Grandmother of the Year.

Here’s how you get nominated for Grandmother of the Year, in my book. On Thursday, a sunny, uncharacteristically cool and dry summer’s day in DC (reflecting, we’re told, at least by some, the magic of the “polar vortex”), you don’t just take the grandsons to the zoo, or the swimming pool, or the Mall, or out for burgers and milkshakes. Too ordinary. Too ho-hum. Instead, you head them out to (drumroll, wait for it…) the Fairfax County landfill down in Lorton, Virginia.


There you have them meet a guide for the two-hour tour you’ve arranged specifically for them.


The boys see where waste of different types is captured: “white goods,”

discarded automobile tires,
IMG_20140717_105416_001construction debris (in hundred-foot-high hills)
IMG_20140718_140141and bagged waste, each headed for a different fate (and different still from recyclables, which are taken to other sites).

The boys visit the Fairfax County energy-from-waste facility where automated, remotely-controlled robots claw whole loads of trash from an unending line of trucks, feeding an incinerator with an insatiable appetite (3000 tons every 24 hours).


Some background:

The I-95 Energy/Resource Recovery Facility, operating as Covanta Fairfax, Inc., began commercial operation in June 1990. It is Covanta’s largest facility, processing more than 3,000 tons per day of municipal solid waste for a population of more than 900,000 in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Fairfax County, Virginia. The facility sells over 80 megawatts of renewable energy to Dominion Virginia Power Company, enough energy to meet the needs of over 80,000 homes. It is the first Covanta facility to have a non-ferrous metal recovery system.

The boys see where millions of pounds of ash from the incinerator are dumped daily and capped with a very-low-density polyethylene (VLDPE) liner.


Meanwhile, over the two hours, the guide recounts the history,


going back to the time that the landfill and the Lorton prison co-existed on the site, where methane buildup began to permeate the correctional facility until December 3, 1984 when someone lit a match triggering an explosion. A repeat event occurred on December 6, three days later, killing one inmate and injuring another.

If you’re Grammy, you follow that by going with the boys out to the surrounding landfills… grass-covered mounds more than 150-feet high (and extending down another 60 feet) dating back to the 1960’s and 1970’s, where enough methane is being captured to meet the electrical-power requirements of another 6000 families (the February 2006 issue of GeoTimes provides a nice discussion of this). And you take a picture:


showing the three of you, and catching sight of one of the pipes drawing out the methane from the field, with the incinerator/power generation facility in the background, which you e-mail to the old man.

THAT’s what I’m talking about! An LOTRW moment: resource needs (20% of the power needed for homes in Fairfax County) and environmental protection (700-fold reduction in waste volume and 7-fold reduction in waste weight) accomplished simultaneously. Public education: a younger generation gaining a bit better feel for the scale and complexity of the waste disposal issue. Against a backdrop of manmade and natural extreme events, such as the explosions and the disruption occasioned by heavy rainfalls such as the three inches of rain on the site that preceded our recent drop in temperature.

My wife… definitely grandmother of the year.

And those two boys, smiling for the entire two hours and not just for the photo? Candidates for grandsons of the year… despite stiff competition from the two in Colorado.


A shout-out to Fairfax County and to Wayne Blake-Hedges, environmental specialist/engineering there, for their good work over the years, and for guiding everyone around and taking the fullest measure of a teachable moment.

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Speak with one voice? Or vive la différence?

The meteorological community occasionally wrings its hands at “our failure to speak with one voice.”

It would really be interesting to hear your (likely differing) voices on this topic! In hopes of stimulating such a discussion, here’s a perspective to focus minds, or (should you prefer a grittier metaphor) to serve as a target. Please join the discussion/post a comment.

Concerns about reaching consensus are as old as meteorology itself, but have mounted as the topic of conversation has turned from meteorology per se to related issues of weather impacts on society, the contributions of science to policy, and the national policy for science (including but by no means limited to federal R&D budgets). Talk of a need for consensus has grown particularly poignant since the release of the NAS/NRC Fair Weather Report of 2003. The report, a singular milestone for our community, suggested, inter alia:

“Recommendation 3. The NWS and relevant academic, state, and private organizations should seek a neutral host, such as the American Meteorological Society, to provide a periodic dedicated venue for the weather enterprise as a whole to discuss issues related to the public-private partnership.”

Meteorologists and the AMS have taken that particular recommendation to heart. Just one example, but a singular one: ever since then, they’ve held an annual Summer Community Meeting . [A brief infomercial: This year’s meeting is scheduled for State College, Pennsylvania August 11-13. Every topic is on the table, and it’s not too late for you join in! Just click on the link to check out the agenda, register, and then you too can play a part.] The meetings have been valuable, and increasingly so over the years. Today they’re just the tip of the iceberg of a growing web of communication and collaboration that now goes on between meetings. The joint is jumping.

