Evolving the National Weather Service. 6. Water.

Continuing from the previous LOTRW posts


In the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was common to hear newcomers to the agency speak of “putting the O back in NOAA.” There was the feeling in some quarters that NOAA had been in the hands of the meteorologists since its founding (the famous meteorologist Robert M. White had been Administrator from 1970-1978) and that it was “the oceanographers’ turn.” Walk the office corridors, and you’d also hear talk contrasting “the wet side of NOAA” and the “dry side.”

In vain I would push back. “It’s the wet side and the moist side,” I’d argue. “Without water in its three phases, the atmosphere would be essentially uninteresting.” By that I meant that atmospheric circulations on all scales would be weak and free of the violent extremes. Picture a uniformly cloudless sky. Perhaps the occasional dust devil, but no tornadoes. No rain or snow or sleet or hail. No lightning. An impoverished hydrologic cycle. Diminished terrestrial ecosystems hugging the coasts.

Fact is, it’s the hydrologic cycle including the atmospheric dimension that makes our planet the marvelously vibrant and congenial place we know and love. It’s the hydrologic cycle which knits together the oceans, atmosphere, land and life itself to such an extent that they can’t be fully comprehended in isolation but only as an integrated entity. It’s the hydrologic cycle that drives Earth’s trademark extremes: when it rains, it pours. It’s also water in its myriad forms and the great variation in its availability and form from place to place that drives a unique set of policy challenges for the agency. Water policy has historic roots that are local- and state-based, versus national. Water has precious and evident status as a scarce and easily corrupted resource that makes it an obvious subject for regulation, not just observation. It’s water that sings the siren song of mystery and challenge that draws so many early-career professionals to the NOAA ranks.

These realities have always been understood by every NOAA employee, from the bench forecaster to the fisheries biologist to the IT specialist and HR professional to the manager and the policy official. NOAA’s river forecasting role predates the National Weather Service, and predates its antecedent the Weather Bureau. It goes all the way back to its 1870-origins in the U.S. Army Signal Service.

That said, the NWS struggled to give hydrologic forecasting and water forecasting and management responsibilities their due in the late 20th-century Modernization and Associated Restructuring. Major investments in NEXRAD, ASOS, AWIPS, the reorganization of the field offices, and a new generation of satellites tested the limits of the constrained federal budgets and contentious political climate of the time. Hydrologic modernization and restructuring received short shrift.

That doesn’t look to be the case in the current evolution of the National Weather Service. In part this is because flood events of the past several years juxtaposed by drought across the south and west have combined to give the issue visibility and urgency. But in part it’s because NOAA and the NWS have received an extraordinary gift – one of the last earmarks voted by Congress – a new NOAA National Water Center (NWC), located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. From a press notice of May of this year:

The National Water Center, a new facility located at the University of Alabama, is poised to become an incubator for innovative breakthroughs in water prediction products and services. As the country becomes more vulnerable to water-related events, from drought to flooding, the innovative predictive science and services developed by NOAA and its partners at the National Water Center will bolster the nation’s ability to manage threats to its finite water resources and mitigate impacts to communities.

The center will be a hub of integrated water prediction and forecasting for the federal government. Scientists and forecasters at the 65,000 square-foot building will collaborate to provide the nation with enhanced water-related products and services to support water management decisions across the country. Bringing experts together in this new collaborative center provides an unprecedented opportunity to improve federal coordination in the water sector to address 21st century water resource challenges, such as water security, and analysis and prediction of hydrologic extremes, like droughts and floods.

 Note the reference to partners: the new entity will house not only NOAA professionals but also staff from other federal agencies such as the Corps of Engineers and the US Geological Survey, as well as academia. The NWC will cut across all aspects of the NWS evolution: management, employees; stakeholders, and technology and infrastructure.

Interestingly, the country came close to establishing just such an entity during the time of the earlier Modernization and Associated Restructuring. A National Center for Water Resources Research had been proposed in a 1983 report put out by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment: Water-Related Technologies for Sustainable Agriculture in U.S. Arid/Semi-Arid Lands. The proposal at the time called for a federally-funded R&D Center or FFRDC, modeled after the very successful National Center for Atmospheric Research. Here’s the relevant text, from pp 334-335:

Option: Establish a National Center for Water Resources Research

Congress could establish a National Center for Water Resources Research to provide a coherent and coordinated mechanism for the Nation’s university research programs in water- resources management for problem-solving and policymaking,

The mission of this center could include:

  1. Undertaking an interdisciplinary program of basic and applied research on water resources and water-resource management. In addition to research in the natural sciences and engineering, the program should include a strong component of basic and applied research in the social sciences, such as resource economics and law as they pertain to water-resources programs. The center could further assist in the conduct of site-specific research being carried out under State auspices.
  2. Developing and providing advanced and sophisticated research facilities on a scale required to cope with the broad nature of water-resources problems, and often not affordable by single universities, to be used both by the resident staff, innovative producers, and university scientists.
  3. Undertaking a program to develop and test conventional and emerging technologies for application to water-resources problems in U.S. arid/semiarid lands, including application to problems of agriculture and its sustainability in arid/semiarid lands, and coordinating work with existing Government research by USDA and State agricultural experiment stations.
  4. Serving as an objective, nonpartisan, and continuing national source of information for Congress when formulating public policy dealing with water resources, and as a link to public agencies and to the private sector for application of research findings.

The center could serve as a base for marshaling the talents of the Nation’s universities and for augmenting, but not in any sense competing with, the work already underway in the universities. Its principal function could be to enhance the effectiveness of water-resources research and to focus the full competence of the scientific community, private sector, and innovative producer on problems of water resources.

Using the example of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), an institution created some 20 years ago by an act of Congress, the center could be managed and operated by a consortium of universities with doctoral-level programs in water resources. The member universities could elect a board of trustees from member universities, industry, user groups, and the community at large. The board could be responsible for establishing broad policy guidelines, for setting program priorities and directions, and for overseeing the center’s effective management. The operation of the center could be directed by a scientist appointed by and accountable to the board of trustees,

Because a sustained effort is essential for solving crucial water problems of the West and the Nation, the funding support for the center must be stable and long term. The principal source of support for the center could be the Federal Government, with supplemental sup- port from the States and private sector,

An equally essential aspect for effective operation is that prime responsibility for program initiatives reside with the consortium of universities managing the center. This requirement is in sharp contrast with “Government-owned, contractor-operated” laboratories where program initiatives often reside in the sponsoring, mission-oriented Federal agency . This contrasting approach for the center is important since the university community is closest to research for purposes of evaluating progress and potentials. In light of this knowledge, plans and priorities designed by the consortium could take into account national, regional, and State needs. Congressional and State agency staff could be assigned periodically to the center to translate research results for policy- making and update researchers on ongoing policy debates and issues.

For purposes of administration and funding, the center could be operated by the university consortium under a prime contract arrangement with a semiautonomous scientific agency such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). Support from other Government agencies interested in water resources could be arranged through the single contract administered by the designated agency, The style of research program management proposed above is consistent with the research-overview style and experience of NSF.

As we all know, this earlier vision wasn’t implemented. It wasn’t that the idea was flawed; just the opposite. Word at the time was the NCWRR was such a prize that the fifty states couldn’t agree on a location.

Rightly or wrongly, history will likely judge the success or failure of the current evolution of the National Weather Service largely by whether the NWC realizes its immense promise… and the extent to which the whole of NOAA is able to organize itself to slake the growing national thirst for water science and services.

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Evolving the National Weather Service. 5. Stakeholders

Continuing from the previous LOTRW posts…

There are many reasons to like the NWS Weather-Ready Nation initiative, but perhaps the greatest is this: its goal – building community resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather and water events – places the public – and the safety of that public – at the center, instead of somewhere on the periphery.

