Giving Thanks? It’s what we do. What we’ve always done.

psalm-104The post that immediately follows says a bit about the history of Thanksgiving, picking up the thread in 1621 with the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. They gave thanks together for a successful harvest.

But giving thanks for harvest is a practice that goes back much earlier. It’s as old as agriculture itself. In those times, by contrast to today, most people ate food they themselves had planted, grown, and harvested. Their experience of all this was direct and personal, and they saw evidence of God’s favor or anger in their (twofold relationship at the time) with the Earth: as resource or threat. In addition to giving thanks on a designated day or days each year, they would also give thanks for such grace much more frequently.

Psalm 104 (NIV) captures some of this spirit:

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Lord my God, you are very great;

   you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

2 The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;

   he stretches out the heavens like a tent

3     and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.

He makes the clouds his chariot

   and rides on the wings of the wind.

4 He makes winds his messengers,

   flames of fire his servants.

5 He set the earth on its foundations;

   it can never be moved.

6 You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;

   the waters stood above the mountains.

7 But at your rebuke the waters fled,

   at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;

8 they flowed over the mountains,

   they went down into the valleys,

   to the place you assigned for them.

9 You set a boundary they cannot cross;

   never again will they cover the earth.

10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines;

 it flows between the mountains.

11 They give water to all the beasts of the field;

   the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

12 The birds of the sky nest by the waters;

   they sing among the branches.

13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;

   the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.

14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,

   and plants for people to cultivate—

   bringing forth food from the earth:

15 wine that gladdens human hearts,

   oil to make their faces shine,

   and bread that sustains their hearts.

16 The trees of the Lord are well watered,

   the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

17 There the birds make their nests;

   the stork has its home in the junipers.

18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats;

   the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.

19 He made the moon to mark the seasons,

   and the sun knows when to go down.

20 You bring darkness, it becomes night,

   and all the beasts of the forest prowl.

21 The lions roar for their prey

   and seek their food from God.

22 The sun rises, and they steal away;

   they return and lie down in their dens.

23 Then people go out to their work,

   to their labor until evening.

24 How many are your works, Lord!

   In wisdom you made them all;

   the earth is full of your creatures.

25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,

   teeming with creatures beyond number—

   living things both large and small.

26 There the ships go to and fro,

   and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

27 All creatures look to you

   to give them their food at the proper time.

28 When you give it to them,

   they gather it up;

when you open your hand,

   they are satisfied with good things.

29 When you hide your face,

   they are terrified;

when you take away their breath,

   they die and return to the dust.

30 When you send your Spirit,

   they are created,

   and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;

   may the Lord rejoice in his works—

32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,

   who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

33 I will sing to the Lord all my life;

   I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,

   as I rejoice in the Lord.

35 But may sinners vanish from the earth

   and the wicked be no more.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Praise the Lord.

Of course, in those times, the Psalms were not simply read, but sung. Here’s a modern rendition. If you’re old school, you might prefer a cantor.

Again, this post is really background and context for the post that follows. I hope you’ll read that as well. And I hope you’ll be blessed by the day.

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Lacking the needed environmental intelligence – will we build $26 Trillion of pipes to nowhere?

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” – Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1746

California's Lake Cachuma, at only 7% of capacity.

California’s Lake Cachuma, at only 7% of capacity.

The November 5, 2016 print edition of The Economist included Liquidity Crisis, an article on water scarcity, making three crisp points: As water becomes ever more scant the world needs to conserve it, use it more efficiently and establish clear rights over who owns the stuff.

The article merits a complete read, but starts out in this vein:

Where water is available, when and in what condition matters hugely. About 97% of the water on earth is salty; the rest is replenished through seasonal rainfall or is stored in underground wells known as aquifers. Humans, who once settled where water was plentiful, are now inclined to shift around to places that are less well endowed, pulled by other economic forces.

Climate change is making some parts of the planet much drier and others far wetter. As people get richer, they use more water. They also “consume” more of it, which means using it in such a way that it is not quickly returned to the source from which it was extracted. (For example, if it is lost through evaporation or turned into a tomato.) The big drivers of this are the world’s increased desire for grain, meat, manufactured goods and electricity. Crops, cows, power stations and factories all need lots of water.