Note that the NAS/NRC stopped short of recommending that the meteorological community speak with a single voice. Even back then, they recognized the community was probably too diverse for that… that what we needed most was opportunity and means to discuss our differences internally. Community members hold divergent views on climate change; on risk communication; on journal purviews; on big-versus-small meetings and conferences; on whether the government should buy observing hardware or purchase data streams. We can find reason to hold spirited exchanges on virtually any topic.

That said, on many occasions and with respect to a number of subjects, it’s valuable and important to be able have a process for closing ranks (or conclude that such closure is either unnecessary or unattainable). This may be particularly true when we’re not dialoging among ourselves, but rather with the larger public. Consider questions such as the following: why are forecasts sometimes different from provider to provider? What are our priorities for observations? For research? For services? How can we foster public safety in the face of weather hazards? What do we need from STEM education? What do we know about geoengineering? When discussing these matters with close colleagues, it’s well and good to be exploratory, to surface conjecture, to identify and debate views, etc. As the discussion expands to take in a wider range of publics, those newcomers to the conversation may find these distinctions confusing or off-putting.

So the question is, how controlled should our message be? Where should it lie on a scale with the Tower of Babel (as depicted here by Pieter Breugel the Elder):


at one extreme


and a foghorn monotone at the other?

Here are two examples – one from the world of meteorology, and one from the world of music – that might stimulate thought:

Spaghetti charts. (LOTRW has blogged on this before). Weather forecasters construct such spaghetti charts or diagrams (aptly named) by juxtaposing different numerical forecasts… in this instance, for the track of hurricane Sandy back in October of 2012.

sandy spaghetti

The ensemble of such tracks may be derived from a single numerical weather prediction model by introducing a small bit of noise into the initial conditions or by compiling results from independent numerical models. The charts either look well-defined or present a hodge-podge depending upon the sensitivity of the forecast to the initial conditions or model assumptions. In the current figure, it’s easy to see a consensus that Sandy would turn inland somewhere around New Jersey, but several runs showed the hurricane moving instead out to sea.

By analogy, when people ask different members of our community about specific issues or topics, and encounter a range of responses, they can surmise there’s considerable uncertainty or difference of opinion. If instead they find the responses to be relatively similar, that suggests community consensus. Responses that are generally similar with the exception of a clear outlier or two don’t destroy the notion of consensus so much as they make a statement or offer insights about the people or institutions proffering the wildly different views. This picture suggests that our community might reasonably be relaxed when individual members exercising considerable variation in their views on just about any topic.

Harmony. Imagine trying to perform Handel’s Messiah in a single voice. Which would you choose? The bass part? Tenor? Alto? Soprano? The result would be the palest shadow of a magnificent piece of music. What matters as much as any single voice is the harmony of the whole – how it all fits together. When meteorologists offer diverse positions on any topic, but it’s evident to the hearers that the community is in general accord, or singing from the same score (substitute your own choice of metaphor here), then it’s easy and natural to grasp both the core essentials of the message and the nuance.

In conclusion, then, perhaps we ought to see communication – even communication of risk in the face of hazards, where the historic emphasis has been placed on strict discipline – as ensembles (spaghetti charts), or harmony-laced musical scores, rather than narrowly monotonic messages. By the way, with today’s ubiquitous social networking most publics are more accustomed to and comfortable with getting their messages in this mode. They/we live and function in an information soup… and it’s a wonderfully thick and nutritious information soup… versus the thin (information) gruel my generation was raised on.

The key ingredient to the information soup, the secret sauce, is harmony. When others hear our separate messages and experience harmony, they can accommodate a range of views. They’ll linger. They’ll pitch in. But if they look at our community and find discord, invective, backbiting, or condemnation, then they’ll look for an excuse to walk (or run) away.

Going back to that music analogy, jazz might be an even better example than classical music. Musicians have little more than a card reminding them they’re playing A Train, not Basin Street Blues. No two performances are ever the same. And if jazz is too complicated, let’s go back to something you likely remember from childhood, and I remember from parenting young children: Sesame Street’s High, Middle, Low.

Worth a listen… and like most Sesame Street wisdom, worth taking to heart, whether child or grownup. You might give it two minutes, let it take you back… :)


[Note: I hope – but sadly can’t promise! – to explore this topic further in subsequent posts. Next up would be a look at an example where the AMS does speak with one voice now: our statements.]

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Tim Palmer awarded the IOP 2014 Dirac Gold Medal.