Since the goal extends far beyond better forecasts of future atmospheric conditions and improved warnings, it follows that the NWS cannot accomplish this alone. To succeed, it must partner with many other federal, state, and local government agencies; aerospace companies; private weather services and broadcasters; and enumerable non-governmental and faith-based organizations in a grand endeavor. Their shared purpose is not self-serving. Instead all parties are co-laboring to serve a larger society and a higher purpose.

Even more importantly: the public, the larger society, cannot be a mere passive beneficiary of this partnership. It must be a true player – an active, engaged, prepared participant. “Weather-ready” has to become a national value. Any success won’t be a NOAA/NWS success so much as it will be a shared national success. (More on this shortly.)


A protracted aside:

You often see the term stakeholder[1] used here, but in this context it is a pale, inadequate term. The word fails to convey the complexity of this web of relationships, or the role of the respective actors, or the compelling vision. Time was when folks in Washington would refer to “Agency X and stakeholders” to imply that it is the agency that is central. In this view, the stakeholders merely constitute a kind of swarm that accompanies or complements, but is usually subsidiary to or dependent upon – the agency.

Look superficially at Washington, and it might seem that most federal agencies still operate on this independent-agency/dependent-stakeholder-swarm model. We see this most vividly in highly-choreographed federal-budget rollouts every February and into March.

But that’s on the surface. In myriad side conversations and less-public venues, and throughout the year, a wide range of deeper discussions and nuanced, even strategic collaborations are underway that reflect a changed status in the agency-stakeholder relationship. Today it’s much more a true partnership, reflecting increased 21st-century urgencies, and more-balanced mutual dependencies. For example, in its report Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None, the National Academies of Science noted that:

“…At the time of the MAR, delivery of weather information was largely synonymous with the NWS, the broadcasting sector, and the private-sector suppliers of weather data and services that supported the broad- casting sector. Outside of this, the weather, water, and climate enterprise had limited capacity. Today, the enterprise has grown considerably, and now the NWS has many important partners. Private-sector and other organizations provide sensor data, weather forecasts, and value-added, end-user weather, water, and climate services to a broad set of customers encompassing both businesses and the public, with multiple sources available in many cases. All of these entities rely on core NWS infrastructure and capabilities to provide customized services. Together this combination of the NWS and third parties serves the nation better than the NWS could on its own.”

The National Weather Service by no means alone or unique in this respect. Today, Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior, EPA, NASA – really, all Cabinet Departments and so-called independent agencies – operate in concert with the private sector, academia, and NGO’s to accomplish their respective missions. They collaborate as mutually dependent entities, not just on-the-ground, tactically – but also at a strategic level.

Public policies are not in place to accommodate this changed reality. Instead they reflect a doctrine of separation of powers among the three branches of the federal government that has been vigilantly observed since the country’s founding. In addition, principal-agent models of the relationship between government and the private sector create a bright-line separating the two. Violations of these rules and conflicts-of-interest are vigorously and continually exposed by whistleblowers and aggressive media. This is as it should be; the rigor is to be welcomed. It’s one reason that America has remained relatively free of the fraud, corruption, and dysfunction found in far too many countries around the world. But creation and observance of such bright boundaries are not free of adverse side effects. They work a chilling effect on efforts to communicate and build trust across these boundaries.


Back to our main narrative. Here’s a thumbnail review of the National Weather Service history with the larger weather, water, and climate enterprise:

At the end of World War II, some of the military meteorologists who didn’t go to work in the Weather Bureau decided instead to make a private business of weather forecasting – tailoring services to small towns, state and county departments of transportation, farmers, aviation, and other lines of business. They discovered that on the one hand, they probably constituted the most heavily-subsidized industry on the planet – even more subsidized than agriculture with all of its price supports. The Weather Bureau provided essentially free-of-charge the observations, computer modeling, and much of the communication on which the private weather services were based. All of that infrastructure was built and managed and supported by the government and taxpayer dollars. But the same Weather Bureau also would from time to time and place to place prove an unfair competitor. Forecasters at local weather bureau offices would provide special, tailored services to individuals and institutions for free, based on little more than a handshake[2]. It wasn’t that the Weather Bureau and its staff were nefarious; they just weren’t always thinking through the fuller consequences of what might otherwise seem to be well-meaning actions. What was worse in many ways was that this unfair competition wasn’t framed by any over-arching policy. Because it was often inadvertent, it was also erratic. Individuals in the Weather Bureau might signal intent to provide this or that product or service, waving off private-sector entry; then fail to follow through. All involved – the NWS, private-sector weather service providers, and end users alike – would then find themselves in the worst of all possible worlds.

During the last NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring, in the late 20th century, agency leadership and personnel at all levels were mindful of these issues and moving rapidly to reshape policy. But social change and the advance of information technology were outstripping agency efforts to keep pace. Private-sector capabilities and infrastructure for every aspect of the forecast task – for observing, for modeling, and for dissemination – were also growing rapidly. Those changes have profoundly modified the partnership landscape over the past decade, as captured in several reports, including: Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services (2003), Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None (2012), and Forecast for the Future: Assuring the Capacity of the National Weather Service (2013). To everyone’s credit, today all parties involved use a variety of coordinating mechanisms including the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)–based NOAA Science Advisory Board, and a range of dialogs at AMS-, National Weather Association-, and other venues.

Which brings us full circle to the American public. During the last century’s Modernization and Associated Restructuring, the NWS goal was to extend lead times for warnings of hazardous events, especially short-fuse, highly dangerous events such as flash floods and tornadoes. Sure enough, lead times improved. But that success exposed another challenge, which for want of a better term might be labeled public inattention. Just as weather prediction itself struggles with basic limits to atmospheric predictability, weather messages struggle with basic limits to public awareness, given American preoccupation with other matters: work, school, health, worship, recreation, entertainment, and information overload prompted by another success of our times – the IT revolution. How might hazard warnings break through the information fog? Social science has been wheeled up to the problem. Surveys, focus groups, and other tools have been applied. Social science is being directed at message-crafting tuned to reach different demographics; visual risk communication; exploitation of the full array of social media and smart devices; and more.

Such diverse efforts are alike in this one respect: they stop short of making any demands on the public, instead placing responsibility for safety on the shoulders of the information providers and emergency managers. However, given that we all live on a planet that does much of its business through extreme events, it seems reasonable that each of us should bear some personal and family responsibility for maintaining some degree of situational awareness with respect to weather hazards.

The Weather-Ready Nation vision addresses this critical piece of the puzzle.


[1]Originally, the word stakeholder referred to a mutually-trusted but disinterested third party who would literally hold the stakes for a wager. More recently, it’s come to mean a person or group that has an investment, share, or interest in something, as a business or industry; or, a person holding money or property to which two or more persons make rival claims.

[2] For a colorful account of what it was like to be one of those early private-sector meteorologists, read Can’t Take It With You: The Art of Making and Giving Money, by Lewis Cullman. Mr. Cullman gave up on weather business, invented the leveraged buyout, made the better part of a billion dollars, and has since been occupied with philanthropy. Quite a story.

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Evolving the National Weather Service. 4. People.

“There is a human capital crisis in the federal government. Not only are we losing the decades of talent as civil servants retire, we are not doing enough to develop and nurture the next generation of public servants.”Daniel Akaka

…continuing this series of LOTRW posts

Tom Brokaw famously labeled Americans who experienced the Depression in childhood and then fought in World War II The Greatest Generation. According to Brokaw, this generation didn’t enter combat for fame or fortune but because “it was the right thing to do.” At the conflict’s end, still interested in “the right thing to do,” many veterans chose to serve their country as civilians.

Indeed, the reality is that civil service can (and should be) deeply satisfying. Both “civility” and “service” are each public values in their own right; conjoined, they become something profound, especially as sustained over a full career. That’s particularly true in meteorology, where the emphasis every day is on saving lives and property.

