by private-sector members, and much of the discussion centered on public-private collaboration. Excitement and a spirit of innovation are in the air.

Global reach. Bench scientists from other countries have contributed to the meeting for years, but their numbers continue to grow. Leaders of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHS’s) from a number of other countries also participated actively throughout the week, in a far more integrated fashion than in prior years.

So here’s why current events in Egypt, and trends in evidence at AMS belong in the same space. A great race is underway on the real world – a race with many facets. Seen through one lens, it’s a race to garner natural resources. Seen differently, it’s a race to reduce environmental degradation. Viewed a third way, it’s a race to protect against coming hazards. In sum, these add up to a great contest to provide economic opportunity and political liberty faster than poverty and postponed hopes and frustrated aspirations explode in country after country around the world, destroying the social fabric and geopolitical stability.  Each day, the real world runs another lap of this manifold race, with first one side, then the other gaining the lead. In the competition between the bad possibilities, and the good, we’re neck and neck with a lot of running still before us.

Chances are, if you’ve been reading this blog, you’re one of the marathoners. The trends in the community that you represent? They’re subtle, hard to see, especially against the backdrop of the world’s troubles. They seem to be painfully slow. But your work, and that of those around you, is building momentum, setting the stage for accelerating capacity-building in future years.

The biggest battle you and your fellow marathoners face? Surprisingly, not the physical exertion itself. No, it’s the mental battle. Keeping your spirits up. Ensuring that your life has a work-play balance that you can sustain for years. Forgiving yourself when you make mistakes or otherwise fall short. Recognizing that you’re not in this alone. Maintaining a bit of a contrarian streak so that you can see the positive in even the worst events, and not take excessive pride in small steps forward. [The bright side in Egypt? The possibility of a more open society, and the likelihood that leaders across the region will be more sensitive and responsive to legitimate, universal desires of their respective peoples.]

So relax. Take time to enjoy friends and family. Don’t fight yourself. Stop at the stations along the race route and rehydrate. Maintain those electrolytes.

Looking good! Keep it up! See you at the finish line.

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One Response to A Change in the Climate…in Cairo, and at the American Meteorological Society

  1. Alan Weinstein says:

    Good advise even for retired people. There is more to life than work.
    Travel, hobbies, family, friends. All add to a rich retired life.

    Even time to speculate on national and international events.
    Is Egypt in for change? Not clear.. Yes, many dictators have been overthrown in our time. But, alas, some have survived….China, Iran come to mind.
    So, what should the Obama administration do? The idealistic thing and support the revolt for freedom over a dictator? Or the practical thing and support stability?
    Hell if I know. All I can hope is that the President knows more than I and will make the right decision….without advise from me.

    Now to AMS
    Glad to see all of these developments.
    But, how about improvements in the demographics?
    Women? African Americans? Latinos? Asians?

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