The Institute of Physics has awarded Tim Palmer of the University of Oxford its 2014 Dirac Gold Medal for theoretical physics, for the development of probabilistic weather and climate prediction systems.”

tim palmer

Most LOTRW readers won’t be familiar with the Dirac Gold Medal. Here’s the background:

[IOP] Council, recognising that the Institute did not have an open award specifically for theoretical physics, decided in 1985 to introduce a new medal and prize to be named after P A M Dirac an Honorary Fellow, who had died the previous year. The first award was made in 1987. In 1992 Council decided that the Dirac medal and prize should become one of its Premier Awards and then from 2008 that it should be one of its Gold medals.

Terms The award shall be made annually for outstanding contributions to theoretical (including mathematical and computational) physics. The medal shall be silver gilt and shall be accompanied by a prize of £1000 and a certificate.

The fuller IOP citation for Professor Palmer’s award is crisp, and would lose some of its punch if shortened further; it’s therefore reprinted here in its entirety:

During the last three decades, Palmer has led in a revolution in the fields of weather and climate by establishing a physical basis for understanding nonlinear error growth in prediction models and for developing practical ways of estimating flow-dependent predictability. He has challenged old ideas and has changed the way that weather and climate are viewed both by the public, by associates in the same field, and by scientists in other disciplines.

Palmer’s work in weather and climate predictions is a beautiful blend of theoretical insight and practicality. Based on his insights into chaotic behaviour of fluids, he has created a system that gives the wealthy and the poorest of the poor throughout the world a determination of the probability of drought, flood, tropical cyclones or hydro-meteorological hazards in general. This probability has allowed them to determine their levels of risk and, if worthwhile, allows them to instigate mitigation. For example, Palmer’s probabilistic predictions have been used in Bangladesh where, for the first time, societies can anticipate slow-rise, long-lived floods. The savings for the mitigating actions in Bangladesh are of the order of annual incomes.

Normally, the societal benefits of ideas take a long time to permeate to the practical level. But Palmer, having practical applications in mind, has formed an almost immediate link between his theoretical insights and practical applications.

Very nice, on every level.

A closing note. For the most part, meteorology and related AMS disciplines are accurately described as applied sciences. We take results of mathematics, or the laws of physics, or chemistry, etc., as given. We apply what is known to our field. It’s only a tiny minority of our community, a few extraordinary individuals, who can tinker productively with the basic premises and fundamental physical understanding that underpins our work. As the IOP Dirac Gold Medal award attests, Professor Palmer[1] fits comfortably into that elite group.


[1] Professor Palmer is an AMS Fellow and winner of the Charney (1997) and Rossby (2010) Medals.


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All together now, WXGeeks: 1…2…3…view.

The Weather Channel announced today that beginning this Sunday, July 20, at noon EDT, it will begin a new weekly television broadcast series, WXGeeks. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

For scientists, policy makers, emergency managers and fans of meteorology, it’s hard to remember a time in the weather community as interesting or as complex as this one. Today, The Weather Channel®  is announcing “Weather Geeks” – a televised forum by and for the weather community. Whether it be mitigating against drought, chemtrails and HAARP; debating machines vs. humans in weather forecasting; or discussing the pros and cons of storm chasing — Weather Geeks will seek to tackle the issues that are top of mind in the weather community but rarely explored in depth on television.  

Weather Geeks will premiere on Sunday, July 20, at noon ET on The Weather Channel network and will air weekly in that time slot. The show will be hosted by Dr. Marshall Shepherd, past president of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program.


Marshall Shepherd had this to say:

“One of the greatest aspects of my involvement with AMS and our community as a whole is the opportunity to hear the best minds in our field discuss the most pressing issues in weather. Our vision is for Weather Geeks to be a weekly forum for those types of discussions, and I am looking forward to inviting scientists from across the weather community to be a part of the show.”

For its part, TWC management added:

“The opportunity to have Dr. Shepherd as a regular contributor and host made this an ideal opportunity to create a national platform for a discussion of weather issues. We recognize that we play a role in a much larger community and we felt an obligation to set aside air time for that community to come together and share ideas and expertise.”  

The highly-regarded, preternaturally thoughtful, and uniquely telegenic Marshall Shepherd, a former AMS President, teaming up with The Weather Channel? Sounds like must-see viewing for those interested in digging a little deeper into weather’s biggest stories.

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Just say “no” to condemnation

A reader who prefers to remain anonymous created and passed along the following graphic in reponse to the July 15 LOTRW post on Condemnation…HIV-style criticism. With my thanks, I’m posting it here:

simply commit

Says it all.

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Condemnation… HIV-type criticism

Judge not… – Jesus (Matthew 7:1a, NIV)

A tangle of threads from the latter part of last week provide the starting point for some reflections over the past weekend:

- Thursday the world was saddened by the re-emerging story of a 4-year-old Mississippi girl. She’d been HIV-positive when born but thought to have been cured by aggressive therapies during the first 18 months of her life. Recent blood tests reveal the virus has returned. Words can’t begin to capture the grief here.