World War II was fought with the aid of a variety of technologically-advanced tanks, ships and airplanes. Though projecting unprecedented firepower, these platforms all were vulnerable to prevailing weather in new ways that hadn’t been so consequential for the foot soldiers of prior wars – and often hadn’t been foreseen (the belated discovery of jet streams and their threat to high-altitude air transport being just one example). It was therefore only natural that the U.S. military would need to train some fraction of its recruits in the science and practice of meteorology.

The same factors driving military need for weather services were mirrored in peacetime America (and had earlier motivated the 1940 transfer of the Weather Bureau from USDA to the Department of Commerce). Enough military-trained meteorologists went to work for the U.S. Weather Bureau in the years following the war that they created a demographic bulge in the staffing, culminating in an aging cohort entering retirement throughout the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.


This retirement bulge posed both a challenge and an opportunity for the National Weather Service as all NWS employees from the leadership to the bench forecasters worked together to accomplish the late 20th-century Modernization. The new technologies – ASOS, the new NEXRAD radars, and AWIPS – were going to eliminate a lot of drudgery from meteorological jobs, but they demanded more from each employee by way of professional background. The NWS at the time also had a blend of forecast offices or WSFO’s and a very large number of smaller, less capable offices called WSO’s. It was clear early on that the modernized NWS technology couldn’t be made available at all of these smaller offices. Some would have to be closed.

weather service of today

But the challenges weren’t just technical and economic. They were also political. At the time, some in the Reagan administration and in the Congress were floating the idea of privatizing the National Weather Service. They demanded that the NWS prove according to conditions specified under OMB Circular A-76 that it could provide service comparable to that provided by the private sector at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Others in the Congress had different, conflicting concerns. They worried that likely closures of WSO’s and even WSFO’s in their districts would put their constituents at increased risk to weather hazards. Eventually Congress required the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to certify that any closures would result in “no diminution of service.”

NWS leadership and staff at all levels of the time gave this “people-aspect” of the Modernization priority and handled it strategically. They took a series of actions. They were punctilious from the beginning to speak only of an NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring; they never used a shorthand. Instead of thinking in terms of arbitrary cutbacks in NWS locations and/or staffing, they gave primacy to the public-safety mission and then from that mission-mandate-function they derived the reconfigured NWS form[1]. Ultimately (a good deal of over-simplification here), that approach would lead to Forecast Offices equaling in number and collocated with NEXRAD radars. NWS worked out plans for maintaining continuity of service as some offices were being closed, new offices were being opened or expanded, and staff relocated as new hires were coming on. They set about a dialog with the university community about job opportunities and educational requirements for new NWS hires. At the same time, NWS increased in-house training. They also worked with Congressional offices, local governments, and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to carry out the certification process and allay public fears.


The NWS evolution of the present day must address many of these same challenges. Even as some political quarters are once again suggesting re-sizing of the NWS, NWS leadership and staff must as before maintain laser-focus on the primary NWS mission to save lives and property (but add business- and community continuity as well) – and then let the mission determine staff size and office locations[2]. (Technology advance also continues to change weather sensitivities of power generation (wind and solar especially), agribusiness, surface- and air transportation, water management, and more, requiring more detailed short-term (minutes to hours) forecasts as well as extending the forecast time horizon to weeks or months. Today a secondary demographic bulge is leading to more retirements – not of the greatest generation but now the retirement of their replacements hired in the 1980’s and the 1990’s. Professional education and training has once again to be expanded – but today’s challenge is not solely to increase meteorological expertise but also add additional background in the social science of risk communication[3].

Risk communication is indeed the name of the game.  Social scientists remind us that this risk communication, to be effective, must recognize ethnicity, income, gender, age, health, of the hearers on the one hand, and be based on a high-level of trust and connection with the risk communicators on the other. And indeed weather risk communication passes through many hands: from forecasters to emergency managers, broadcasters, business-based emergency coordinators, social media and more on their way to members of the general public. Discipline is required at every step to avoid the confusion and miss-messaging familiar from the parlor game Chinese whispers or telephone (also known as whisper down the lane, broken telephone, operator, grapevine, gossip,  secret message, the messenger game and pass the message).

As with the technological challenges discussed in the previous LOTRW post, neither NWS nor its parent agency NOAA can accomplish all that’s needed alone. They will need help from:

Congress. Congress can be most helpful by reiterating long-standing policy priorities: that NWS focus on the public-safety mission; that NWS maintain and improve end-use outcomes; that NWS and private-sector partners collaborate on the accomplishment of this mission; that Commerce certify this performance, etc.  Equally, Congress can avoid the temptation to be overly prescriptive about how these ends are achieved (number of offices, employees, favoring certain kinds of modeling aids over others, etc.).

The Department of Commerce. The social science seems to be clear: to be successful, effective risk communication needs to be segmented and tailored for a variety of demographics groups. The Commerce Department in its Census Bureau contains considerable demographic data compiled zipcode by zipcode. Perhaps as part of its big-data objectives, perhaps through other means, Commerce might enable private-sector partners to tailor and target weather- risk communication for all Americans, subject to the constraints of privacy policies and individual opt-in/opt-out preferences.

The private sector. Virtually all of America’s (many) publics ultimately receive their weather information through sundry private-sector means. The diversity of these means is to be applauded and protected, and yet the work of maintaining people’s right to life in the face of weather hazards might be aided by more of an accompanying, ongoing strategic-level discussion between the private sector and federal, state, and local governments on how well things are going. (Infomercial; in the spirit of the 2003 NAS/NRC Fair Weather Report, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) such as the American Meteorological Society can play a helpful role here).

The larger public. Increasingly, the march of (meteorological and social) science and associated technologies is requiring that all Americans play a more active responsibility for their weather-readiness/safety. Just as doctors and other healthcare providers emphasize that we all need to take charge of our own treatment, meteorologists should stress the need for active, knowledgeable public uptake of weather information. (To do otherwise would make no more sense than a football coach working-out the quarterbacks while giving the receiving corps the day off.) The rapid improvement in the specificity and value of weather warnings is outpacing public appreciation for just how far the science has advanced, and public understanding of what to do with the new information. The science-agency efforts need to be matched by emphasis on public education, extending ultimately to K-12 public education.

When Senator Akaka made his observation some time ago, he certainly wasn’t prompted by today’s NWS evolution. And we’re most likely not in a crisis state.  But in today’s highly interdependent society, our prospects would surely be improved if each one of us, for at least part of each day, embraced a bit of the mindset – the attitude and goals – of a “civil servant.”


[1] One big piece of that mandate is public safety and the legal liability that comes with it. These considerations are a large reason for the continuing government-role in weather-service provision today.

[2] Do you think the NWS is staff-heavy? Ponder this – the NWS currently has something like 5000 staff (not an exact number). For comparison, the Chinese Meteorological Agency or CMA has some 50,000 staff to serve a country of comparable geographic extent and a population only three times as big. (In part the difference reflects the reality that the NWS is already outsourcing many support functions that in the CMA are handled in-house.)

[3] Another bit of history. In the Modernization and Associated Restructuring, NWS/NOAA leadership wanted all forecasters in each office to share the warning-and-coordination function but were forced to settle for a single WCM position in each office.

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Evolving the National Weather Service. 3. What the last fifteen years have to tell us with respect to the technology piece.

…continuing from the previous LOTRW post

Now we find ourselves in 2015. It’s Groundhog Day. Déjà vu. The WSR88D’s, once such an innovation, have themselves seen service for almost 30 years. The rotating radar mounts are wearing out. Technology is again antiquated. The NWS is engaged in a NEXRAD service-life extension program. While important, the experience of the past shows it at best only delays the inevitable: the need for a complete rework of the system. And it’s delaying a safer American future. Today’s phased-array radar technology uses digital circuitry to scan the skies vs. relying solely on physically-rotating-and-steering radar mounts. If implemented nationwide, it would offer faster scans and much-more-frequent updates on the threats posed moment-by-moment by rapidly developing storms.

