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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The value of Earth Observations, Science and Services – about to skyrocket.

“I can feel guilty about the past, apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” – Abraham Maslow[1]

“Let people realize clearly that every time they threaten someone or humiliate or unnecessarily hurt or dominate or reject another human being, they become forces for the creation of psychopathology, even if these be small forces. Let them recognize that every person who is kind, helpful, decent, psychologically democratic, affectionate, and warm, is a psychotheraputic force, even though a small one.” – Abraham Maslow


What is the worth of Earth observations, science and services? The world wants answers to this question, and is poised to step up its efforts.

Compelling forces drive this new interest. We’ll examine this in a later post, but first we need some background. A good place to start is the mid-20th-century work of the psychologist Abraham Maslowe, and his groundbreaking “hierarchy of needs.” The relevant material from Wikipedia serves to give you the idea. Here are some excerpts, taken verbatim:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization at the top. While the pyramid has become the de facto way to represent the hierarchy, Maslow himself never used a pyramid to describe these levels in any of his writings on the subject.

The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these “deficiency needs” are not met – with the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. Maslow also coined the term “metamotivation” to describe the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for constant betterment…

Physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met, the human body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail. Physiological needs are thought to be the most important; they should be met first.

Air, water, and food are metabolic requirements for survival in all animals, including humans. Clothing and shelter provide necessary protection from the elements. While maintaining an adequate birth rate shapes the intensity of the human sexual instinct, sexual competition may also shape said instinct…

…With their physical needs relatively satisfied, the individual’s safety needs take precedence and dominate behavior. In the absence of physical safety – due to war, natural disaster, family violence, childhood abuse, etc. – people may (re-)experience post-traumatic stress disorder or transgenerational trauma. In the absence of economic safety – due to economic crisis and lack of work opportunities – these safety needs manifest themselves in ways such as a preference for job security, grievance procedures for protecting the individual from unilateral authority, savings accounts, insurance policies, reasonable disability accommodations, etc. This level is more likely to be found in children because they generally have a greater need to feel safe…

…After physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the third level of human needs is interpersonal and involves feelings of belongingness…

…All humans have a need to feel respected; this includes the need to have self-esteem and self-respect. Esteem presents the typical human desire to be accepted and valued by others…

… the perceived need for self-actualization… refers to what a person’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. Individuals may perceive or focus on this need very specifically. For example, one individual may have the strong desire to become an ideal parent. In another, the desire may be expressed athletically. For others, it may be expressed in paintings, pictures, or inventions. As previously mentioned, Maslow believed that to understand this level of need, the person must not only achieve the previous needs, but master them.

Whew! A lot to absorb. Of course Maslow’s work and writings merit a fuller look, and in their original published form. It also should be said that his work has had its critics, and that the scholarship of these subjects has moved on. But the criticism has largely focused on particulars of the hierarchial levels, especially the ones at the top of the pyramid. What you see here is sufficient for our next step.

Maslow was a psychologist. He was writing and thinking about individuals. But perhaps it’s not too great a leap to see that his hierarchy would apply to societies, or to the world’s population of seven billion people. We would discover that taken as a whole, humankind’s primary needs are air, water, and food, and then safety. The story of human success over the past ten thousand years, and especially the past century or so, is that after hundreds of thousands of years of trying, we moved past this point up the hierarchy, to reach the point where the hierarchy could even be articulated, much less appreciated and debated and refined.

Most of us in the developed world now take these foundational needs for granted. We spend most all of our time and energy operating at the various higher levels of the hierarchy. Only a relative handful in our economy are needed to take care of the essentials: grow our food, maintain adequate supplies of potable, inexpensive water, ensure that energy supply is reliable, and so on. The rest of us can develop and profit from the information explosion, virtual reality, and production of all manner of goods and services that matter only at this higher plane. Accordingly, we’re creating wealth and expanding possibilities at an unprecedented rate.

Today, however, that ample, reliable, inexpensive supply of breathable air, potable water, and food that is essential foundation for all of human aspirations and endeavor is under threat. Earth observations, science, and services form critical infrastructure for navigating this problematic future.

More on this in the next post.

[1] Abraham Maslow was a veritable font of great quotes. For a larger sample, look here.

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The transcendent value of Valuation

“In the spring a young economist’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of… valuation.”

 “Valuations are nothing, but Valuation is everything.”

(with apologies all around, but especially to Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dwight David Eisenhower.)


We’re told that today is the first day of spring, and it certainly seems that valuation is in the air. A NASA research solicitation on the subject will close in the next few days. March 10-11, the GEOValue community held a workshop in Paris under OECD auspices on Data to Decisions: Valuing the Social benefits of Environmental Information. NOAA has also been active. NOAA held its own workshop on valuation on March 3. NOAA’s IOOS Program commissioned a report on the Ocean Enterprise: A study of U.S. business activity in ocean measurement, observation, and forecasting which came out last month. Some in the meteorological community, long interested in characterizing the size of the American weather enterprise, have been examining the report as a possible model for their industry.

We’re all constantly in the business of estimating or setting the value of people, products, services, actions, principles – ranging across the entirety of our work, play, and even worship. These estimates govern how and to whom and what we allocate our time, spend our money, devote our attention. For the most part – virtually all the time – we’re doing this so rapidly and with respect to so many dimensions of our lives simultaneously that the process is instinctive, unthinking, subconscious. Economists, of all the professional disciplines, have done the best job of identifying this process for what it is and showing that it can teased into the open and be targeted for formal study.

In my world, a lot of the attention is focused less on the value of externalities to us and more on our community’s value to others. What is the worth of Earth observations, science, and services to society? The worth of satellite platforms and instruments? Surface networks? Radar systems? Better numerical weather prediction? And so on. The motivations are several, and each would merit a book in itself. However, behind much of the effort is the idea that Earth observations, science, and services are fundamental to society’s well-being, but the world takes these services for granted, undervalues them, and so is failing to make the investments needed to sustain our forecasts for weather-sensitive sectors of the economy, or warnings of hazards, or early detection of degraded environmental and ecosystem services. We think – if only society realized how much it depended on us! Then we’d enjoy the financial support we need to maintain our observations and modeling, and build our capacity, keeping pace with growing societal demands. Our work would take its rightful place among worldwide efforts to eradicate poverty, improve public health and safety, and promote geopolitical stability. In fact, the world would see that we contribute fundamentally to all these goals.

This thought process has given rise to numerous studies over past decades. Unfortunately, they haven’t commanded much respect. Economists could give their own better list of reasons, but here are a few illustrations of the challenges.

  • Many of the studies are anecdotal, or focused on a single business – for example, farmers in a county or counties managing a single crop using forecasts in the context of a particular regional weather or climate event. It’s very difficult to meaningfully aggregate such studies to derive a larger picture. Critics say: they lack saliency.
  • Some of the studies make broad, sweeping assertions, such as “one third of the US economy is weather-sensitive.” This begs a number of questions: “how-sensitive?” or “what would be the economic impact of better forecasts?” or “aren’t all sectors of the economy weather sensitive, but to varying degrees?” Critics say: They lack credibility.
  • Some studies are conducted or funded by individuals or institutions who stand to gain from favorable conclusions. Critics say: They lack legitimacy.