- News media covered the developing story of House Republican plans to sue the president: we’re told the lawsuit will focus on the administration’s decision to postpone the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that large employers provide health insurance for their workers. An energized House is passing innovative legislation to make this suit possible. Members of the House are also blaming the president for the immigration crisis posed by a sudden influx of undocumented children at our southern border; for warfare in Syria, Iraq, and Gaza; and for more national ills.

- My pre-dawn reading Thursday chanced across some words on the damaging effects of criticism and condemnation.

- A DC-savvy colleague of many years shared later that day that he’d never seen the politics in Washington so polarized, divisive and toxic, and said that it was “going to get even worse before it gets better.”


First, the Mississippi tragedy. The disease’s return for the little girl stems from the nature of the human-immune-deficiency (HIV) virus, responsible for acquired-immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV has proven resistant to anti-retroviral therapies because it mutates rapidly in response to conventional treatments. Other viruses present less of a moving target to the body’s own immune system and to pharmaceuticals used to attack them. Please hold this thought.

Next, the impact of criticism and condemnation. Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California (who also held visiting appointments at UCLA and the University of Colorado) had this to say in his 1997 book, The Divine Conspiracy: rediscovering our hidden life in God:

…what is it, exactly, that we do when we condemn someone? When we condemn another we really communicate that he or she is, in some deep and possibly irredeemable way, bad – bad as a whole, and to be rejected. In our eyes the condemned is among the discards of human life. He or she is not acceptable. We sentence that person to exclusion. Surely we can learn to live well and happily without doing that. [emphasis added]

Mr. Willard expounds on this and its implications for several pages, every last bit of which is worth the read. His bottom line? Condemnation and criticism have terrible effects on us mentally and spiritually, whether we’re on the receiving end or (even) dishing it out. Psychologically, it’s as if we’ve been hit by a virus.

Political analysts and historians remind us of what we know to be true from personal experience: the criticism virus has been infecting those of us in Washington, DC for a long time. The reality is that the disease is not confined inside the Beltway. And it’s not confined to politicians. It infects the commercial world. Scientists – yes, even scientists! – also carry it. We all suffer from the malady. And it’s congenital; like that young child from Mississippi, we’re born with it.

But the state of politics in today’s Washington (the remaining two bullets in the list above) suggests that the virus now epidemic across Washington is a new and especially dangerous strain. It’s more a condemnation virus than a criticism virus; for purposes here, following the practice of our medical brethren, let’s label it the C-2 virus versus C-1.

(With some oversimplification), past political criticism was more about ideas, about policies. It stemmed from political differences about the best ways and means to maintain common values and shared ends. Congressman from both parties left their families back in their home districts, and when in Washington shared dormitory rooms near the Capitol. They played golf together on weekends. They bonded and built inter-personal trust even as they disagreed on policy matters.

Today’s political debates cut far deeper. Social change has members of Congress living with their families (a good thing!), going back to their constituencies on weekends (also good) versus staying here with their Congressional brethren (a tradition that’ll be missed). Trust is in corresponding measure endangered. Compromise is on the wane; combat is on the rise. The combatants (no longer mere debaters) tell us that their opponents are not just wrong-footed; they’re evil. They’re lawbreakers, guilty of pre-meditated crimes and impeachable offenses. They tell us that legislation needs an overlay of litigation.

The C-2 virus has much in common with HIV; by comparison, it makes the C-1 virus look like the common cold or at worst, the flu. Like HIV, C-2 is dangerous in three ways:

Deadly. First of all, C-2 looks to be lethal. Those infected believe that opponents must never be allowed to look effective or be seen to be making progress on any issue, whether immigration, or foreign policy, or health care, or national security, critical infrastructure, or jobs, or education and innovation. Both parties no longer see their task as to work for accommodation and compromise to identify and implement the best middle paths to these issues. Instead they obsess with setting up the party in power for failure (whether that party controls the White House, or the Senate, or the House of Representatives, for in fact this malady is bi-partisan). For example, Senate obstructionists work to ensure that the ranks of executive and judicial branches remain perpetually hollowed out, without a full complement of duly-selected leaders at the top. If that means that the country makes no progress on any national priorities for the next two or four or even six years, then so be it. If that means sacrificing America’s place in the world – as a financial or military superpower, or more importantly as the keeper of certain widely admired values, or even a national neighbor who can be relied upon in time of global crisis rather than tied up in domestic gridlock, then that’s how it must be.

Mutating. The obsession with condemnation is sweeping, and swiftly hops from issue to issue as each comes to public focus. There’s little concern with consistency; leaders of every stripe are criticized for inaction and then, when they do act, are criticized for their action. If they fail to consult, they’re criticized for being unresponsive; if they consult, they’re criticized for waffling or being indecisive. Every national concern, every political issue, is aggressively studied – less with an eye toward how it might be solved, but more in the hopes that it will open a new avenue for condemnation.