To make matters worse, few places price water properly. Usually, it is artificially cheap, because politicians are scared to charge much for something essential that falls from the sky. This means that consumers have little incentive to conserve it and investors have little incentive to build pipes and other infrastructure to bring it to where it is needed most. In South Africa, for example, households get some water free. In Sri Lanka they pay initially a nominal 4 cents for a cubic metre. By contrast, in Adelaide in Australia, which takes water conservation seriously, an initial batch costs $1.75 per cubic metre. Globally, spending on water infrastructure faces a huge funding shortfall. A hole of $26trn will open up between 2010 and 2030, estimates the World Economic Forum, a think-tank.

from The Economist article

from The Economist article

It is typical of The Economist that every word matters. And the article goes on – worth the read. But this last figure – that the world needs to play catch-up in water infrastructure to the tune of $26T before the year 2030 – ought to bring us up short.

Three points come immediately to mind. First, compare with the more familiar (at least here in the United States) and much smaller dollar figure that comes to us from the American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card: America needs $3.6T investment in infrastructure (of all kinds[1]) between now and 2020. Second, large though it is, $26T compares with $80-100T global yearly GDP which works out to, say, $1300T between now and 2030. The needed water infrastructure makes claim on 2% of that total. For water – the foundation of all life itself? In reality, $26T may be a small price to pay – entirely manageable.

That brings us to the third point. $26T is manageable – but by no means negligible. It’s important to make the investment wisely. We can’t fly blind as we build these assets. We can’t afford to build pipes to nowhere – to where there is no water to be had, or to where there is no compelling necessity for its use.

We need environmental intelligence.

How capable is that environmental intelligence now?

To oversimplify: it turns out after centuries of scientific advance made in parallel with the rest of human progress, we generally know how much water we have worldwide. We know how much is stored in the oceans. We know how much is stored in lakes, rivers, and stream, in ice, in the atmosphere, and even underground. We know when and where we use that water – how much we all drink, what we use for agriculture, for energy, for transportation, and so on. We have good estimates on the quality of that water – which water is contaminated, and in what ways. We have a good bead on present-day mismatch between water supply and demand worldwide. And finally, we know something about how all these pieces of the puzzle are trending[2]

…at the moment.

But because so much of water infrastructure investment is long-term, to invest wisely requires a predictive understanding of how water supply and water use are trending over the next several decades, out to mid-century and beyond. Again, to oversimplify: we lack such predictive capability, at least to the requisite specificity (and minimal uncertainty).

Countries worldwide, including the United States, are racing to develop that intelligence. A few domestic examples – out of many: NOAA, USGS, and the US Army Corps of Engineers have joined forces with academia to establish a National Water Center, and develop a National Water Model. Agencies and research groups worldwide are scrambling to advance climate modeling and outlooks to the point where they can provide quantitative estimates of future global water storage and supply. New satellite technologies are improving our estimates of water storage and trends in underground aquifers (GRACE) and in ice (ICESat-2).

That’s the supply side of the equation. To foresee demand requires we understand where population increase, economic growth, and technology advance are taking us. We also need enough social science to connect these trends to individual and group behavior: how will peoples and nations respond to water scarcity? Where will they move? Will they see anticipate what’s coming, and respond in good order? Or will they be blindsided and respond in crisis? Will refugee populations bloom?

The reality? At the current pace of geoscience, social science, and engineering with respect to these matters, we’re likely to gain the intelligence we require only in time to look at the return on our water infrastructure investments through the rear-view mirror – and realize belatedly at, say, mid-century, what we should have done differently between now and then.

Minimal value in that[3].

But we’re tantalizingly close to learning what we need to know in time to make a real difference; to see what’s coming. Worldwide, something like $20B/year is being invested in the Earth observations, science, and services, to provide environmental intelligence with respect to water. Suppose we were to double that, to take $20B a year – a mere 1% of the $2T/year water infrastructure bill we’re told is coming due – to make a corresponding investment in environmental intelligence infrastructure.

Our ROI[4] on the $2T/year would dramatically improve. And the public would not just tolerate but actively support the needed work.

Seems worth a try.

In closing, note that the challenge goes beyond environmental intelligence to include policy. For us here in the United States, think of policy (again, with great oversimplification) as entering in three ways. First, as The Economist article points out, it’s vital to price water appropriately in order to sift through the value propositions represented by all the options. This means keeping the price of water low for basic human consumption – protecting the public good and especially the needs of the poor. But it also means pricing the use of water for energy and agricultural production fully – eliminating subsidies – to better guide choices about when and where to produce what foodstuffs, compare renewable versus non-renewable energy options, investments in electrical grids, etc. Second, as the post-election U.S. ponders options for funding infrastructure investments and putting people to work it is important we find the right balance between public and private funding of that infrastructure. And finally, it requires that we innovate – that we view our country as a development laboratory where we can explore investment options and strategies with an eye toward how we might develop expertise, products and services, and market these internationally – a chance to do well while doing good.