Lurking in the background are other, more fundamental challenges.

1. Cost-studies are difficult enough. For example, to estimate the cost of weather forecasts when the satellite observing system (a major expense) is also used for oceanographic studies, or for monitoring land use and surface vegetation, is problematic. What fraction of the observing system cost should be allocated to each task, and why? But benefit studies are trickier still. The calculated benefits assume a given policy/regulatory framework. Changing that framework can produce sweeping changes in the total benefit, and the allocation of that benefit across society that dwarf any changes likely from incremental technology advance. A simple example, one of many: much of the watershed management across this country is based solely on reservoir water levels. In this circumstance, the value of several-day or week-long precipitation outlooks is zero, no matter what the forecast skill.

2. This is where the transcendent part comes in…. Again, just one example: take the value of the science and its role in bringing to light the recent water-quality tragedy in Flint, Michigan. Does the value extend to health and lives of those actually drinking the water? Most certainly. How to estimate stakes in the value of the lives represented? Such value is difficult to monetize – indeed it goes beyond the monetary. More difficult, but economists have done a lot of thinking about all that. But suppose Earth observations, science, and services been used in time and in a way to forestall the event completely. What would have been the additional value in removing one bone of contention in this year’s divisive political season? And suppose that a slightly more civil tone in US politics were to improve correspondingly the US standing in the world. What could have been the value of that over the 21st century? We won’t ever know.

Increasingly, however, that kind of wisdom needs to become part and parcel of our individual and corporate thinking.

And that’s why, in this spring season, and indeed in all seasons, there can never be enough of Tennyson’s love, Eisenhower’s planning, and … economists’ valuation.

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Theory X, Theory Y, and the genesis of red tape in science.

“Suppose you’re running a widget factory. You can measure, very quickly, whether a man [sic] is working effectively or not by the number of widgets he’s making hour-by-hour, or day-by-day, and what you see him doing at the widget machine. But if you’re supervising a scientist, it’s much harder to tell. He might have his feet up on the desk or be looking out the window, but still be incredibly productive at that moment. Or he might appear busy at the blackboard or with pen and paper, but really be thinking about something else. You won’t be able to tell for sure for weeks. You’d better hope he’s self-motivated.” – my father, Robert Hooke (at the dinner table, sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s)[1].

Robert Hooke 1918-2003

Robert Hooke 1918-2003

Congress seems to be taking a Theory X approach to management of science and scientists. Scientists are pushing back. That’s not good for either side, or for the country. Some quiet conversation and resolution might be helpful.

Here’s some background/context, starting with my dad and the “quote” above.

My father was a research mathematician. After getting his Ph.D. from Princeton, he worked by turns as an academic, a civilian federal employee at the Pentagon, and ultimately in the private sector – where he ran the mathematics department of the Westinghouse Research Laboratories for two decades. The discourse quoted above had a practical, homegrown feel. He seemed to be sharing ideas he’d formulated on his own, from experience. But years later, in 1973, as a wet-behind-the-ears federal first-level supervisor, I would be re-introduced to these ideas more formally at a five-day short course. The speaker acquainted us with the groundbreaking work of Douglas McGregor, a professor at the MIT Sloan School. McGregor articulated these ideas in terms of two approaches to management which he termed Theory X and Theory Y. It’s hard to improve on the Wikipedia summary of these two approaches, which is repeated here:

Douglas McGregor 1906-1964

Douglas McGregor 1906-1964

Theory X considers that on the whole, workers dislike their work, and have little inherent motivation to perform well. Therefore, if organizational goals are to be met, ‘Theory X’ managers must rely heavily on detailed rules and instructions, on close monitoring, and on the threat of punishment to gain employee compliance. When practiced, this theory can lead to mistrust, highly restrictive supervision and a punitive atmosphere. The ‘Theory X’ manager believes that all actions should be traced and the responsible individual given a direct reward or a reprimand according to the action’s outcomes. This managerial style is more effective when used to motivate a workforce that is not inherently motivated to perform. It is usually exercised in professions where promotion is infrequent, unlikely or even impossible and where workers perform repetitive tasks. A flaw of this management style is that it limits the employee’s potential and discourages creative thinking.

Theory Y, in contrast, is based on the belief that, given appropriate working conditions, most people perform well. The worker is considered as the most important asset of the company. It is believed that workers can derive satisfaction from their physical and mental work, viewing it as a game or as something to be enjoyed. Workers can take responsibility and can solve problems in a creative way, so that they do not need to be shadowed constantly; workers will commit to objectives in proportion to the satisfaction they get from achieving them. Thus, Theory Y managers consider that to achieve the objectives of the company, they must treat each worker as a mature and responsible individual, and adopt a style of participatory, democratic leadership, based on self-direction and self-control and requiring little external control.

Management theory has of course moved on from these earlier ideas. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to look at the history of policy for science here in the United States and its latest twists and turns through the Theory X/Theory Y prism. The narrative begins with the Constitution. The preamble sets forth government’s purposes:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, drills down further with respect to science:

“Congress shall have the power to… promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries…”

Thus the Constitution affirms the importance of science and at the same time assigns to Congress responsibility for fostering it. It’s clear that at the time, patent protection, by itself, was thought to be a sufficient policy measure[2].

At the end of World War II, the nation decided that the patent system wasn’t the only policy incentive needed to foster innovation. Congress increased funding for research and created new funding agencies. The most notable of these was the National Science Foundation. U.S. Public Law 89-507 (1950), establishing NSF, reads:

“to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…”

So far, so good. If anything, feels like Theory Y.

Now fast-forward to 2016. The U.S. House of Representatives has recently proposed (H.R. 3293, Scientific Research in the National Interest Act, 114th Congress, Second Session), in the name of “greater accountability in federal funding for research,” the following language:


The National Science Foundation shall award Federal funding for basic research and education in the sciences through a new research grant or cooperative agreement only if an affirmative determination is made by the Foundation under sub-section (b) and written justification relating thereto is published under subsection (c).

(b) DETERMINATION. A determination referred to in subsection (a) is a justification by the responsible Foundation official as to how the research grant or cooperative agreement promotes the progress of science in the United States, consistent with the Foundation mission as established in the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 (42 U.S.C. 1861 et seq.), and further—

       (1) is worthy of Federal funding;

       (2) is consistent with established and widely accepted scientific methods applicable to the field of study of exploration;

       (3) is consistent with the definition of basic research as it applies to the purpose and field of study; and

       (4) is in the national interest, as indicated by having the potential to achieve—

             (A) increased economic competitiveness in the United States;

             (B) advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;

             (C) development of an American STEM workforce, including computer science and information technology sectors, that is globally competitive;

             (D) increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States;

             (E) increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States;

             (F) support for the national defense of the United States; or

             (G) promotion of the progress of science for the United States.