ASOS, the automated surface observing system that had previously seemed so new, now needs, and is getting, a similar facelift. After many upgrades, AWIPS is being replaced by AWIPS II. Modelers at the NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction once more have their hands full introducing step-function advances in numerical weather prediction. The introduction of these and other changes over the next few years will require that extensive technological advance occur side-by-side with day-to-day provision of NWS services, while at the same time reconfiguring the job of the NWS bench-level forecaster.

Thus 2015’s “evolving the NWS” looks very similar to yet another MAR, only called by another name.

Importantly, there’s much here to celebrate. Major advances in public weather services are in the offing. And important new public-private collaborations to better serve the public are waiting in the wings as well. But intermittent, crash modernizations and catch-up implementation prompt searches for be a better way. Had the past fifteen years gone differently, might not some if not most of this capability could already be in place? That had certainly been the aspiration throughout. Everyone responsible wanted to see a more orderly, continuous process of innovation and upgrades. Why hadn’t that come to pass?

Significantly, the root causes (and the fixes) lie both outside and within the agency.

Let’s start with a closer look under the hood of the last century’s MAR. Why did it succeed? Here’s one reason. By the late 1970’s, NOAA leadership recognized that it needed to develop new forecaster workstations but lacked a coherent, robust set of requirements to design against. The design of a suitable forecast workstation posed substantive research questions – not just about meteorology, but also about forecaster-human-factors, and about the technology and social science of risk communication to the public. Once that design could be determined, then taking it from research into operations (R2O) would still require additional steps. To accomplish the needed R&D, they established the Program for Regional Observing and Forecasting Services (PROFS) within the research arm of NOAA. Happily, NOAA/PROFS scientists and engineers didn’t rely on brute force to accomplish the work. They used finesse, embodied in three remarkable innovations[1].

First, they designed and built a so-called Exploratory Development Facility or EDF, which allowed different workstation configurations to be programmed up using mere software. The first such workstation took two years to build because of the insertion of this additional step, but subsequent iterations and redesigns, depending upon the nature of the changes, could be accomplished in days or weeks. In effect, PROFS engineers and meteorologists had invented rapid prototyping before it became widely known by that name in other fields of applied science and engineering in the late 1980’s.

Second, PROFS brought in groups of operational forecasters to test alternative workstation configurations and provide the feedback needed to derive a nearly optimum system. They embedded researchers with practitioners and vice versa. By blurring distinctions between the two, they not only dramatically sharpened communication and refined the final product but in the process improved the morale and sense of purpose of both groups.

Third, PROFS introduced a management innovation. Though housed administratively within the research arm of NOAA, PROFS was jointly managed by a so-called troika – the leadership of NWS, the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, and the National Environmental Satellite and Data Information Service (NESDIS). Staff from these three NOAA Line Offices were in daily communication, and in many cases collocated for the work at hand. The three associate administrators would meet in person for two-day quarterly reviews with several levels of staff working on the project.

In retrospect, the secret sauce in all this was the choice to focus initially solely on workstation design rather than dissipate that same attention over the whole of the MAR. The forecaster workstation was both a key NWS outlet to public service delivery (especially public-safety messages) and a key customer for all the upstream observations and centralized numerical weather prediction products. It was in effect impossible to achieve success with respect to the workstation design without getting all the other links in the service delivery chain properly aligned. Management attention steadily expanded to include these larger considerations.

In the end, PROFS and its EDF shaved years off the time required to develop what would become the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) system and greatly enhanced the final result.

This background provides a partial list of teachings from the MAR that might be applied moving forward. Here’s a start (you can readily come up with your additional ideas and better formulations):

  • Accelerate and strengthen the technology infusion; be as disciplined about, and give as much priority to, R2O as to either research or operations per se.
  • As a starting point, continue to invest in the work and capabilities of PROFS – the rapid-prototyping capability developed during the late-20th-century MAR that not only greatly accelerated development of the forecaster workstation but ensured that it would be tailored to forecaster needs. Today, PROFS exists under a different name – the Global Systems Division of NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory. It’s functioning well but its reach is constrained. This is not for lack of ideas but by funding and staff levels. Moreover, the multiple-line office, AA-level attention and priority given the work has fallen off its (intense) levels of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
  • More fundamentally, NOAA’s struggle to stay abreast of rapid advances in science and technology show the need to weave R2O capability throughout the fabric of the entire agency. Pockets of excellent R2O exist here and there across NOAA. But what’s needed is a robust R2O infrastructure connecting the successful bits and filling the gaps, and a culture of R2O guiding the whole. (In this respect it’s heartening to see NOAA leadership and Chief Scientist Rick Spinrad in particular taking a hands-on, agency-wide leadership role with respect to R2O across NOAA.)
  • Lastly, NOAA should remember that it is fundamentally a science and technology agency. Here’s an important distinction: Change – especially technological change – happens to agencies such as, say, the Social Security Administration. The technology for providing benefits to the elderly may change but not the basic purpose. By contrast, NOAA and its Line Offices are constantly reinventing themselves and what they do. That dynamic is inherent in problems like building weather-readiness and managing marine resources and monitoring the Earth. NOAA effectuates change, embodies change, even as it responds to changing external circumstances, both natural and social.

That brings us to the outside piece. NOAA cannot accomplish this alone.

This means that the late-20th-century MAR also holds lessons for members of Congress, and for other stakeholders outside NOAA and the NWS as well. The nation needs to put priority on innovation and on its application for societal benefit.

  • Most immediately, it’s shortsighted to nickel-and-dime the NWS and settle for life-extension plans for outmoded systems. Any apparent cost-savings are illusory. Instead, Congress and the executive branch should invest in the new technologies and networking opportunities. In the short term this puts Americans in both public- and private sectors to work at high-tech tasks that will build 21st-century infrastructure. In the intermediate term this creates global markets for American products and services. And in the long term it builds an America more resilient to natural hazards at home and a good neighbor when it comes to building weather-ready nations abroad.
  • As a starting point, Congress and the executive branch could accelerate the adoption and implementation of phased-array radar technology for monitoring storms.
  • Congress might also work with NWS and the Department of Commerce to develop and strengthen the modalities that allow the NWS to work with the private sector at all levels, ranging from aerospace corporations to local small businesses, to make co-production of meteorological knowledge, vigorous R2O, and continuous infusion of new science and technology across the entire government and corporate enterprise a reality, not just a mere aspiration.
  • Although much work is needed, recognition of this need is widespread, particularly with respect to development and operation of satellite-based observing systems and harnessing of so-called big data. But another starting point that merits additional attention is the so-called National Network of Networks. NOAA controls and operates only a few percent of the surface meteorological instruments across the United States. Most are operated by state and local governments and the private sector. To coordinate these observations and build a whole more effective and efficient than the sum of the parts is as much political and legal challenge as it is technical.

The next post will focus attention on the workforce dimensions of last century’s Modernization and Associated Restructuring, which were profound.


[1] Much of the credit for this vision and the early implementation goes to two remarkable individuals, whose names wouldn’t be recognized by most NOAA professionals today: Donald W. Beran, who was the first director of PROFS, and David Small, who was his senior engineer. Later it would be Alexander (Sandy) MacDonald who would draw on his unique background spanning Air Force forecasting experience and meteorological research who would take over leadership of the program and really make it go.

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Evolving the National Weather Service. 2. Technology and infrastructure.

“the war to end all wars” – British author H. G. Wells (referring to World War I).