[1] Including, but not limited to: energy, roads and bridges, ports, waste management, levees, drinking water, transit, rail, aviation, and more. Note that much of this ASCE figure is itself for water infrastructure.

[2] That’s how those folks at The Economist can write their article now.

[3] Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, (AMS 2014) covers this in Chapter 5.2 The Value of Knowing (pp 70-75).

[4] Return on investment.

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The successful launch of GOES-R… and the resilience of Cushing, OK.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Age-old investment advice dating at least to the 17th century.

Do put all your eggs in one basket – but then watch the basket. – attributed, variously, to Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie, among others.

At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41, an Atlas V rocket with NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, or GOES-R, lifts off at 6:42 p.m. EST. GOES-R is the first satellite in a series of next-generation GOES satellites for NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. It will launch to a geostationary orbit over the western hemisphere to provide images of storms and help meteorologists predict severe weather conditionals and develop long-range forecasts.

At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41, an Atlas V rocket with NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, or GOES-R, lifts off at 6:42 p.m. EST. GOES-R is the first satellite in a series of next-generation GOES satellites for NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. It will launch to a geostationary orbit over the western hemisphere to provide images of storms and help meteorologists predict severe weather conditionals and develop long-range forecasts.

Environmental intelligence took a huge step forward this week, with the successful launch of GOES-R. News coverage has been extensive, and uniformly upbeat – even celebratory.

As well it should be – for several reasons. First and foremost, geostationary orbit comprises some of the most valuable real estate in Earth’s vicinity. It’s the only site enabling constant surveillance (as well as continuous line-of-sight communication with) of a specific patch of Earth (in the present case, the Americas). Such observations contribute vital protection against the threats posed by severe weather such as tornadoes and hurricanes.

Second, for the milestone to be fully appreciated, GOES-R needs to be seen in its larger global context. Angela Fritz, writing for the Washington Post, details the history and the  implications for international public safety (and other benefits) anticipated from this new satellite platform and its instruments. As her article reminds us, this 24/7 weather observation of the full globe requires a network of geostationary satellites. The European Union, Russia, India, China, Japan, and Korea are all supporting such observations. The successful launch of GOES-R means that the United States continues to hold up its end, just one piece of a larger puzzle.

Third, the existing geostationary satellite platforms are inexorably aging. Each needs periodic refreshing. GOES-R represents a decade of work and an important start to what is scheduled to be a $10B investment building three more satellites expected to serve the country for two more decades, out to 2036.

Fourth, societal needs for such observations constantly grow more demanding. As Jon Malay describes in a post on The AMS Front Page, GOES-R represents a significant upgrade with respect to its predecessors. It offers four times the spatial resolution (much as today’s cellphone cameras offer far more pixels per image than earlier versions). It will provide five times faster coverage, and real-time lightning mapping to augment the information content of the satellite’s images and corresponding radar and other instrumentation on the ground. The same satellite platform also supports a suite of instruments monitoring solar conditions including x-ray fluxes, flares, and coronal mass ejections that affect electrical power grids and communications here on Earth. Later geostationary platforms will continue to improve upon existing capabilities and add new ones.

Fifth, again as Jon Malay points out, the accomplishment is a truly national – even multinational – one. The GOES-R team spanned public- and private-sectors and included NASA, NOAA, Lockheed Martin Space Systems and the Advanced Technology Center, United Launch Alliance, Harris, Exelis, ATC, LASP, as well as other contractors and subcontractors.

To the rejoicing we can add a sigh of relief. Launch is a risky phase in the life of a satellite platform and its instruments. There’s a lot that can go wrong, sometimes catastrophically wrong. Odds are good; 2016 statistics suggest that the record so far this year is 71 successes, 2 failures, but the U.S. environmental intelligence community had a lot of eggs in this basket. All participants in this venture – and the nation itself – can now exhale.

A lot of eggs in one basket? That brings us to today’s two quotes.

Every adage has its equal and opposite. That includes this old investment advice, so obvious on its face – what could be riskier than having all one’s net worth tied up in, say, a single company’s stock, or a solitary parcel of real estate, or gold or coffee futures? One individual event – the equivalent of tripping and dropping that egg basket – could decrease the value of the holding, and the net worth of its owner, to zero.