(c) WRITTEN JUSTIFICATION. Public announcement of each award of Federal funding described in subsection (a) shall include a written justification from the responsible Foundation official as to how a grant or cooperative agreement meets the requirements of subsection (b).”

Congress seems to be saying: if national goals are to be met, NSF needs more detailed rules and instructions. Closer monitoring; tracing of all actions. An implied hint of punishment for failure to comply. The legislation has a Theory X feel.

Not surprisingly, given the rancorous nature of the times, there has been pushback. For example, you can find a response from President Obama’s OSTP Director John Holdren here. Much of the pushback has been along party lines.

But in reality, all parties – members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, NSF leaders, and academic researchers – should have a shared interest in walking-back this measure.

Not pushing it back; walking it back. Together.

Here’s why. To start, NSF program managers and academics certainly aren’t willfully and deliberately trying to fund research that won’t promote scientific progress and national benefit. But it’s also true that Congress isn’t proposing these rules simply to make mischief. At least some members have genuine concerns. What’s more, scientists should always see there’s room to improve the allocation of scarce research dollars to the most beneficial purposes. They should want Congress that’s interested and engaged and paying attention to that allocation. But here’s the paramount danger – the reason we have to step away from the confrontation: as noted earlier, the Theory X approach “limits the employee’s (in this case, the scientific community’s) potential and discourages creative thinking.” Innovation is vitally important to the United States and its continuing place in world affairs. The evidence is innovation is fragile – easier to kill than to foster[3]. The longer Congress feels the need to impose more detailed oversight, and the longer scientists continue to do no more than resist, the more likely U.S. science will start on a downward spiral in effectiveness that none of us can risk.

The path forward would seem simple – involving less effort, not more. Scientists, both at NSF and in the university community, instead of getting defensive about the proposed legislation, should develop ways and means to open a more productive dialog with Congress, listening to Congressional concerns and working collaboratively to develop alternatives to this section of H.R. 3293. Congress, for its part, might consider broadening the ways it receives input from scientists and their institutions on these matters. Both sides should favor a conversation addressing shared values and goals – and digging into how and the why innovation is essential to accomplishing the national agenda – rather than getting mired in scientific details. To reemphasize; this conversation will require less effort than fighting. The hard part will be getting the right players to the table; from there, it should be downhill.


A closing vignette. Some years later my father announced in another dinnertime conversation that Westinghouse Research Laboratories had put its scientists on the clock. “You know,” he said, “up until that time, all the scientists put in far more than their nominal forty hours a week. But after the corporate headquarters made them punch in and punch out, their hours – and their productivity – dropped precipitously.” This innovation drop would contribute to the decline that eventually put Westinghouse Electric Corporation out of business.

[1] This isn’t an exact quote, but is pretty close. It certainly captures the spirit of what he was saying one night at the dinner table. An aside: in the language of the time, “man” in such a generic statement could mean “man or woman.” Today we’d say it differently. Women were relatively rare in science back then, but my dad knew several. One who was frequently the subject of his admiration and discussion at our dinner table was Gertrude Mary Cox, a statistician who founded the experimental statistics department at N.C. State in 1940. My father got his first job there in 1941. He was an algebraist at the time; she and others were influential in encouraging him to switch his attention to statistics. Changed his life forever, and by extension my brother’s life (he would get a Cornell Ph.D. in operations research and then go on to a distinguished career at Bell Labs) and mine. In the 1950’s, Gertrude Cox would be instrumental in helping to establish the Research Triangle Institute – the seed that has grown today into North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

[2]Years later, Abraham Lincoln (apparently the only president in our history to apply for and be granted a patent) would have this to say: “The patent system… added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” We’re told he thought the discovery of America was the most important development in world history, followed by the invention of printing and third by patent laws.

[3] The World War II experience provides an extreme but compelling illustration of the importance of motivation in the progress of science. Both the United States and Germany raced to build the atomic bomb. Evidence was that German scientists were every bit as intelligent as their Allied counterparts. However, knowing the use to which the bomb would be put by their leaders, they just didn’t have their hearts in the work.


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(living on the) Real-World reset.


Seven weeks have passed since the previous LOTRW post. For the world’s billions, life has gone on. LOTRW’s silence has prompted no notice, no public outcry. The sun has continued to rise in the east. Here in the United States, attention has instead been riveted on the presidential primaries, where the governing reality has been substantially different from the physical, social, and yes, spiritual realities imposed by the Earth, its atmosphere, and oceans. Nevertheless, it feels right to pick things back up. The pause has provided opportunity for reflection and renewal. World events continue to offer daily fodder for comment.


An aside: LOTRW has been alive and active since August of 2010 – some 740 posts over that period of some 2000 days. That works out to a post every three days, on average, even including the seven-week hiatus.


The governing truth seems to be something like this: When it comes down to Earth system realities versus human inclinations, the Earth system realities ultimately win any war. But in every battle until the last, those realities will be trumped (so to speak) by short-run political imperatives[1].

Intermittently though, and always sooner or later, politicians and publics return to the challenges posed by the limits to natural resources, the threats posed by natural hazards, and the vital but fragile nature of ecosystem services.

That prospect should strengthen your resolve and mine. The world’s peoples are counting on the small minority of us who make these matters our primary concern, who look to the temporal and global horizon for early signs of opportunity and developing societal risk, to do our jobs. The funding may not always be adequate (the world is in financially straitened circumstances if you haven’t noticed). We won’t always be listened to. And when we do get the world’s attention, it won’t usually shower us with thanks or approval. We are not immune to the dysfunction and frustrations of the society in which we’re embedded. (Truth be told, being humans ourselves we sometimes contribute to the larger malfunction.) But we still have to do our jobs. And our jobs matter.

Amid the fear and hope and aspiration and vexations of our lives we occasionally encounter moments of grace allowing us to experience some measure of satisfaction with our efforts. Not incidentally, for me, the experience is a daily sense of wonder that I get to work with all of you… and by extension to be part of a much larger community of equally special, dedicated people I have yet to know personally. Let’s keep it up.

Since we’re pressing the reset button, perhaps it’s appropriate to re-publish the very first LOTRW post, dated August 3, 2010. Given that you and I have trouble remembering bullet points from the conference talk we heard last week, or the plot of the book we finished in January, or the pastors’ sermon from two days ago, chances are good this will seem new. If you have time and inclination, ask yourself whether the overall focus of the blog remains (or ever was) salient, whether the blog has remained true to the early vision, whether the contributions have been positive or negative. You might go further and consider how it might be improved. For extra credit, you could share a comment one way or another along those lines. Please weigh in. If you do, I’ll be grateful. Maybe others would be as well.

With that, here’s the republished first post:


 “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.”