“This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.” British prime minister Lloyd George, at war’s end.

wsr57 radar

(Continuing lessons from history as they inform the current NOAA effort to evolve the NWS…)

World War I was horrific in terms of casualties and geographic reach. The carnage led some to hope that nations and their leaders would forever after forego war as a means to settle differences or achieve aspirations. However, by the conflict’s end, the world had grown more cynical and less sanguine.

Something similar happened with the NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring (MAR) late in the 20th century. Here’s the (greatly over-simplified) story.

One driver for the MAR – in many ways the poster child – was the need to replace the aging network of WSR57 weather surveillance radars (pictured). The designator “57” referred to the year 1957 when the network had been deployed. The technology was in reality much older still – dating back to World War II.

By the 1980’s, radar capabilities had advanced. Any replacement radars could have Doppler capability, recognized as a sine qua non for detection of thunderstorm rotation and early warning of tornadoes. All that would be required was a bit of extra signal processing electronics, representing an additional cost amounting to no more than “sales tax” on top of the cost of several million dollars for each unit. Dual polarization, which could unambiguously distinguish between hail and heavy rain – was also at hand, and would have cost no more than another $10K per unit.

But it was mere upkeep – not any futuristic vision for improved public safety – that was driving the MAR. WSR57 electronics relied on vacuum tubes. Some were so outdated that when they burned out (much like any light bulb) they had to be painstakingly dismantled and refurbished by hand; they were no longer in manufacture. Aging radar mounts were also failing. No longer able to rotate as intended, they were seizing up on their pedestals at weather stations across the nation. Radar outages could therefore be numerous and prolonged. The problem was clearly set to grow with every passing year. In fact, when NIST (yes, that NIST) did a cost-benefit study for replacement of the radars, economists were able to justify the total cost of the MAR as a whole entirely on the basis of maintenance costs saved just on the WSR57’s alone.

The NEXRAD (NEXt-generation RADar) system of WSR88D weather surveillance radars was the result – finally installed beginning in 1988, 30 years after the old system had been put into operation – with Doppler (hence the D), but lacking the additional hail-heavy-rain discrimination feature.

By the 1970’s and 1980’s, radars represented only one of many systems that had grown outdated. The NWS also needed to automate surface measurements of temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction and how the data were shared system-wide. In Weather Service Offices of old, the radar display might sit in one corner of the room. Satellite imagery might be coming in by fax in another corner. Products from the primitive computer models of the time would come in by fax as well. Warnings might be issued from the office via individual telephone calls to broadcast media and emergency managers who could then get the warnings out more broadly. The communication was analog. But by the 1970’s and 1980’s, computers and digital communication were making it possible and economic to automate all of this. In principle, forecasters should be able to sit at a single desk, with multiple displays integrating models, satellite, radar, and surface information, generating and disseminating warning text and products – all with just a few key clicks. The result would be development and installation of the Advanced Weather Information Processing System, or AWIPS. This became an NWS/MAR goal.

Like World War I (but, happily, with fewer actual casualties) the MAR proved wrenchingly difficult and painful for all NWS employees from headquarters down to the field forecasters. All the new technology had to be developed without skipping a beat putting out the hourly and daily forecast products – and keeping up this dual workload for something like a decade. At the same time, the new technology was enabling and also forcing changes in forecaster workload and role. During this period, the job of NWS deputy director morphed into the toughest job in NOAA. Then-NWS-Director Hallgren split that role into a deputy for day-to-day operations and a deputy for the transition, instantly creating the two toughest jobs in NOAA.

At the end, all NWS employees involved – at all levels – breathed a collective sigh of relief, and in the same breath, said, Never again! This may not have been the first NWS Modernization and Restructuring, but it will be the last!

(Unconsciously channeling H.G. Wells) This was to have been the MAR to end all MARs.

Instead (said these same NWS personnel at that time), from now on, we’ll make such draconian, disruptive, step-function modernizations unnecessary. We’ll continuously infuse new technology into services as soon as it becomes available.

But a different reality quickly set in. Before long, day-to-day operations had once again become the major focus. Infusion of new science and technology has since been continuous but slow, failing to keep pace with the boom in science and in information technology over the past 15-20 years.

Why did the outcome everyone wanted to avoid – the need for yet another technological and structural upheaval, versus a more gentle, continuous process of innovation – happen anyway?In the next post, some lessons from this narrative…


A postscript. The National Weather Service struggles of the past 15-20 years don’t reflect on any organizational lack of competence or effort, or leadership lack of vision. Nor are they in any sense unique. Instead they mirror nearly-universal travails of all large-technology-based enterprises as they try to stay current. Take, for example, the U.S. military. You can find an excellent summary of this parallel history and the transcendent stakes for America’s standing in the world in this article – Who’s Afraid of America? in the June 13th print edition of The Economist.)


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Evolving the National Weather Service? Some reflections (from a distant mirror).

The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” – Theodore Roosevelt

“This isn’t the NWS Modernization. It’s the 10th NWS Modernization. And it isn’t just a Modernization. It’s a Modernization and Associated Restructuring.” – Richard E. Hallgren (NWS Director, 1979-1988)




NOAA’s National Weather Service is busily engaged right now in reinventing itself – from its leadership and management to the bench forecaster, from its observations to its products and services, and from its internal organization to its relationships with the public it serves and with other stakeholders. This is no mean feat; indeed it’s akin to changing the tire while the car is moving (yes, it can be done). The reinvention is years in the making, and stressful, perhaps even exhausting for all involved… and it’s not being accomplished in isolation. NWS is attracting plenty of attention and advice from all sides, including reports from the national academies, Congressional legislation, and input from private-sector meteorologists, emergency managers, transportation officials, and many others.

All this action and the surrounding hubbub calls to mind an absolutely extraordinary book published in 1978 by the noted popular historian Barbara Tuchman (pictured above). Entitled A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, the book was written during the Cold War, at a time when people lived with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. Not suprisingly, speculation about the possible consequences of such an event was widespread. Ms. Tuchman suggested that perhaps lessons could be learned from a look at the Black Death, which killed one third of the people from India to Iceland during the single winter of 1347-1348. Her book was rich in detail, and covered many topics, but one feature stood out – a shift in the balance between the supply and demand for labor. Prior to the plague, there was plenty of labor to go around, and most Europeans lived in poverty and slavery – feudal servitude to a handful of nobility. In the aftermath, labor was at a premium. People broke free of their feudal masters, formed guilds, and a middle class was born.

So – channeling President Roosevelt and Ms. Tuchman – where might we look to find lessons that history might offer to guide today’s NWS evolution and reinvention?

It turns out that we don’t have to go far afield; the so-called NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring of the late 20th century might be a good place to start. This has already been widely recognized by all parties. For example, prior to the NAS/NRC’s landmark 2012 study, Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None, the Academy’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate published The National Weather Service Modernization and Associated Restructuring: a Retrospective Assessment, looking for lessons learned[1].

And those leading that particular effort (which was most visible from the late 1980’s through 2000, but had roots extending back into the 1970’s) were in turn very mindful that their work had historical precedents as well. During the period Dick Hallgren, who masterminded the MAR and who was director of the National Weather Service from 1979-1988, would fulminate against any and all (like me), who would attempt to use the shorthand “the modernization” to refer to the process.  Every time, he’d pounce: “This isn’t the NWS Modernization. It’s the 10th NWS Modernization. And it isn’t just a Modernization. It’s a Modernization and Associated Restructuring.” Occasionally I’d try to argue the “10th,” accusing him of making that detail up. He’d always rattle off a few dates. And he was adamant on the “associated restructuring.” He always made sure that every listener understood the effort wasn’t about hardware alone. It was first and foremost about people and how they were equipped and organized to do the Weather Service job.

Which brings us to the current “evolution of the NWS.” NOAA and the NWS have been reaching out to stakeholders, sharing what they have in mind for this latest iteration of “modernization” or “evolution.”