Taxing the immune system. As a result, every celebrity, every corporate leader, every political leader in the public eye with a job to do and a reputation to protect has had to put an increasing amount of his/her resources into building an apparatus for damage control – in effect, building the political equivalent of an immune system. That damage control can’t be confined to print news, or broadcast or cable television, or the internet and its range of social media. It’s got to deal with all the criticism and condemnation, instantaneously, and over the long haul. Small wonder that presidential press secretaries and their counterparts in every other arena experience burnout and walk away.

We’re all into condemnation: you, me, everyone we know, all seven billion of us. We suffer from C-2, we’re carriers of C-2, and we infect others with it. [In the spirit of not adding any further condemnation, let me emphasize: I’m not criticizing this state of affairs; just saying.]

Like HIV (at the moment), there’s no cure for C-2. But like HIV, there is a coping strategy. HIV is held at bay worldwide not so much because of retrovirals but because medical communities and governments have communicated the risk and built awareness of risky behaviors: unprotected sex, sharing needles in drug use, and more: actions that are largely under our control.

In the case of C-2, all you and I have to do is simply commit to not condemning others. Easier said than done, but again, largely under our control. And worth the effort, because when and if we step aside from condemning others, then their condemnation of us loses its control over our lives and spirit. And if we lapse (and we will), no matter; we simply recommit to such tolerance and acceptance, and start anew.

Good news for the rest of the week.

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Saving HAARP.

We value bio-diversity and try to preserve it. What about preserving diversity in innovation?

A news item from the July 2 Alaska Dispatch tells us that the US Air Force has postponed the closure of the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) until 2015.


From the article:

The Air Force said it will delay closing the $290 million HAARP site near Gakona until next spring, while scientists hoping to keep it from being torn down argue that the Air Force should leave diagnostic equipment in place.

Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force, wrote to Sen. Lisa Murkowski today that the agency will “defer irreversible dismantling of the transmitter site until May 2015.”

The Air Force planned to close the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program for good last month, but stopped after scientists from the University of Alaska and other research institutions objected to the proposed destruction of the facility. The letter from the Air Force put a new deadline on the shutdown, allowing time for a new operator to be found for the ionospheric research effort.

“We will proceed with removal of government property not essential to operations and seek to reduce maintenance costs through additional storage of equipment and winterization,” she said.

The HAARP work may not be familiar to many LOTRW readers. Here’s some additional background, excerpted from the relevant Wikipedia entry, …HAARP is an ionospheric research program jointly funded by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, the University of Alaska, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)… [whose] purpose is to analyze the ionosphere and investigate the potential for developing ionospheric enhancement technology for radio communications and surveillance. The HAARP program operates a major sub-arctic facility, named the HAARP Research Station, on an Air Force–owned site near Gakona, Alaska.

The most prominent instrument at the HAARP Station is the Ionospheric Research Instrument (IRI), a high-power radio frequency transmitter facility operating in the high frequency (HF) band. The IRI is used to temporarily excite a limited area of the Ionosphere. Other instruments, such as a VHF and a UHF radar, a fluxgate magnetometer, a digisonde (an ionospheric sounding device), and an induction magnetometer, are used to study the physical processes that occur in the excited region.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to enumerate some of the main scientific findings from HAARP as follows:

  1. Generating very low frequency radio waves by modulated heating of the auroral electrojet, useful because generating VLF waves ordinarily requires gigantic antennas
  2. Generating weak luminous glow (measurable, but below that visible with a naked eye) from absorbing HAARP’s signal
  3. Generating extremely low frequency waves in the 0.1 Hz range. These are next to impossible to produce any other way, because the length of a transmit antenna is dictated by the wavelength of the signal it must emit.
  4. Generating whistler-mode VLF signals that enter the magnetosphere and propagate to the other hemisphere, interacting with Van Allen radiation belt particles along the way
  5. VLF remote sensing of the heated ionosphere

In a word, HAARP is a unique capability allowing scientists not just to observe the ionosphere but to heat it, and then study the effects. HAARP converts a small portion of the ionosphere – a very interesting portion because of its high latitude and associated auroral activity – into a laboratory. The news piece suggests that the Air Force is extending funding of the main heater facility per se, but the associated diagnostics capabilities – essential to the scientific value of the facility – are being removed. Scientists and a range of research institutions and professional societies have been expressing dismay at the decision and seeking alternative sources of support.

Such program terminations are nothing new to science. In a way, scientists, who are in the business of change, shouldn’t be immune to change’s consequences. Better research opportunities arise. New avenues of work open up. Scarce resources can sometimes be better used elsewhere.