But others argue that to diversify is to lose interest in, and ability to see emerging risk to, any single element of the resulting portfolio – risking a slow and steady decline. Instead, they see the path to wealth as focus, combined with nimble response to seize opportunities or head off threats as they arise.

In much the same way, critical infrastructure leads to the same debate. If water, or electricity, or transportation is a continuing need, then no city, or state, or nation can heedlessly risk disruption of that need. Of particular concern are so-called single-point-of-failures (or SPOF’s), that can bring down an entire system – flood inundation of a water treatment plant, or a space weather power surge that knocks out a transformer and triggers shutdown of a regional power grid, for example. The rise of interlocked, computerized SCADA’s (supervisory control and data acquisition systems) that in turn control such infrastructure, and their vulnerability to hacking, have aroused particular apprehension. The engineering and building of critical infrastructure is a continuous quest for redundancy, for system designs offering “self-healing” properties, and for continuity in the face of all manner of threats ranging from natural hazards to terrorism, or even to the untimely death of key individuals.

Not withstanding such concerns, single-point vulnerabilities continue to proliferate. Sometimes this is deliberate, because of the appeal of a special opportunity (in the case of GOES-R, that represented by geostationary orbit), attractions of economies of scale and the value of certain technologies. Major airport hubs, high-voltage electrical transformers, nuclear reactors – even urban centers themselves – might fall into this category. Participants assess and manage known risks by employing a mix of strategies, including insurance. In the GOES-R case, for example, the launch was accomplished while the existing satellites, GOES-East and GOES-West, were still operational.

In other cases – and the growing vulnerability of IT infrastructure across the world might fall into this category – hidden single-point vulnerabilities grow as the unintended consequences of social change and innovation.

Here’s a small example, one of thousands or millions worldwide:

Cushing, Oklahoma. Google this and you’ll find the entry starts out this way:

Cushing is a city in Payne County, Oklahoma, United States. The population was 7,826 at the 2010 census, a decline of 6.5 percent from 8,371 at the 2000 census.

The city was established after the Land Run of 1891 by William “Billy Rae” Little. It was named for Marshall Cushing, private secretary to U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker. An oil boom that began in 1912 led to the city’s development as a refining center…

cushing-paradeSmall town, middle America. But the next bit changes the picture: … Today, Cushing is a major trading hub for crude oil and a famous price settlement point for West Texas Intermediate on the New York Mercantile Exchange.


That describes what some have called the world’s largest oil storage facility, holding 55-60 million barrels of oil, some 13% of total U.S. oil storage capacity (enough to fill the tanks of half of all the cars on the road in the United States). It’s all stored in something roughly 300 tanks above ground, spread over several square miles, fed by half a dozen major pipelines (someday, possibly, to be joined by the so-called Keystone pipeline).


This adds up to a significant single-point vulnerability – especially for a site squarely in the middle of tornado alley. But on November 6, the Cushing oil pipelines and storage facilities withstood a threat of a totally different nature – a 5.0 earthquake. The town itself was not so resilient. According to this news source, The state emergency management office said there has been major damage reported at a senior living apartment complex in Cushing.

The American Red Cross has set up a shelter at the Cushing Youth Center, 7 S Little Ave., for anyone displaced by the earthquake damage. They are supplying cots, blankets and food.

Cushing Schools canceled Monday classes to assess earthquake damage and to ensure the safety of its students. Faculty and staff have been asked to check with building principals for instructions.

Cushing police evacuated the downtown area due to reports of gas line leaks and infrastructure checks. City officials said the leaks have been contained.

City officials asked Oklahomans to not go into the downtown area until the damage has been surveyed and the area is deemed safe.

Fracking may be contributing to the risk. The U.S. Geological Survey notes:

Between the years 1973–2008, there was an average of 21 earthquakes of magnitude three and larger in the central and eastern United States. This rate has ballooned to over 600 M3+ earthquakes in 2014 and over 1000 in 2015. Through August 2016, over 500 M3+ earthquakes have occurred in 2016.