Charles Darwin, The Origins of Man, Chapter 6

Darwin’s reflection introduces this blog for several reasons. First, the world has just celebrated the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth. He’s been on our minds. And in the process, we’ve been reminded that he was not just (stereotype alert!) a great scientist, but a complex, human figure, in many respects very much like you and me.

Second, and far more substantively, “the progress of science” is highly germane to our lives today, when science has shouldered a high-profile role in real-world affairs. We should care about the progress of science!

That hasn’t always been the case. Look to the past. For most of human experience – dating back a few hundred thousand years, give or take – science has been a mere sideline. The thought processes of scientists weren’t all that well publicized, and indeed weren’t all that rigorous.

Take the great physicians Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca.370 BC) and Galen (ca 130 AD – ca 200 AD). Hippocrates saw disease as a product of environment, diet, and lifestyle (no germ theory there, but at least a germ of truth), while Galen supposed that the function of the heart was to heat the body (consistent with the cooling of bodies to room temperature after death but otherwise grossly misleading). The two of them, and others of ancient times, were developing the rudiments of “the scientific method” even as they tried to draw conclusions about the nature of the real world. Back then, and even up until the last century or so, science was largely privately supported. Science was the hobby of those rich enough to indulge, or those willing to live in poverty in order to “support their habit.” Darwin himself was apparently largely funded by his father, enjoying only intermittent support from other sources. His studies at Cambridge were aimed at preparing him to be an Anglican parson.

Private support had disadvantages, but one advantage it offered was that scientists of independent means were answerable largely to themselves alone, and were accordingly free to pursue their own interests, on their own schedule.

Increasingly, though, science (and its next-of-kin, technology) started to matter. Governments began funding research and development, first in an ad hoc manner, and then under a more formal policy framework. World War II is often cited as a milestone, although the United States and other nations certainly had prior policies toward science. But today, by any measure, science is big[1]. And because science is today pivotal in human affairs, it joins all those other salient things, and ideas, and ways of business; it becomes a subject for public debate and argument (as Darwin suggests). Today, science is contentious. Not just views but facts are in dispute. And scientists owe it to the public, who is footing the bill, to engage, and to favor certain topics over others, and to recognize that some research is rather urgent. We can’t remain aloof – or loaf along.

The third reason this quote leads off? Rather more personal. I first ran across this line back around 1970 when it introduced Palmen and Newton’s new book, Atmospheric Circulation Systems. Maybe Darwin’s observation didn’t change my life, but it has certainly sharpened my thought. Up to that time (and I already had earned my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago by then), I’d been inculcated with the idea that the greatest shame a scientist can bring on himself or herself is to be wrong, or mistaken, or errant, especially in print. Here was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived not exactly contradicting that idea, but at least making it more nuanced, loosening it up a bit.

Perhaps five years later, this notion was reinforced. I happened to be in the seminar room of NOAA’s Boulder research labs when Doug Lilly, one of the better scientists in our field, and today a member of the National Academy of Sciences, said, with a trademark grin, in the middle of a talk on his latest work, “…I’m not going to justify this next step, but I’m going to tell you what I did.”

!!! There I sat, still thinking everything a scientist ever could say in public or write in print had to be right, had to be unassailable – totally supported by both evidence and reason. But here was an intellect I greatly respected relaxing that constraint, saying that you could comingle fact and conjecture; you just had to label each for what it was. Doug was alerting us. On the one hand, he was saying: look, if you take this step at this point in the rationale, see what it allows you do. And at the same time he was saying listen up! What follows no longer has the same status or foundation as that which has come before. Here’s an opportunity for you to do your own thinking, your own research. Here’s a new problem to fret through! It was splendid, particularly when I realized everyone in the room thought the more of him for that – not less.

Of course by that time I was no longer doing science so much as managing or leading it. (Problem solved? In the cynical view of many bench scientists, and indeed many people of every profession and walk of life, bosses seem less troubled by distinctions between facts and views, matters of honesty and integrity, and so on. The reality as I experienced it for more than three decades is rather different. One of the greatest challenges managers and leaders face is that of distinguishing in their speech between facts and views, being clear on each, speaking truth to power…)

This quote has never left me over the years. I’ve repeated it hundreds of times to colleagues and friends as an introduction to whatever I would say next. It is both confession and encouragement.

What, then, is its connection to the blog?

Quite simply this…now that we’ve all had a decade of experience with blogs, we’ve seen that they can take a range of forms, but that at their best they provide a platform for putting forth views, as well as facts. They are also collaborative. Blogs and their embodied ideas create the opportunity for others to “take salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.” They’re better suited to incubating (often speculative) ideas than to archiving established truths.

So if you’ll read this blog from time to time, you will mostly find “views, supported by some evidence.” I’ll be trying my best to steer clear of false views, but I’ll admit at the outset that the views presented here, being views, are flawed, and can not just stand a little improvement, but cry out for it, and call for refinement, and on occasion outright rejection…these are the advances and contributions that only you can make, not just in any responses you may throw in here, though those are needed, but also in your broader work and discourse. On this blog, on these topics, it is more important to be stimulating than right.

Topics? Just what is the purview of this blog? To get a better feel, you might click on “About” The first few posts will also focus on purview and purpose. But in a few words, we human beings – all seven billion of us – have a destiny that is intertwined with that of the Earth itself, a planet (and its associated ocean, and atmosphere, and life). The real world is at one and the same time:

–         a resource,

–         a victim, and

–         a threat.

Given these realities, perhaps it would be to our advantage to think rather more, and rather more realistically, about this complicated and important relationship – and to be more deliberate in the way we translate thought into decision and action – as individuals, institutions, and nations.

This blog, and those of us who contribute to and read it, will explore these realities and their implications, and options for coping (which are providentially themselves very real, and accessible). Perhaps in this way we can help make a better (real) world, for ourselves and for those who follow.


[1] Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse gives the flavor.

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The 2016 AMS Annual Meeting, 3-fold problems, and Martin Luther King

If a man is thirty-seven years old, as I am, and compromises what he believes in or knows to be true just because he wants to live a little longer or a little more comfortably, then he may live until he’s eighty-seven, but his physical death is merely a belated announcement of a much earlier death of the spirit. – Martin Luther King, Jr. (ca 1966)[1].


Martin Luther King would have been 87 years old this weekend. We’ve arrived.

1966 was also the year that he set up a family residence in Chicago and continued his (ultimately successful) protests against de facto segregation and poor conditions in Chicago public schools. As part of Dr. King’s campaign he made a speech to a crowd assembled at what is now the Midway Plaisance Park area of the south side of Chicago, adjacent to the University of Chicago campus. I was a graduate student at the university then, and the chance was too good to miss. Out of curiosity as much as anything else, I strolled the several blocks to be part of the throng, and worked my way up to perhaps within 100 feet of the great man.

Wouldn’t you know it! In the middle of his compelling speech that afternoon he said this: “A lot of you are here just out of curiosity. But will you be with us tomorrow when we march on City Hall?”