But could it be that we terminate scientific research too casually, too quickly? Much is made these days of the benefits of collocating research and business startups in an effort to stimulate innovation. Googling the expression “innovation incubators” offers links to countless such efforts underway around the globe. The idea is that such complexes energize those involved, juxtapose diverse creative efforts, and foster synergies that greatly accelerate the pace and quality of R&D, R2O, and business creation.


This calls to mind a rough correspondence or analogy with biodiversity and its role in the development and maintenance of ecosystems. Just as meteorologists have suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings can affect downstream weather, ecologists tell us that seemingly minor actors in ecosystems (that same butterfly?) can play a role in ecosystem health, and therefore the nature and value of ecosystem services out of all proportion to surface appearances. Biologists have also noted that many seemingly insignificant species may hold the key to pharmaceuticals that may help cure infections or suppress cancers and the like. This knowledge has prompted US and other governments to identify species threatened with extinction and use caution when it comes to pesticide and herbicide use and habitat destruction that might contribute to such extinctions (e.g., the Endangered Species Act passed into law under president Richard Nixon in 1973). Some of the listed species seem to untutored minds to be rather esoteric. We could speak of charismatic megafauna such as the big cats, or a host of amphibians; the lists are extensive. Instead, let’s just concentrate for now on a few endangered butterflies: a quick, unscientific sampling yields the Monarch butterfly, the Karner blue butterfly, the Callippe silverspot butterfly, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, Florida leafwing and Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterflies, the High Brown Fritillary butterfly (pictured above) … there’s much, much more, but you get the idea. (That’s a lot of weather modification!)

You and I would certainly argue that whatever the merits of preserving such life forms, and whatever the uncertainties attendant on their role in ecosystems and ultimately their importance to human affairs, that science is different. We created facilities such as HAARP; surely we can create them again if and when the need arises.

But here’s a cautionary tale, from personal experience (I was the villain in this piece, which nonetheless had a happy ending). My first management job in NOAA was running the Geoacoustics Research Program Area of NOAA’s Wave Propagation Laboratory in the early 1970’s. Our group developed, maintained and operated microbarograph arrays for the detection of atmospheric infrasound from sources around the world. We were funded by the U.S. Air Force (coincidentally, as is HAARP). The work dated back to the 1950’s. The main goal was to detect the distinctive acoustic signatures of above-ground nuclear tests and locate the sources and therefore the countries involved. Two months after I took over the group, the Air Force eliminated its support for the project; they had decided they could fully rely on the Vela satellites to do the monitoring job from space. We lost two-thirds of our funding and had to downsize the group from 17 to 7 people. We continued the research for years, however, studying the acoustic waves generated by seasonal events such tornadic storms, jet-stream airflow over mountain ranges in the winter hemisphere, and storms at sea (the latter known as so-called microbaroms).

Our data were recorded on old-fashioned analog paper strip charts, which we stored on the premises. Over time, as the mass of the accumulated records grew, civil engineers determined that in the event of a flood (our laboratories were located in the Boulder Creek floodplain), the building might become unstable and collapse, due solely to the weight of our paper (!). The records had to go.

Digital recording was coming into use at the time. I suggested to Al Bedard, the scientist in charge of the work, that he should destroy the paper records (surely no one in future years would be willing to go through the painstaking labor of analyzing the analog data when digital alternative data sets were available). Fortunately Al rejected my advice (closer to an order, actually; in those days I had a misplaced self-confidence about my abilities and role as the Branch Chief). Much as Moses’ Hebrew mother put him in a basket and floated him down the Nile in order to save him from death at the hand of the Egyptians, Al took all of the data – a few tons of it – and stored all the records at the Denver Arsenal (to this day, the image of Al moving all those strip charts into safekeeping interspersed among the nerve gas and the other ugly stuff haunts me still).

Fast forward several years. The nuclear test-ban treaty had put an end to above-ground testing. But some Swedish scientists announced that using their microbarograph array they could detect underground tests from the atmospheric infrasound generated (in the microbarom frequency range) by the associated seismic disturbances. Not long after, folks from certain US government agencies showed up on our doorstep. They asked Al how much it would cost to develop and deploy a new microbarograph array just to confirm or deny the Swedish results. Cost was of no object.

None of that would be necessary, Al said. All they had to do was furnish him the dates and times of underground tests they knew about, and he would do the analysis on the stored records and look for telltale signals. He went back to the Denver Arsenal, retrieved the pertinent strip charts, and in a few weeks confirmed that the Swedish monitoring claims had merit. Saved our government millions of dollars and months if not years of delay and uncertainty. Such geoacoustic monitoring continues at NOAA to this day.

You might be able to supply similar stories, both pro and con. Regardless, experience suggests we should close off avenues of research such as HAARP with reluctance and humility, knowing we’re reducing the diversity of innovation, which may matter to our future every bit as much as biodiversity.

