You be the judge.

Here’s a story that’s making the rounds: Belgian town may sue over soggy weather forecasts. According to NPR and other news sources, it seems that Meteo Belgique, a private weather forecasting firm, predicted some time ago, when Europeans were making their signature-month-of-August-vacation plans, that Belgium would see no more than two weeks of sun this month. Now, hotels and other tourist-based business along Belgium’s coast are noting a year-on-year decline in tourism versus 2011 and contemplating litigation.

[Is it just me, or could such a decline have instead perhaps reflected Europe’s current skittishness about the state of the economy, or uncertainties about the future of the Euro?]

At best, the disgruntled say, Meteo Belgique chose not to mention that Belgian’s coastal climate is more clement/favorable than that further inland. At worst, Meteo Belgique might have been nefariously seeking to help other competing tourist destinations foster their August business at Belgium’s expense.

This calls to mind the summer of 2002, when then-Colorado-governor Bill Owens was asked to comment on major wildfires in the western part of the state shortly after returning from an aerial survey. “It looks as if all Colorado is burning today,” he answered. According to the story, the press compressed this to “all of Colorado is burning.” Coloradans subsequently faulted the government and this statement for driving away tourists that season.

Google the phrase “hurricanes and tourism,” and you’ll find (surprise!) that hurricanes also are bad for tourism. Of course there’s the damage and the cleanup afterwards, but these days people modify their plans right up until the last moment as hurricanes approach landfall…canceling reservations when the weather promises to be less than ideal. Insurers stand ready to help hotels and other businesses hedge such risks. However, the payouts for their products are often tied to hurricane watches and warnings. Should your business fall inside a warned area, you’re compensated for your loss. Fall outside, and you’re not. Obviously, risk-averse tourists may cancel their reservations for sites adjacent to landfall as well as those exposed to the landfall proper.  Thus the hurricane forecast, not just the event, establishes winners and losers. Money changes hands. This creates the perverse effect that businesses may want to see larger, not smaller watch areas. Their interests along vulnerable coasts may not be commensurate with the interests of emergency managers and other officials charged with evacuating those truly at risk versus minimizing the disruption to the larger public.

Similar concerns arise in weather modification. Do activities to increase rainfall or snowfall at one location produce benefit at all? Do they produce benefit for some in the target area at the expense of others nearby? If cloud seeders modify a cloud that then does catastrophic damage, can the weather modifiers be held liable? One classic case was the Rapid City flood of 1972, which caused two hundred deaths over a period of a few hours and is held by some to be one of the worst floods in US history. The area had been the site of cloud seeding the day of the storm. Not surprisingly, news of this coincidence created a storm of its own. [Some time after the fact, Arnett Dennis, a Bureau of Reclamation expert, provided a dispassionate account of what was a media tempest at the time.]

Google phrases such as “weather modification litigation” and you’ll find other incidents over the years.

As this post was in preparation, a colleague reminded me that Italian seismologists have been tried for manslaughter in L’Aquila, Italy, for making “false reassurances” to the public a week prior to the April 2009 earthquake that killed 300 people.  [Earlier this year, the attention seemed to shift from the seismologists themselves to officials that appear to have misrepresented the scientists’ findings in order to maintain calm. You can find that February 2012 update here.]

You be the judge!

How should cases such as these be resolved? How much responsibility can and should scientists shoulder? Suppose, for example, that you develop a new technique for earthquake forecasting. It shows promise. But as you’re doing confirmatory experiments, you start seeing you’ve been able to predict events that are producing numerous casualties and extensive damage. At what point should you ethically be required to share your results? And to whom? And what then should public officials be required to do with the information?

In medical trials, in those cases when new drugs or procedures show special promise, the tests are immediately suspended because of the negative implications of withholding treatment from any control group. At what point should this happen in our work?

Engineers submit to regulation and licensure. Should natural scientists? Under what circumstances? The AMS certifies broadcast meteorologists and consulting meteorologists. Should other categories be added? Is legal infrastructure needed? What should it look like?

I don’t have the answer to these questions. But I can venture a forecast…that in your lifetime, you’ll increasingly be called to consider and resolve them.

At the National Science Foundation, David Verardo, a Ph.D. paleoclimatologist and former Congressional Science Fellow who also attained a law degree, has initiated an interesting experiment to prepare Earth scientists for this brave new world. Over each of the past two summers, the National Science Foundation has partnered with the William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota to run a one-week Expert Witness Advocacy Training Academy for a couple of dozen scientists. They’ve used a weather-modification scenario for their training case.

Abraham Lincoln, himself a lawyer, had some thoughts on this subject. Here are two:

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”

“Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this.”

Where is Mr. Lincoln when we need him?

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5 Responses to You be the judge.

  1. Pam K says:

    Another example: firing the Georgia State Climatologist and Assistant SC because they said there was a drought. The landscaping and nursery industries lost a lot of money because no one was buying expensive plantings during the dry conditions and they were (perhaps?) looking for a scapegoat. Or was it the terrible economy that caused people to choose food over plants? More scientists as messengers taking the blame for something they are just observing.

  2. Mike Smith says:

    I believe there is one category of meteorologist that should be licensed and that is the subset of the profession engaged in severe storm warnings, which includes broadcasters, private sector meteorologists, and National Weather Service meteorologists.

    Just yesterday, a flash flood statement issued during the flooding in Dallas was a confusing mess. The entire warning system performed poorly during the 2011 Joplin tornado.

    The skills necessary to create a 48-hour temperature forecast are not the same as those needed to issue a timely tornado or flash flood warning. While we are a long way from perfection in any area of weather forecasting, we should insure people in the storm warning field are fully qualified. When done properly, storm warnings save lives. When done poorly, they can cost lives.

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