The NWS approach addresses people; technology and infrastructure; management; and stakeholders. These were all features of the previous modernization and associated restructuring. As before – and this is the key point for this post — the starting point is the NWS mission, phrased this way: “evolving the NWS to Build a Weather-Ready Nation.” This is both motivation and guide for the entire evolution.  Demands on technology; the needed numbers, locations, organization and job skills of people; any necessary restructuring of offices; and any changes in internal and external relationships are then to be discovered in light of that mission and its requirements, not specified a priori in legislation or set as goals in and of themselves.

This mirrors a reality well understood by NWS officials during the Modernization and Associated Restructuring the last time around. Throughout the early 1980’s, NWS leaders were acutely aware of sentiment in some political quarters for privatizing weather services. They recognized that if they lost sight of their mission and mandate, outsiders might hand them (a less viable) one. Throughout, they held strongly to the core public safety mission of the NWS – an inherent government function, not easily devolved to the private sector. They resisted ideas that the NWS was solely an observational and modeling agency; they saw this as a step down a slippery slope. Absent the safety mission, financial pressures would constantly whittle away at the observational and modeling capabilities, to the detriment of public and private weather services alike. NWS Director Hallgren would consistently emphasize that the NWS would take no observation that wasn’t needed for public safety.  Of course, it was hard to find an observation that couldn’t be seen to contribute to this core goal.

Viewed in light of that prior history,“Evolving the NWS to Build a Weather-Ready Nation” has much to commend it. It maintains the public-safety focus, and it frames that task as a national task, not just an NWS task, or the job of either NOAA or the Department of Commerce alone.  The goal is a weather-ready nation, not just a national weather service that isn’t caught by surprise. The goal inherently  reaches outside the NWS purview, drawing in the private sector, state- and local government, and the public; and seeing warnings and emergency response as a residual part of a larger risk-management strategy, dealing only with that portion of the risk still remaining after land use, building codes, and strengthening of critical infrastructure have been tended to. It recognizes that science and technology are constantly advancing even as social change is redefining what it means for three thousand counties and countless more towns and cities to be weather-ready. Accordingly, the current NWS leadership hasn’t developed quite the circle-the-wagons approach adopted by NWS leadership in previous iterations. This time around, NWS has reached out to the National Academy of Public Administration for guidance as embodied in their 2013 report, Forecast for the Future: Assuring the Capacity of the National Weather Service, and has also tapped McKinsey, a consultancy, to help poll and work with stakeholders moving forward.

A good start.  Future posts will examine in turn each of the four major elements of the NWS evolution strategy as reflected in that distant mirror, the NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring.


[1] (Full disclosure/disclaimer). In the remainder of this post and those to follow on evolving the National Weather Service, the NAS/NRC Retrospective Assessment and other documents should be regarded as the definitive, peer-reviewed word. By contrast, what you’ll find here will be in the spirit of the Darwin quote on the blog’s masthead: mere personal views, supported by a little evidence.

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Holism: the first casualty in the climate-change war?

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – attributed to various authors

The recently-released papal encyclical on climate change calls for a holistic approach to the challenge.

(That’s holistic and holism as in considering the problem in its broadest aspects, versus isolating any particular feature; papal authorship notwithstanding, it’s not any kind of reference to the Holy See.)

A major feature of the climate-change debate (war?) is the lack of agreement even on this point. Some (a diminishing percentage of us) argue that climate change itself is a fiction; therefore any discussion of holism is ill-founded. Others might say climate change is purely a technical problem; simply reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and the problem goes away. A larger number would see the technical issues as interwoven with social problems. The pope adds an overlay of the spiritual dimension (in his argument, far more than an overlay; he makes a strong case that the spiritual dimension is foundational)[1].

All around us,aversion to tackling climate change holistically abounds. It’s being replaced with a cafeteria-style approach to knowledge and understanding – and, for that matter, wisdom itself. To see this, we need look no further afield than the U.S. Congress. Some in that body would have us cut back on research on the physical side of the climate problem, reducing budgets for research in the geosciences – whether in DoE, in NASA, in NOAA, and at NSF. Egged on by some outside prompting, they’re happy to hope for the best. They see us as innovating our way out of our difficulties by developing renewable energy technology, making breakthroughs in battery capabilities, and building national electrical grids. In the meantime, they say, we’re buying ourselves time by converting wherever possible from dirty coal to cleaner natural gas. Others in Congress would slash federal funding (already puny) for the social sciences.

State legislatures seem to be contemplating similar measures – with humanities as the target. In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, Kathryn Lynch, an English professor and dean of faculty affairs at Wellesley College, bemoans such threats, arguing that cutting the liberal arts undermines our cultural traditions. She starts out this way:

“It’s common to fret over unintended consequences. But what about intended consequences?

In Wisconsin, lawmakers are debating a proposed change to state law that would weaken tenure protections at the University of Wisconsin system’s schools. If it passes, faculty could be terminated whenever “such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision.” Twenty-one scholarly associations, including the American Historical Association, the Association of College & Research Libraries and the Modern Language Association, denounced this effort for its threat to shared governance and academic freedom. And, to be sure, those are threats not to be minimized. In the age of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” academic freedom is under siege.

Little is being said, however, about the law’s explicitly stated purpose: to pave the way for the elimination of faculty appointments in fields that simply do not seem worth continued investment, not because a faculty member holds an unpopular or controversial opinion but because he or she teaches in a currently unpopular field. The very point of this proposal is to give the University of Wisconsin system the flexibility to reduce staffing in specific areas.

What departments and programs will be on the chopping block? Almost certainly they will be in the humanities. A consultant who works with university governing boards was quoted disparagingly about “some of these liberal arts colleges . . . limping along with all this tenured faculty in German or some other language no one’s taking, and you can’t just move them into some other field, so you have to wait for them to retire.” Remove the obstacle of tenure, and voilà, instant budget savings. No need for those offending faculty to reach their natural retirement age. They are gone tomorrow.

From New York’s University at Albany to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, to the University of Virginia (my graduate school alma mater), where President Teresa Sullivan was under pressure to reduce or eliminate programs in “obscure” fields such as German and classics, humanities departments are being cut or threatened. The narrative is now so deep-seated and widespread that its appearance as part of the Wisconsin conflict seems practically unremarkable. Friends don’t let friends major in the humanities, where majors as a percentage of all degree recipients are down by half since their peak in the 1960s. Big thriving universities don’t need them, either.”

She goes on to argue “… a 2014 study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities that demonstrates that, during their peak earning years, graduates in the humanities and social sciences make more money than those who major in pre-professional fields. Another report, from the Association of American Medical Colleges, shows that humanities majors have higher acceptance rates to medical school than social science or natural science majors . But to focus solely on these indicators is already to concede that the chief measure of educational value can be found in the marketplace.

The humanities offer a larger and more significant value to our culture that is not captured in their pure utility. The humanities include the very fields that permit us to maintain an informed historical perspective on our lives. Without the humanities, there is no history. A German major will study Goethe; an Italian major Dante; a Russian major Tolstoy; an English major will learn the backgrounds to Chaucer (in my class) and Shakespeare (from the guy across the hall). A philosophy major will come to understand how the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle helped set the stage for the Enlightenment. The academy has provided a welcoming home to these areas of study for hundreds of years, and they have survived under its protection. It’s worth thinking about what human culture would be without guardians who dedicate their time to preserving and passing on the lessons of history and the classics of art, music and literature.”

Dean Lynch’s theme is quite broad and far-reaching. But suppose she’d have zeroed in on the recent papal encyclical on climate change. She might well have noted that it’s the humanities that best deal with the profound matters of the spirit that Pope Francis underscored and that preoccupy us all.