Called out! I felt strongly (as did probably half the people in that crowd) that he was looking at me directly when he said that. Of course I (and thousands of others) did go that next day. The march resulted in the ouster of then Superintendent of Schools Benjamin Willis.

What’s that to do with the 2016 AMS Annual Meeting, just concluded? And with three-fold problems? Here’s the thread. (Please bear with me…)

One salient feature of this year’s meeting was a strong, sustained showing, and a single, compelling message, from NOAA and U.S. Department of Commerce leadership, extending up to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. The NOAA team came early and stayed late. Throughout they focused on water as a defining 21st century challenge and shared with attendees the steps NOAA is taking across the board to meet the challenge. These steps started close to home – with honing NOAA observations and models for predicting the hydrologic cycle, regionally and short-range, extending out through seasonal and interannual-, and through to decadal and centennial global outlooks. But they extended to NOAA’s special responsibilities for coastal water forecasts and management, and to NOAA’s efforts to strengthen collaboration and partnerships with dozens of federal agencies, as well as hundreds of state and local agencies, international groups, and private-sector firms also working the problem.

The NOAA engagement energized the meeting. But in most sessions, the attention would quickly turn to a larger, more complicated, threefold problem: the food-energy-water nexus. The three resource challenges are joined at the hip. Agriculture requires immense quantities of fresh water, and energy in the form of fertilizers (and that needed to drive irrigation). Electrical utilities need water to cool the steam and other working fluids driving turbines. Desalination of sweater requires immense amounts of energy, and so on. We all recall from public school algebra that threefold problems such as

x +y + z = 10

x -y+2z =   9

3x +y – z = 4

must be solved simultaneously; they can’t be considered in isolation. A look at the first equation by itself might allow someone to think that maybe the solution was x=7, y=2, z=1. But the only integer solution satisfying all three equations is x=2, y=3, z=5.

This is a new challenge for humankind. (With some oversimplification – but only some) throughout the entirety of human experience until the present day, it sufficed to consider these three resource questions in isolation. The challenge going forward is, forever, far more demanding.

As highlighted in this blog, and in the book by the same name, the food-energy-water challenge is nested within a more general threefold challenge: dealing with Earth as a resource-, threat-, and victim. Meeting our resource needs? A big problem. Building resilience to hazards? Equally demanding. Protecting the environment and ecosystems? A struggle. But meeting our resource needs while building resilience to hazards and while protecting the environment and ecosystems is far more difficult than working on any of these three in isolation. In fact, in an ultimate sense, it’s an impossibility. Sooner or later, entropy wins. The best we can do, through continuous innovation, is buy ourselves time. The good news is, that much like the diabetic who relies on insulin, we’ve so far been pretty good at innovation, and so when it comes to time, we can probably buy lots of it.

This brings us back full circle to Dr. Martin Luther King, and a final threefold reality, also addressed in LOTRW, the book. It’s not enough to focus on physical realities alone: the physical sciences and technology. There’s an equally important, equally ironclad, immutable set of social realities that must be satisfied at the same time: the way our individual brains are wired and they way we engage each other in groups.

Many people try to stop there. They point to social realities as the reason science and technology fail to solve problems of poverty, disease, and hunger – and the abuse and anger and terrorism and wars they foment. They’re satisfied to first “explain” and then curse the darkness.

The power of Dr. King’s ministry to us while on this Earth was to remind us of a third set of realities: the spiritual. But there’s a unique difference here. In the earlier threefold problems, each additional consideration constrains the other, making the problem more difficult, in some cases intractable. But as Dr. King, and others, dating back to Jesus and even further, have pointed out – in this latter, transcendent threefold problem, the third spiritual factor is actually liberating, offering a way out.

Something to contemplate on Martin Luther King Day… maybe even integrating into a weekly rather than an annual rhythm. Depending upon our professions, you and I either spend a lot of time getting the physical realities straight, or the social realities straight, or perhaps muddling through a blend of both. We’d do well to balance that with equal attention to getting our heads right spiritually. We can give this a try alone, but it works better at the church, synagogue, or mosque of our choice.

That would refresh Martin Luther King’s (still living!) spirit.


[1]See the January 17, 2011 LOTRW post for further particulars on this “quote.” I’m still searching for the source/citation. Perhaps you have it and could share! In the meantime, in one of those pranks our brains play with us, I’m somewhat sure it’s close to verbatim… but more confident of the numbers 37 and 87… though that could be wrong as well. For the LOTRW memorials to Dr. King over succeeding years, click here.

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The 2016 AMS Annual Meeting. Big Data.

Every year, I look forward to coming to the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting. Some of the motivation remains the same year to year. But there’s always something additional, something new, something that makes the blood sing.

This year? For me personally? It’s the encounter between the AMS community and Big Data. Both have been around a while. The AMS traces its history back almost a century. By that standard, Big Data is a relative newcomer, but you’ve been seeing the impact for years on your computer… for example, in those ads on your Facebook page tailored to you (in my case, Rockport shoes, Viking cruises, and my stepson’s bicycle-wheel business). The Big Data firms have tamed high-velocity, high-volume, high-variety, variable-veracity data sets and are making them sing.

Much of the music so far has been marketing-oriented (that Facebook page providing a vivid demonstration). But the possibilities are expanding rapidly, especially now that all agencies of government are making a serious effort to migrate their data to the cloud. Data on the Earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere are part of this trend.

Good news for the Earth and all its inhabitants! We face critical problems with respect to natural resources – water, food, and energy, for example – and all the more as we attempt to maintain resource levels while building resilience to natural extremes and minimizing environmental degradation. A tough challenge, and getting more complex and contentious as margins shrink and the stakes grow year by year. But tomorrow’s problems only look impossible if we try to solve them using yesterday’s tools[1]. Big data promises to be the most (positive) disruptive player in this arena since the development of observing instruments and platforms of high diagnostic power, and since the early application of computers to modeling elements of the Earth system of the last century.

A specific example comes to us from amazon web services. Some excerpts from one of their recent posts (refer to this original link to access the full set of hyperlinks in the text below):

“In October, we announced that the real-time feed and full historical archive of original resolution (Level II) NEXRAD data is freely available on Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for anyone to use. The Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD) is a network of 160 high-resolution Doppler radar sites that enables severe storm prediction and is used by researchers and commercial enterprises to study and address the impact of weather across multiple sectors.

Early adopters have used the data to cut their product development time and ask new questions about weather-related phenomena. Today, we’re excited to share two new tools that make it even easier for you to analyze NEXRAD data and incorporate it into your workflows…

…WeatherPipe marshals the NEXRAD data into usable data structures and runs the job in Amazon Elastic MapReduce (EMR). The output is a NetCDF file that you can display in Unidata’s Integrated Data Viewer (IDV) and other visualization tools…


…One of the top requests from early users was for an easier way to incorporate the NEXRAD data into event-driven workflows. Today, we’re excited to announce that notifications are now available for both types of data.