Bottom line? Human efforts to provide energy, food, and water for seven billion people are constantly introducing new and unanticipated risks. We can’t prevent these, but at the same time we must build the environmental intelligence needed to manage the newly-emerging, constantly-shifting risk landscape. [Weather-Ready Nation? What does it mean, in the 21st century to make even population-8000 Cushing weather-ready?]  In responding to such challenges, multiplied by 3000 counties nationwide (each critical in some similar way) environmental intelligence itself is growing so substantial and so essential to society that even its internal single-point vulnerabilities (such as satellite launches) call for extra measures of risk management.

Don’t take your eyes off that egg basket!

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Recent environmental intelligence. Part 2. Air pollution and kids.


We know that air pollution, which takes many forms, including fine particulates, poses risks for all life on earth. But the recent environmental intelligence, in the form of last month’s UNICEF report, Clear the Air for Children, developed by Nicholas Rees et al., details how air pollution’s impacts on children can be particularly severe[1].

From the report’s foreword, written by UNICEF’s Executive Director, Anthony Lake:

[Air pollution] causes miscarriages, early delivery, and low birth weight.

It contributes to diseases that account for almost 1 in 10 of all deaths of children under the age of five.

It can harm the healthy development of children’s brains.

It is a drag on economies and societies, already costing as much as 0.3 per cent of global GDP – and rising…

… the magnitude of the danger it poses – especially to young children – is enormous.

Children breathe twice as quickly as adults, and take in more air relative to their body weight. Their respiratory tracks are more permeable and thus more vulnerable. Their immune systems are weaker. Their brains are still developing.

Ultrafine, airborne pollutants — caused primarily by smoke and fumes — can more easily enter and irritate children’s lungs, causing and exacerbating life-threatening disease. Studies show these tiny particles can also cross the blood-brain barrier, which is less resistant in children, causing inflammation, damaging brain tissue, and permanently impairing cognitive development. They even can cross the placental barrier, injuring the developing fetus when the mother is exposed to toxic pollutants.

So urban children growing up too close to industrial sites, smoldering dumps, and electrical generators that burn biomass fuels like dung … rural children living in unventilated homes where food is prepared on smoking cook stoves … refugee and migrant children staying in tents filled with wood smoke … All these children are breathing in pollutants night and day that endanger their health, threaten their lives, and undermine their futures.

Many of these children are already disadvantaged by poverty and deprivation. Some are already at heightened risk from conflicts, crises and the intensifying effects of climate change. Air pollution is yet another threat to their health and wellbeing – and yet another way in which the world is letting them down.

The sheer numbers of children affected are staggering. Based on satellite imagery, in the first analysis of its kind, this report shows that around the world today, 300 million children live in areas with extremely toxic levels of air pollution. Approximately 2 billion children live in areas where pollution levels exceed the minimum air quality standards set by the World Health Organization. These data don’t account for the millions of children exposed to air pollution inside the home[2].

The impact is commensurately shocking. Every year, nearly 600,000 children under the age of five die from diseases caused or exacerbated by the effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution. Millions more suffer from respiratory diseases that diminish their resilience and affect their physical and cognitive development.

If the language seems breathless, perhaps it should be.

To help see this, compare some complementary material from the October 29th print edition of The Economist – a publication not given to overstatement – which spoke to the global importance of early childhood development (naturally, the term has an acronym in that world – ECD). A sample of what The Economist had to say:

multiple benefits…come from putting more emphasis on early childhood development (ECD), a term that includes everything that can be done to boost the physical and intellectual health of youngsters before they reach the age of eight.

According to the Lancet, a medical journal, in 2000 just seven developing countries had a comprehensive approach to ECD. Now almost half do. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, a well-meaning set of targets launched in January, call for universal access to good-quality ECD by 2030…

…The youngsters themselves are the main, though not the sole, beneficiaries. Another recent study in the Lancet reckons that 43% of under-fives in poor countries, in other words about 250m kids, will fail to meet their “developmental potential” because of avoidable deficiencies in ECD.

Their young brains are sensitive. In the first three or so years after birth, when up to 1,000 synapses are formed per second, they are vulnerable to trauma which triggers stress hormones. Though some stress is fine, too much is thought to hinder development. Neglect is also corrosive. Young children benefit from lots of back-and-forth dealings with adults. Research by the Rural Education Action Programme, based at Stanford University, suggests that rural children in China have “systematically low cognition”, partly as a result of being reared by grandparents who pay them little attention while parents work in cities.