Many men and women, from every walk of life, would happily rise in support of Dean Lynch. Here’s a poster child from the world of business: Richard Franke. Mr. Franke is a former chief executive officer of the John Nuveen Company (now Nuveen Investments), serving in that role for the last 22 years of his four decades with that company. He played a pivotal role in building the assets at Nuveen Investments to their present value of well over $200 billion.  In 1988, he also helped found the Chicago Humanities Festival program, with this stated purpose:

… to create opportunities for people of all ages to support, enjoy and explore the humanities. We fulfill this mission through our annual festivals, the fall Chicago Humanities Festival and the spring Stages, Sights & Sounds, and by presenting programs throughout the year that encourage the study and enjoyment of the humanities.

Our Goals are to:

  • Bring the world’s best and brightest humanists together to examine and celebrate the humanities
  • Showcase the riches of the world’s cultures and their contributions to the humanities
  • Gather together new and diverse audiences to enjoy the humanities
  • Encourage and enable teachers and students in their study of the humanities
  • Draw international attention to the importance of the humanities
  • Foster collaboration, cooperation and dialogue among the artistic, cultural and educational communities that provide life and support to the humanities

The Chicago Humanities Festival is devoted to making the humanities a vital and vibrant ingredient of daily life. We believe that access to cultural, artistic and educational opportunities is a necessary element for a healthy and robust civic environment.

The Festival has now been running for more than a quarter-century. In addition, Richard Franke and his wife have endowed Yale’s Franke Program in Science and the Humanities. In 2014, he wrote a small, highly personalized, and delightfully readable book on all this, entitled Books, Bonds, and Balance.

To conclude, it’s perhaps not surprising that attacks on holism are themselves compartmentalized. It’s nevertheless worth saying that since holism is required for so many of the challenges woven throughout our 21st-century world, holism needs to be vigorously defended. Innovation across the board – and clear thinking about the intended and unintended consequences of all that innovation – needs invigorating, not limiting.


[1] LOTRW – both the blog and the book – argues that climate change is merely a symptom of a much broader and more complex set of relationships between us and our planet, encompassing the Earth as resource, victim, and threat.

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Pope Francis schools the world on systems of equations.

Please let me know what you think of this analogy:

Late in elementary school or somewhere in middle school, kids encounter one several branch points that tend to separate those likely to continue in mathematics and science from those who won’t: systems of equations. The background is available on many web sites:

A system of equations is a collection of two or more equations with a same set of unknowns. In solving a system of equations, we try to find values for each of the unknowns that will satisfy every equation in the system. The equations in the system can be linear or non-linear. [emphasis added]

Here’s a simple example:

X + Y                   =   28

X + 3Y + 0.05Z =   74

0.9X + 2Y + Z   = 245.

And here’s a more complicated system of equations:


Atmospheric scientists will recognize this latter equation set immediately.

Add in an additional equation of state for an ideal gas and you have the system of equations that must be solved simultaneously in numerical weather prediction. Add equations of radiative transfer and information about the radiative properties of trace gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and you can calculate the amount of climate warming resulting from different levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

It’s tempting to physical (atmospheric) scientists to stop here. We say to the world, Job done! We’ve solved the system of equations that matters, and look out! The use of fossil fuels is warming the atmosphere to unacceptable levels. We’ve got to cut back on fossil fuel consumption.

But, going back to our simple example, it’s as if we looked only at the first of our three equations and convinced ourselves that X=26; Y= 2 was the solution. We’re saying the X factor (the physics of the challenge – the rise in global atmospheric temperature) is the only piece that matters. The social piece – let’s call it the Y factor – is merely fossil-fuel consumption and shouldn’t matter much; there are multiple alternative energy options. In view of such a great environmental threat physical scientists and ecologists might not be blamed for thinking society ought readily to find easy workarounds. (We tend to minimalize the many trillions of dollars invested in a vast infrastructure worldwide and the millions of workers extracting and redistributing this energy and keeping the world’s lights on and the world’s vehicles moving.)

Enter now the social scientists. To them, the social dimensions of the problem can’t be trivialized in this way. Instead they loom large. Social scientists offer an entirely new way of looking at climate change – as a matter of human choice. They suggest that policymakers:

  1. View the issue of climate change holistically, not just as the problem of emissions reductions. 
  1. Recognize that, for climate policymaking, institutional limits to global sustainability are at least as important as environmental limits.
  1. Prepare for the likelihood that social, economic, and technological change will be more rapid and have greater direct impacts on human populations than climate change.
  1. Recognize the limits of rational planning.
  1. Employ the full range of analytical perspectives and decision aids from natural and social sciences and the humanities in climate change policymaking.
  1. Design policy instruments for real world conditions rather than try to make the world conform to a particular policy model. 
  1. Incorporate climate change into other more immediate issues, such as employment, defense, economic development, and public health.
  1. Take a regional and local approach to climate policymaking and implementation. 
  1. Direct resources into identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience, especially where the impacts will be largest.

 10. Use a pluralistic approach to decision-making.

It’s as if they showed up with the second of our two simple equations, based on their science. Note they’ve introduced a new variable, one that the physical scientists hadn’t considered…the Z factor. For the moment let’s say it reflects item 4 in the above list: the limits of rational planning. Let’s also say that the social scientists are under the sway of economists. (With considerable – okay, probably even unfair – oversimplification) economists believe we are all rational actors and so Z must be small, so that we can throw it out.

We then have (please bear with me here – almost done) two equations in two unknowns:

X + Y   = 30

X + 3Y = 74,

with the solution X=8, Y=22.

Hmm. Rather different from the earlier surmise that X=26; Y=2.

Enter now Pope Francis, who suggests that in addition to physical and social realities (the X and Y of our story), there’s a moral element that underpins both. Let’s call it that “irrational” factor Z that we all threw away earlier. He reinserts it, telling us we need to view the issue as spiritual at its core. To him, both the physical and the social challenges stem from our willingness to objectify our natural surroundings rather than appreciate them at a deep level, to see all of creation as merely background to be exploited. What’s worse, the pope tells us, is that over time, we’ve allowed ourselves to objectify each other, especially those living in squalor a world away. We all too willingly ignore their plight, and absorb ourselves instead in a cocoon of technology and virtual reality (all this poorly articulated here relative to the encyclical, but we all get the idea). The pope tells us, bluntly, we need to get the spiritual part right, both as it operates in each of us as individuals and in the way we function as community, to have any hope of solving the climate change problem – which is only a symptom of a larger spiritual-social-physical malaise.

It’s as if he restored the factor 0.05Z to the second equation and brought the third equation to the table:

0.9X + 2Y + Z   = 245.

It’s only at this point that we finally arrive at the solution: X=10; Y=18; Z=200.

Of course the math and especially the wholly arbitrary numerical values are not what matters here. The pope is saying that we’ve incompletely specified the problem. Physical scientists are focused only on the inanimate piece of the puzzle, minimizing both social and spiritual realities. The social scientists have been punctilious in correcting the physicists, but haven’t been noticeably any more eager to embrace the spiritual part. It’s implicit at best in their ten suggestions for policymakers; more likely it’s simply missing.

The pope is saying nothing less than that spiritual part is the essential starting point. But he’s also saying that the God he worships is lord of it all – the physical, social, and spiritual part. All of it matters. In agreement with social scientists and their first suggestion, he’s looking for holistic approaches to the problem, but he wants “holistic” to be truly so, to encompass every dimension.


A footnote in closing. The pope doesn’t stop there. He goes on to assert something much more profound. He’s argues that this God factor is not zero sum: God is not simply the Celestial Scold. He is love, He wants to help, and He’s able to do so. He’s encouraging Catholic believers but really all of us to tap into this limitless reservoir of (totally renewable) energy and good will. If we are realistic (says the pope), in all senses of that word, we recognize God’s been intervening throughout human history to the benefit of both man and life forms on this host planet. We haven’t gotten this far by ourselves. If we work with Him and with each other we can make the 21st century the greatest century ever.