We have set up public Amazon Simple Notification Service (SNS) topics for the “chunks” and archive data that create a notification for every new object added to the Amazon S3 buckets. To start, you can subscribe to these notifications using Amazon Simple Queue Service (SQS) and AWS Lambda. This means you can automatically add new real-time and near-real-time NEXRAD data into a queue or trigger event-based processing if the data meets certain criteria, such as geographic location…


…Visit our NEXRAD on AWS page for information on subscribing to these SNS topics and incorporating them into workflows. We’re excited to see what you do with this new capability!

These are just two of the early outcomes, from just one company, of the several CRADA’s NOAA has established with Big Data. A flood of such advances is coming[2], enabled by the simple switch from the old method of sending data to analytical tools to the new method of sending analytical tools to the data, and other opportunities Big Data provides – in days or weeks solving technical problems that have vexed Earth scientists for decades.

Which brings us to this year’s AMS Annual Meeting, and perhaps the next 3-4, running out to our 100th birthday meeting in 2020, in Boston (where it all began). In 5-10 years, these approaches to resource-, hazard-, and environmental problems will have become old hat. A new generation of scientists and practitioners won’t remember any other way of doing business. But for now, Big Data firms don’t yet fully understand which of their many capabilities will be good for what purposes – what will be most useful, and how, and why? And for now Earth scientists don’t comprehend what new tools are now or soon will be at their disposal. AMS Annual Meetings can serve as a venue for these discoveries to take place. Think of the AMS Annual Meetings as a speed-dating arena where Big Data firms and professionals – especially early-career professionals – can connect.

We’ll all be seeing the first hint of this in New Orleans over the next seven days. A few examples: Big Data will be a major theme of Saturday’s NWS International Workshop. Ariel Gold and others from amazon web services will be at the student conference reception Saturday night. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker will be discussing this among other topics at her Monday noontime Town Hall in La Nouvelle C. Panelists will discuss the NOAA Big Data CRADAs on Tuesday afternoon from 1:30-3:00 in Room 342 of the Conference Center (for example, you can hear more about the NEXRAD work there).

Speaking of Secretary Pritzker, recall that Big Data’s capabilities emerge most powerfully when applied to diverse data sets. Imagine a new ability to merge NOAA data on hazard threats with Department of Commerce Census demographic data: the location of populations, especially populations of the vulnerable: the poor, the ethnic minorities, senior citizens and children. Envision being able to combine that information with data on the built environment from NIST, HUD, and other sources, and to anticipate special needs of those in harm’s way hours or days in advance. Think of what it will mean to put that assimilated information in the hands of emergency responders and social media. This is the best time in world history to be alive – except for tomorrow.

Expect to see this story line and other similar narratives unfolding at AMS in Seattle in 2017, in Austin in 2018, in Phoenix in 2019…


[1] As explained in more detail in the 2014 book, Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, American Meteorological Society

[2]one that will be a news story long after the current Mississippi flood here to greet AMS Meeting participants has been forgotten.

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Weather stories that will endure throughout 2016 and beyond.

Weather has figured in the news as we close out 2015 and enter 2016. For example, writing in the Washington Post, Darryl Fears and Angela Fritz note that:

“From the top of the world to near the bottom, freakish and unprecedented weather has sent temperatures soaring across the Arctic, whipped the United Kingdom with hurricane-force winds and spawned massive flooding in South America.

 The same storm that slammed the southern United States with deadly tornadoes and swamped the Midwest, causing even greater loss of life, continued on to the Arctic. Subtropical air pulled there is now sitting over Iceland, and at what should be a deeply sub-zero North Pole, temperatures on Wednesday appeared to reach the melting point — more than 50 degrees above normal. That was warmer than Chicago…

 …Thousands of miles south, in the center of Latin America, downpours fueled by the Pacific Ocean’s giant El Niño pattern have drenched regions of Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay…

 …Up and down the U.S. East Coast, this month will close as the hottest December on record. In much of the Northeast into Canada, temperatures on Christmas rose into the 70s — tricking bushes and trees into bloom in many locations…

 …Almost two dozen levees along the Mississippi River are considered at risk, and forecasts are calling for record or near-record crests of the river and tributaries that feed it. Nearly 450 river ­gauges have hit flood stage since Monday…

 …Although river levels will begin to drop over the weekend, the floodwaters will continue to move downstream on the Mississippi through mid-January…”

The journalists go on to discuss conditions in Europe. They could have expanded their story to cover weather impacts in Asia, where the El Nino has contributed to record-breaking haze and air pollution, and more.

Such individual events capture our attention, but only briefly. They will be superseded by others as the year 2016 plays out. However, behind and towering over these episodes and those that lie ahead are several weather meta-stories, which will endure, not just for the year, but for decades to come. You might have your own additional or better list; here are four candidate examples.


Mr. Fears and Ms. Fritz are justified in labeling this present weather “freakish,” but in the larger scheme of things, the world’s weather is and always has been so. No two days’ weather are ever the same, and the Earth system is continually and forever accomplishing much of its business through extremes. For millennia, in fact for millions of years, we’ve had correspondingly unusual weather. What’s new is that we’re only now able to observe and fully comprehend weather manifested in remote regions of the world as well as weather’s global connectedness. For this we owe thanks to global satellite coverage and a host of other surface-based observing technologies of unprecedented diagnostic power. We’re like the blind person who’s suddenly gained sight. We’re undergoing the greatest flowering of awareness and understanding since the mid-1800’s, when the telegraph (the Victorian Internet) first allowed us to piece together a picture of weather patterns and their movement. Everything is going to look exotic for the next century or so. We should enjoy this time; it’ll be a sad day when and if the novelty wears off, when we lose our capacity for wonder about the Earth system – its nature and workings, its raw power and majesty, its enchanting beauty.

Weather will continue to amaze for decades.


Here’s a 21st-century irony. We’re increasingly vulnerable to weather even as our personal exposure to heat and cold, sun and rain is in decline. Most of us are in the virtual workplace of information technology which itself is embedded in the virtual climate of the heated/air-conditioned office. Even so, we’ve been forced to acknowledge our increasing sensitivity and changing vulnerability to weather, and especially extremes and even lesser departures from so-called “normals.” The big challenge here is the emerging mismatch between (1) the time-horizon of our strategies and investments for producing food, maintaining water and energy supplies, transporting people and goods, and a weather-sensitive economy; and (2) the time-horizon on which we can anticipate the threats weather and climate, and their associated effects on water, pose to those plans and ventures. We’re in essence flying blind. We’re placing bets at the poker table without looking at our own hand or those of the other players.

This is a recent development. In human experience prior to the past ten thousand years, we were nomads and hunter-gatherers. We could respond as needed to seasonal and weather shifts and their consequences for the availability of food and water. Our interdependent, increasingly urbanized world is now totally reliant on a complex critical infrastructure that is not a single system but an interwoven system of systems, whose performance under weather and climate variability is only poorly understood.