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Speaking of Hill briefings (LOTRW, July 10), a July 9th briefing on the House side merits your attention. Congress Matt Cartwright (PA-17) took the lead… part of his effort to develop and introduce legislation to build national resilience to extreme events. He’s given his bill the title The PREPARE Act (Preparedness and Risk management for Extreme weather Patterns Assuring Resilience). Congressman Cartwright’s district includes much of northeastern Pennsylvania, which has seen its share of floods over the years, including, notably, Hurricane Diane in 1955[1] and Hurricane Gloria in 1985. The fixed-image below is from that latter event:


The work itself is in an early, formative stage (Mr. Cartwright is looking to drop the bill toward the end of the month), but there are elements about both the bill and Wednesday’s briefing to like. Let’s begin with the bill. The draft takes as its starting point the latest GAO High-Risk List, discussed in two LOTRW posts in February of 2013, highlighting the financial risk that unfunded, unanticipated disaster losses from extreme events pose to the United States. The bill recognizes that pre-event mitigation versus emergency response offers the biggest potential for payoff. The bill emphasizes federal agency coordination, and proposes a new Interagency Council to accomplish this purpose; perhaps one way to look at this is the Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction currently operated out of OSTP on steroids. But the bill doesn’t stop there; it stresses that public-private partnership at the local, community level is vital to success. It calls for federal agencies to more actively identify and develop working relationships with groups at state and local levels. In many ways this is consistent with Building Community Disaster Resilience through Private-Public Coordination and other recent NAS/NRC studies; and with emerging federal efforts such as the NOAA/NWS Weather-Ready Nation initiative. The American Meteorological Society has written a letter referencing the bill stating that it “strongly supports legislative efforts that will increase the resiliency of our nation to natural hazards of all types.”

For the briefing itself, Congressman Cartwright turned to both ends of the political spectrum, as well as the middle, and the private-sector as well as the public sector. His first panelist was Eli Lehrer, President and Founder of the R Street Institute, a think tank promoting free markets and limited, effective government. Richard Eidlin, Co-founder and Director for Business Engagement of the American Sustainable Business Council, was the second speaker. Speaking third was Shannon Sly, Senior Counsel, Marstel-Day, LLC, with a military background both in uniform and as a civilian, who described himself as apolitical. Congressman Cartwright and the speakers maintained an easy dialog as they stressed the importance and non-political nature of the challenge of preparing for extreme events. The Congressman seems to have quite a track record for working across the aisle and it showed in the discussion. Mr. Cartwright stressed at the briefing’s conclusion that the bill is very much a work in progress and invited people to reach out to Jeremy Marcus, his Deputy Chief of Staff and Legislative Director (, whom he credited with much of the work behind the bill, with requests for more information or for comments.

[1]You can find a video of the Hurricane Diane event here.

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A votre santé!

To your health!

Later today the American Meteorological Society will host a Capitol Hill briefing on healthcare continuity in the face of weather hazards. Look for Dr. Shali Mohleji, senior AMS Policy Fellow, in Room 430 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, beginning at 2:30 (Thursday afternoon, July 10, 2014). Dr. Mohleji will be joined by three distinguished speakers:

Neil Bryant, Vice President Support Services, Community Medical Center, Barnabas Health

Robin Guenther, Principal at Perkins+Will

Thomas Santos, Vice President, Federal Affairs, American Insurance Association

They’ll offer three complementary perspectives on the issue.

The presentations and discussion stem in large part from an AMS workshop held last October with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and summarized in a report:

A Prescription for the 21st Century: Improving Resilience to High-Impact Weather for Healthcare Facilities and Services

Here is some further background, excerpted from the AMS website:

Key Findings:

Healthcare facilities and services provide key underpinnings for a thriving community. Therefore, ensuring their resilience to high-impact weather is critical. High-impact weather events present a challenge in that they disrupt health facilities and services and decrease the ability to provide healthcare at a time when a community’s needs increase due to injuries and illness associated with the event. As more communities will emerge in areas vulnerable to high-impact weather, the need will grow for resilient healthcare facilities and services.

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) Policy Program conducted a workshop to explore ideas on increasing the resilience of healthcare facilities and services to high-impact weather events. In this report, we present a strategy for improving resilience that first understands the risks one faces, then resolves the vulnerabilities of health facilities, and finally, prepares for the continuity of health services. Each of these aspects provides a layer of resilience which, when added together, creates a health system that can remain intact and operational during and after a high-impact weather event.

To improve resilience, one must first understand their risks since increasing resilience essentially involves a series of actions to reduce risk. For healthcare facilities and services, both The Joint Commission accreditation process and property/business insurance serve as vehicles for risk management.

Health facilities can manage their risks through three different approaches aimed at reducing facility vulnerabilities.