Of course, many might prefer instead to argue with the pope on these points – and might rather find logic to prove themselves right than be happy.

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Papal prayers on climate change.


At the conclusion of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, issued this past Thursday, he proposed “that we offer two prayers. The first we can share with all who believe in a God who is the all-powerful Creator, while in the other we Christians ask for inspiration to take up the commitment to creation set before us by the Gospel of Jesus.”

Here are those two prayers, verbatim:

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe

and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

Pour out upon us the power of your love,

that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live

as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor,

help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,

so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives,

that we may protect the world and not prey on it,

that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts

of those who look only for gain

at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,

to be filled with awe and contemplation,

to recognize that we are profoundly united

with every creature

as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.

Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle

for justice, love and peace.


A Christian prayer in union with creation

Father, we praise you with all your creatures.

They came forth from your all-powerful hand;

they are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love.

Praise be to you!

Son of God, Jesus,

through you all things were made.

You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother,

you became part of this earth,

and you gazed upon this world with human eyes.

Today you are alive in every creature

in your risen glory.

Praise be to you!

Holy Spirit, by your light

you guide this world towards the Father’s love

and accompany creation as it groans in travail.

You also dwell in our hearts

and you inspire us to do what is good.

Praise be to you!

Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,

teach us to contemplate you

in the beauty of the universe,

for all things speak of you.

Awaken our praise and thankfulness

for every being that you have made.

Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined

to everything that is.

God of love, show us our place in this world

as channels of your love

for all the creatures of this earth,

for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.

Enlighten those who possess power and money

that they may avoid the sin of indifference,

that they may love the common good, advance the weak,

and care for this world in which we live.

The poor and the earth are crying out.

O Lord, seize us with your power and light,

help us to protect all life,

to prepare for a better future,

for the coming of your Kingdom

of justice, peace, love and beauty.

Praise be to you!


Given in Rome at Saint Peter’s on 24 May, the Solemnity of Pentecost, in the year 2015, the third of my Pontificate.



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Laudato si’

Pope Francis Meets The Roman Diocesans

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs   

– Saint Francis of Assisi

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

– Pope Francis

Praise be to God indeed! Thursday’s Papal encyclical on climate change breathes fresh air and spirit on a world and on a climate-change debate sorely in need of both. The depth and breadth of the discussion defy casual summary. To attempt to identify and lift nuggets from the larger whole or to pick-and-choose cafeteria-style among the arguments presented is misdirected if not futile, though we’ve seen numerous attempts in all the news and social media in the days since. What makes the nuggets truly golden are their settings – the precise wording and the carefully-woven context. That weaving is so deft and intricate that attempts to unravel particular bits from the fuller exposition leave something far inferior to the whole.

In other words, to feel the impact you and I had best read the encyclical in its entirety. That encouragement doesn’t even go far enough. To go further – not merely to feel its impact but to derive its benefit, to experience its healing – we need to meditate on it. And we’re not talking about meditating on it over a single weekend. The encyclical deserves regular revisits. Over months. Years. It’s going to stand the test of time.

Ten comments.

  1. The encyclical is more about human nature than Earth’s nature. In fact it sees the two as inextricably intertwined, inseparable. Furthermore, it sees climate change not as a separate issue, or even as an issue in its own right. Instead it’s a symptom of human failings and shortcomings: greed, selfishness, hypocrisy, mendacity, etc. You could add shortsightedness except that at several points the text notes that we’re not merely oblivious to our wrongs and how they exacerbate the problem. Our actions are premeditated. We possess the needed self-awareness, and we see the bow wave of problems we’re creating for the poor and disenfranchised, for those less fortunate – and yet we proceed anyway.
  1. It’s a Rorschach test. Scientists may be tempted to ignore the spiritual dimension, and focus on the realities of environmental degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity. NGO’s focused on the plight of the poor, whether the poor nations or the poor within each nation, will exult over the papal support for their cause. Free-market voices of a certain stripe will decry papal attempts to “make all of us poor.” Political leaders of a certain persuasion will grouse about religious meddling in economic and social matters. Check the news summaries and the blogs. You’ll find everyone finding in the encyclical support for long-held positions and personally and institutionally-cherished preferences. (LOTRW is surely no exception; another reason you should read the encyclical from start to finish and draw your own conclusions.)
  1. It’s reality-based. In support, here’s a snippet from section 201 of the encyclical: realities are greater than ideas (the original text includes a citation to an earlier Vatican work). But (especially scientist-friends) be warned; reality here is assumed to have physical, social, and spiritual dimensions. (An aside. Some scientists make it clear that non-experts should be cautious in arguing with scientists about climate change. Understood. But we scientists ought to be equally attentive to those who’ve studied spirituality in a disciplined way when they share what their studies on such matters have revealed. And if we’re reluctant to be blindly submissive on these latter subjects, then perhaps we ought to be more respectful to those who dare question our science.)
  1. It sees these realities and our human challenges as fully integrated and inseparable. For example, the encyclical makes clear that our environmental problems stems from seeing nature and all its life and creatures as being mere objects as opposed to essential manifestations of the love and power and nature of God. It sees our indifference to the plight of lifeforms and landforms as intimately related to our disinterest in the suffering of others. It describes us as having allowed ourselves to drift into a state of slavery to technology as opposed to retaining mastery over it.
  1. It is fully comfortable with both science and faith. At one and the same time the encyclical holds true to the idea of a created universe and embraces findings of science with respect to the size of the universe, the age of the earth, evolution of life, and the nature of reality at the quantum level. It is positive about the contributions of science and technology not just to material human welfare but beauty and the elevation of the human spirit. And interestingly, it doesn’t dither over these concerns; it simply blows right through them. Surely an encouragement to the rest of us to follow suit.
  1. The moral message ought to arouse us more than the economic message. The encyclical makes much of our interest in individual material well-being as measured by conventional means. This has already come under attack from some quarters as “the pope urging us to all be poor.” But the deeper message of the encyclical is that when we enrich ourselves while turning a blind eye to the basic human needs of others – whether for food, or water, or shelter, or respect – we do great and indelible harm to our souls, and that this is the greater danger.
  1. The encyclical is more celebratory than condemnatory. Throughout – in every section and every reflection, the encyclical reminds us that the Creation is good. It sees every aspect of physical reality both animate and inanimate as carrying a message about God’s love, power, interest in our well-being, and forgiving nature. It speaks to our access to joy and peace in light of this understanding. It speaks to the possibility of building a richer, more equitable, more sustainable, future.
  1. It is a group construct. Surely Pope Francis called for it. Surely he made editorial comments as the work proceeded, and had a good deal to say about both its substance and tenor. But the encyclical clearly has as much in common with an IPCC report as it does with the prayerful reflection of a saintly, devout individual. There are frequent, quoted references to thoughts and contributions from bishops from around the world. Much as an IPCC report, the chapters and conclusions are informed by the scholarship and study of many other individuals, past and present, who are extensively and thoroughly cited.
  1. It is a valuable addition to the ongoing global dialog. While, as an encyclical, it’s intended to represent a “final” or definitive papal word in some sense, it’s not intended to supplant discussion so much as contribute to it. The latter sections of the encyclical encourage continuing dialog of all kinds: international, national and local, dialog leading to transparency in decision-making, politics and economy in dialog for human fulfillment, religions in dialog with science. In section 188, the Pope emphasizes all this:

There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.

  1. Did I say you ought to read the whole thing for yourself and draw your own conclusions? Yes. Is the encyclical the last word? No. Is it a perfect document? No. Is it something you and I would do well to discuss seriously with each other? Build on and improve? Absolutely, no matter who we are or what our role.

Let’s get at it.

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