The global investments aggregate to many trillions of dollars, and they presuppose the infrastructure will remain useful and serviceable for many decades. Weather of unanticipated severity and climate change and variability are already exposing shortcomings in the original vision. For example, investments in the infrastructure needed to extract and distribute fossil fuels look suspect in light of the need to limit global warming. Dependence of agricultural yields on irrigation and pesticides looks unsustainable as unintended consequences of these practices emerge and their associated energy demands grow. The return on investment in coastal infrastructure is threatened by the prospect of sea-level rise.

We’ve also newly reduced our room for error and uncertainty. Even as recently as 200 years ago, most societies were rural and agricultural, and compensated for weather vulnerability by building generous margins into the system and relying on muddle-through strategies that would never be optimal for any given weather scenario but would always be adequate. Not so today. In developed societies, this is because margin has come to be associated with waste. Examples of deliberate decisions to reduce margin are seen in electricity, where deregulation and use of regional power grids has allowed a reduction in “excess” generating capacity; in agriculture, where schedules for crop planting and harvest are worked out between farmers and buyers months in advance, and food is delivered to supermarkets only hours before consumers buy it; and in fragile transportation systems where carrying capacity can plummet in inclement weather. In the undeveloped world, zero-margin is imposed by the richer nations – for example, encouraging farmers to grow cash crops for foreign consumption (coffee, soybeans, palm oil, even flowers…) versus food for domestic, in-country use.

We’re going to be flying blind in all these respects for some time. Unforeseen societal sensitivity to weather and climate will be a growing news story for the remainder of this century.

New Options.

Recent years have seen the emergence of questions such as… “Okay, your weather forecasts have improved. But how much do such improvements actually contribute to reduced property loss or improved business continuity in the face of severe weather? Given that the public often lacks options for self-protection in the face of danger, or fail to understand or respond to your warnings, how many lives do you actually save?”

Assessing the value of weather, water, and climate forecasts and outlooks will continue to be problematic, but one aspect of this narrative is beginning to change, and change favorably. The options for action in the face of changes in weather on all time and space scales are growing in number and effectiveness.

We have information technology to thank. It’s not just that IT has vastly advanced our ability to translate our observations of what the Earth system is doing now to what it is about to do next. Today’s IT allows us to provide that information to those in harm’s way or those who stand to benefit from favorable windows of opportunity in time for them to act. That possibility has engendered a lot of creative rejiggering of every sector of society to take fullest advantage of the information. The transportation sector has long been moving in this direction. Airlines now cancel and reschedule flights based on weather forecasts, rather than allowing their fleets to be snowbound. Ocean routing has long guided ship operations. Truckers use information on road weather to schedule the deliveries and develop workarounds. Other sectors are following this lead. Electricity consumers ranging from homeowners to industrial concerns are allowing utilities to vary their electricity use to offset bumps in demand. Utilities in turn use weather information to assess the availability of wind and solar power on the grid. Retailers use weather forecasts to increase sales of everything from snowplows to umbrellas while keeping inventories low. The military uses weather, water, and climate information to assess threats ranging from Somali pirates, to terrorists, to instability created by displaced populations. In many of these applications, we are seeing growing means for computer to talk to computer directly, eliminating the middleman (or woman).

Much more creativity is coming. Each advance in weather forecasting triggers tipping points where new real-time responses to weather become economically viable. And so-called Big Data – the increasing ability for cloud-based IT architectures to integrate multiple, diverse high-volume, high velocity data streams to provide impact-based decision support – will add unprecedented value to tomorrow’s weather, climate, and water information.


Growing Earth-system awareness, recognition of vulnerabilities, and realization of new options will attract the attention of journalists. Increasingly the press and the public will demand the right to life in the face of hazards (as represented by warnings and options for action) not limited to the richest in society but extending to the poorest and most disadvantaged. People worldwide will want homes that are the safest place to be during hazardous weather, not points of embarkation for evacuation. They’ll want jobs to return to after hazards have come and gone. They’ll come to expect continuity of critical services in the face of hazards, including electricity and water, but extending to transportation and schools, health care, and more. They’ll insist that natural hazards not trigger environmental disasters.

As the press and the public realize the possibilities, they’ll demand performance, from both political and business leaders and in turn from the meteorologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, and others – whether government or private forecasters, whether scientists or broadcast meteorologists. Take the disgruntlement over the past several years about the performance of U.S. weather predictions relative to those coming from Europe; the frustration over so-called “missed” forecasts of heavy snow, when the weather patterns in question were accurately depicted but perhaps displaced by a few miles, etc. That’s just a foretaste of what’s coming.

And the legal profession may not be far behind. Likely the tempo and complexity of litigation will pick up markedly over the first half of the 21st century.

Weather-, water-, and climate. Awareness, sensitivity/vulnerability, new options, and demands for accountability.

Headline news.

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My New Year’s resolution for 2016.

“If you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” – Will Rogers

“Your system is perfectly designed to achieve the result you are getting.” – widely quoted, with slight variations, by management experts; sometimes but not always attributed to Edwards Deming.

Slide1In 2016, I will do less digging.

The resolution would seem to have much to commend it – for each of us as individuals, and for the larger institutions and communities within which we live and work.

Let’s begin at the personal level.

First, the resolution entails doing less of something. In the 21st-century, with its 24/7 work culture and with stress and over-commitment a defining feature of everyone’s life, adding on an additional task of any sort is not an option. Less-of-something – less of anything – thereby freeing up time and energy – is the only viable starting point.

It gets better! Will Rogers reminds us that hole we’re in is truly a trap. Every effort to deepen it is adding to our future woes. Each shovelful removed is making it tougher to throw the dirt up and out of the hole the next time around. At each step, clambering out grows chancier. By contrast, when we stop digging, we’re freeing up time and energy extending days, weeks – maybe even years – ahead. That time and effort can then be put towards something entirely different – something more positive, satisfying, allowing us to fulfill our truest destiny.

The second quote, this from the business world, reminds us that even at a personal level, it’s not a series of single, unconnected actions – but rather our daily routines, our habits, our approach to getting things done, the structure we provide our lives – that is the root problem. The typical New Year’s resolution chips away at the tip of the iceberg instead of addressing the more fundamental causes. Overeating and eating the wrong foods is the end result of a long chain of practices including grocery shopping and the route you and I choose for our daily commute. Relating to each other – choosing between affirming or confronting, collaborating or competing, balancing listening with talking, empathizing versus problem solving, and more – is shaped more by systems patterns of thought and behavior we’ve programmed in our minds as much or more than by any spontaneity of the moment. Procrastination is an end product usually achieved not by any single cause but rather by concatenating an entire series/fabric of time-wasting habits, many of which, in moderation, are meritorious – staying abreast of local and world news, boning up on major developments in our field, maintaining contact with friends and colleagues, keeping up with household chores and office administration, etc. In each instance, causal chains such as these in turn typically manifest unresolved psychological, spiritual issues that lie deeper still.

But enough – better that you start with little more than the general premise – dig less – and work out your own specifics. What does this mean for your life and circumstance… and your 2016?