1.              Hardening structures

2.              Incremental adaptations

3.              Innovative practices

The continuity of health services is crucial to resilience and requires that facilities have a management plan for their operations in the potential circumstance when capacity and capabilities are limited. Facilities lose their capacity when their resources are reduced such as dwindling medical supplies, pharmaceutical stocks, available beds, food, potable water, and even clean linens. Facilities lose their capability to provide health services when they lose critical services such as power, HVAC, and plumbing or when they have limited staff.

Two key ideas involve new conceptualizations. The first conceptualizes resilience as something that can be improved by means of successful risk management; the second conceptualizes redundant systems as a means to efficacy, not inefficiency.

See you there!

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Let freedom ring!

“In the end, more than they wanted 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 most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.” – Sir Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)[1]

What better sentiment for the Fourth of July?

So in the spirit of the day, as we venture out to the baseball game, fire up the grill, get together with family and friends, and look forward to an evening of fireworks, it might profit us to do two other things. To start, we can remember with gratitude those occasions where Americans before us met their freedom to be responsible… by defending democracy, free religion and speech, and other basic liberties and values in myriad ways, often at great cost. And then, we might reflect on some of the areas where our generation can exercise our own freedom to be responsible, for the benefit of those who’ll follow us.

Here’s a short, entirely notional, and admittedly incomplete list, to stimulate thought, offered in the hope that you’ll comment/make your more salient additions for the rest of us to consider.

The freedom to build responsibly in the face of hazards. As hurricane Arthur roars up the east coast, we can breath a sigh of relief that it hasn’t proven more intense and that it’s struck only a glancing blow. But we don’t have to look back far, to Katrina or Ike or Irene or Sandy, to remember that our historic land use and building codes have given us a freedom to build irresponsibly… in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. And it’s not just hurricanes: earthquakes, flood, drought also reveal additional vulnerabilities. We know how to do better. We’re free to do so.

The freedom to maintain our basic critical infrastructure. The July 4th weekend provides occasion for travel by road and air. The June 28 print edition of The Economist notes that America is underinvesting in infrastructure for both these forms of transportation. Interestingly, it highlights the responsibility of states as well as the federal government to make these investments.

The Economist article makes no mention of the critical infrastructure supporting Earth observations, science, and services, but Hurricane Arthur reminds us that it could have. Evacuate the coast ahead of the storm? Or stay to see the wild, chaotic beauty it will bring? Such decisions hinge on an ability to observe, forecast and warn, including getting right the risks – all the impacts and the uncertainties. The same logic applies to what policies we should be adopting in the face of the current drought in the west. How long will it endure? How severe and widespread will it be? And what about the threats posed by climate variability and change? Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson and Tom Steyer’s recent Risky Business report reminds us that the economic costs of doing nothing will likely prove substantial. On another front, new data show increases in earthquake frequency associated with fracking. What should our response be to that? America has gotten off the farm. We now live in virtual, air-conditioned climates provided by urban centers; in the process we’ve lost our visceral feel for the state of food and water supplies, and environmental conditions. Our information on these matters is now at best second or third hand. In place of that hands-on experience, Earth observations, science, and services have become critical to navigating these issues. We assume this information is adequate and reliable, just as we take highways and air travel for granted. But in both respects, this confidence is unwarranted.

The freedom to innovate. Each generation has both the freedom and responsibility to not only maintain but also reinvent America. The challenge is to preserve those attributes that match our deepest human yearnings while remaking and refreshing them to accommodate history and changed social context. In that regard, both public and higher education need complete makeovers. They should be more affordable, more accessible, more adaptive, and more able to equip large numbers of individuals and nations for the jobs that will be available and for the profound decisions that future publics must make. Health care needs continued reworking. So do our ideas on immigration, as well as our basic understanding of what makes for national security in the face of threats as diverse as the conflicts raging across the middle East, Africa, and the Crimea and other risks such as those posed by public health; food, water, and energy shortages; or even that represented by globalization of commerce and markets occurring against a patchwork quilt of national regulations and policies.

Finally, the freedom to love and respect one another. Happily, Americans come in all flavors. On this July 4th we have both the freedom and responsibility to accept and accommodate each other, and to balance our independence with our interdependence. We have the freedom to celebrate diversity; our culture and heritage doesn’t limit or confine us to any single, monochromatic, narrow, stultifying group.  We have the freedom to give love rather than simply expect or demand it from others – starting within our own families, and extending to the larger society.

Cue some music? For July 4th, how about this number… Land of Dreams, composed by Rosanne Cash (Johnny’s eldest daughter) and John Leventhal, and performed by Ms. Cash with a little help from their friends.

[1] Thinking you’ve seen this quote before? Perhaps it was from the LOTRW Independence Day post of 2011.

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