Three final considerations. First, put don’t try to solve the problem by getting better or faster at hole-digging. A bigger shovel, or a jackhammer, or a backhoe is not the answer! To illustrate, if you’re spending all your time responding to other people’s e-mails instead of proactively getting your work done, getting faster at responding to e-mails is not the answer.

Second, improve your skills at “early detection of hole-digging.” Too often we fail to notice we’re digging a hole until the top of that hole reaches eye level. We can work on that, maybe catching ourselves before we’re knee-deep. Maybe even at the sound of the first shovelful of dirt hitting the ground. Ultimately we might get good enough to turn our back on the shoveling while it’s still only in a gleam in our mind’s eye.

Third, as you give up vain hole-digging, don’t leave all that freed-up time hanging. Identify and adopt tangible alternative uses for it. Time for personal reflection. Intentional, thoughtful goal-setting. More listening, more collaboration, frequent self-evaluation, early detection of progress… there are endless possibilities; you get the idea.

Let’s turn now to the community level.

In geosciences and science-based services, we’ve been wrongheadedly digging several misplaced holes. Here are two examples; you can easily come up with your own, better additions or alternatives.

The climate-change debate.

From history’s rearview mirror, it seems we may have placed too much effort too early trying to jolt political leaders and the public into specific actions with respect to climate change. Hard to tell but it seems some of our exertions polarized and alienated these audiences rather than unifying and galvanizing them. The result may have been a delay in the kind of global groundswell that may finally be materializing from the Paris climate-change summit. In any event, this seems to be not just a hole but a vast pit where as a community we might stop digging and return to our science and see where that takes us.

Seeking resilience to hazards primarily through improved forecasts and emergency response.

We’ve worked hard to improve the accuracy and specificity of natural hazards forecasts, to move from predictions of environmental variables to impact-based watches and warnings, and to communicate these more effectively to those in harm’s way. More hard work remains to be done! But the fact is that community-level resilience is closely tied to land use, building construction, robust critical infrastructure, and distribution of wealth/poverty. Improved forecasts and emergency response are most effective when dealing with the residual risk remaining after these core issues have been tackled. We might do more as professionals to point to the fundamental limitations of emergency response when coping with natural hazards. When vexed by the continuing rise in property loss and the stubborn refusal of deaths and injuries to decline, we might acknowledge along with those management experts that [our approach] “…is perfectly designed to achieve the result we are getting.”

Another invitation to stop digging?

May your 2016 be prosperous and meaningful, both professionally and personally.

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Mary, did you know?

The Anunciation -- Leonardo da Vinci

The Anunciation — Leonardo da Vinci

Work for the American Meteorological Society, and soon you’re using “meteorology” to refer to more than terrestrial weather. You come to see it as a big tent, extending to hydrology, oceanography, and climatology – and even weather in space.

Christmas has come early for (big tent) meteorologists this year. Like everyone else, meteorologists long to matter, to make the world a better place. We all hunger for our lives to hold meaning and significance.

It helps to see that importance acknowledged – to find decision makers and the public using meteorological science and services. And that’s precisely what’s been happening in the closing months of 2015, with regard to weather, water, and climate forecasts on all scales.

Start with life-threatening weather. Just two of many examples – some 22 hurricanes and typhoons reached category 4- and 5-levels this past season, breaking the previous record. Closer to home, Christmas week has seen a rare and dangerous December tornado outbreak across the southeastern United States. Such extremes used to develop without much advance notice, breaking into the news cycle after the fact. But not in 2015. Currently, even days ahead, those in threatened areas get the message and begin to pay attention to watches and warnings – and respond.

The same holds for larger-scale, more enduring features. For months now, forecasters have been issuing outlooks for strong El Nino development. Peoples from southeast Asia, the full extent of North and South America, and indeed worldwide have braced themselves for the associated departures from normal seasonal patterns in weather and the resulting impacts on human safety, food and water supplies, energy demands, and even the economy. As the event has unfolded, the American public from California (hoping for drought relief) to the eastern seaboard (looking for a white Christmas but finding daytime temperatures reaching into the seventies instead) have sustained a buzz about El Nino’s control of their local and regional weather.

Finally, the Paris Climate Change Accord shows nations worldwide to be cutting back on fossil fuel consumption and investing many billions of dollars more – in order to head off the impacts of warmer temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation extremes, sea-level rise on food, water, and energy supplies; on ecosystems; and on public health – even though these contingencies lie decades or centuries in the future.

Despite this progress, meteorologists aren’t feeling particularly smug. Instead they’re preoccupied with the job remaining. Three challenges block the way: more accurate weather, climate, and water forecasts per se; better understanding of the linkages connecting environment and impacts; and improved communication all around.

Speaking of communication, this is Christmas Day, and so it’s only natural to think about communication in another context: that moment 2000 years ago when the angel Gabriel delivered a hard-to-fathom forecast to the virgin Mary. The account comes from Luke Chapter 2:

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Examine the conversation closely. While it seems that the angel’s forecast was 100% true, it was a little vague with regard to the particulars[1]. But it would take two thousand years for this incongruity to catch the attention of the – famous social scientists? – no, song writers Mark Lowry (lyrics in 1984) and Buddy Greene (melody, 12 years later). They thought to ponder some of what had been omitted from the angel’s message. The happy result was Mary, Did You Know:

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.


Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?

When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.


Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?..

Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?..


The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.

The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb!


Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?

That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.


Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?..

Mary, did you know?

Repetition and knowing the outcome have dulled our appreciation for Gabriel’s conversation with Mary. But look at it from the perspective of social science. Surely psychologists would agree that this would be a lot to take in, especially for a teenage girl of humble circumstances. Sociologists would stress the dreadful consequences to a woman for pregnancy out of wedlock in that culture and time (little different today). Risk-communication experts might stress that it wasn’t action-based, that it didn’t provide Mary with options. Somehow, though, both Gabriel and Mary found it adequate – and Mary was able to move on.

Why the emphasis here? It’s not just that it’s Christmas Day. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary reminds us that we too are operating on only the sketchiest understanding of our calling and the meaning of our lives. It’s not too much of a stretch to surmise that Mary wasn’t blessed with sudden, deep insight. More likely she progressively but only gradually became aware of the fuller import of what was unfolding. And that understanding was belated – comprehended through life’s rearview mirror. Similarly, much like Mary, our lives and our impacts on each other and on history going forward are far more significant than we ever imagine.

In closing, it goes without saying that Mark Lowry’s questions are much more meaningful when sung. For years, my favorite version of Mary, Did You Know? has been the Kathy Mattea rendition; but there’s a video by Pentatonix (over 50 million hits) that merits a view/listen.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Today and every day, may your soul feel its worth.  [2]


[1]Gabriel also omitted some of the particularly tough bits… such as Mary would witness her son’s crucifixion a third of a century later, before his resurrection three days later.

[2] You can find LOTRW Christmas posts from prior years here.

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