Supporters of ECD add that its benefits go well beyond the children. Better-raised toddlers mean less need to cope with dysfunctional adults at public expense. The World Bank says every dollar spent on pre-school education earns between $6 and $17 of public benefits, in the form of a healthier and more productive workforce with fewer wrongdoers. Many developing countries seem to have accepted this case. China has vowed to provide pre-school facilities for all youngsters; India has the same goal. African countries are also investing in toddlers. Ethiopia says it will increase pre-school enrolment to 80% by 2020, from 4% in 2009; Ghana has added two years of pre-school education to its system. Uganda wants every state primary school to have a nursery.

This burst of enthusiasm is welcome and overdue. In the OECD club of mainly rich countries, spending on ECD amounts to around 2.4% of GNP; in poorer countries, where there is so much scope for improvement, the share is less than 1%, says the World Bank. Poor countries spend far more on regular schools. In Latin America, for every dollar spent on children under five, $3 is spent on those between six and 11.

…ECD must focus as much on physical well-being as on training the mind[3]. That element is now missing: most ECD policies put the stress simply on educating kids aged four or five. In fact, health and nutrition are at least as important. A paper in 2008 by Cesar Victora of Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil tracked cohorts of children in five countries (Brazil, Guatemala, India, the Philippines and South Africa) and found a strong correlation between height at the age of two, school results and wages in later life. So correcting the bad nutrition (of expectant mothers as well as infants) that leads to stunting should be a priority. Supplements like iodine and iron for pregnant mothers and vulnerable babies can boost educational performance.

“Environmental intelligence”? The term calls to mind an analogy with intelligence agencies such as CIA and NSA. Worldwide collection of diverse data from disparate sources. Highly-trained analysts sifting through it all (these days with the help of big data, data analytics, and AI), teasing out important connections, and identifying options for action.

Taken together, today’s two scraps of intelligence remind us: if we know big challenges are coming, if we want to equip tomorrow’s society and workforce to deal with them, we have invest in our youngest children today. We have to do more to monitor and clean up the physical environment where they’re growing up. We have to provide the blend of nurture and mental stimulus that will help them develop their fullest potential. We will need to strengthen K-12 education across the board and STEM education in particular.

Interestingly, these insights come at a moment in history when we’re better able than usual to see the consequences, good and bad, of such investments. Take just one example: not just the outcome but the entire conduct of the election campaign just concluded might have been different had we Americans invested differently over the past half-century to nurture and educate the children who grew up to become today’s voting public. Perhaps a larger percentage would have voted. Maybe they’d have focused less on past grievances and more on how to move forward. Perhaps they’d have looked at more substantive issues, and demanded more specifics on those issues from both parties. But we may have equipped them poorly. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) argues[4], in A Crisis in Civic Education, released at the beginning of the year, that: Our vast national expenditure on higher education has had little or no measurable effect on giving students the skills and knowledge they need for effective citizenship.

To back up their claim, ACTA offers these statistics (among others; the report is worth the read in its entirety):

  • Only 20.6% of respondents could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. More than 60% thought the answer was Thomas Jefferson—despite the fact that Jefferson, as U.S. ambassador to France, was not present during the Constitutional Convention… College graduates performed little better: Only 28.4% named Madison, and 59.2% chose Jefferson.
  • How do Americans amend the Constitution? More than half of college graduates didn’t know. Almost 60% of college graduates failed to identify correctly a requirement for ratifying a constitutional amendment.
  • We live in a dangerous world—but almost 40% of college graduates didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.
  • College graduates were even confused about the term lengths of members of Congress. Almost half could not recognize that senators are elected to six- year terms and representatives are elected to two-year terms.
  • Less than half of college graduates knew that presidential impeachments are tried before the U.S. Senate.
  • And 9.6% of college graduates marked that Judith Sheindlin—“Judge Judy”—was on the Supreme Court!

The ACTA emphasis was on facts… but the recent election campaign suggests we’re also struggling with values – including but not limited to the importance of listening to and respecting each other, and working toward the unity needed to keep our interconnected society humming. Things we’re supposed to learn at home and at school. And though the ACTA focus has been domestic, the same comments pertain to democracies and voting publics worldwide.

Protect, nurture, and educate kids?

There’s plenty to do. And compelling reason to do it.

(Full disclosure… my daughter works in ECD; she lives and breathes the issue. As a result, so do those of us in her orbit. She’s a force of nature.)


[1] Chances are good you’ve seen this already; the report occasioned a spate of news media coverage.

[2] [Emphasis added. Yet another example of innovative application of space-based Earth observations for societal benefit. Increasingly, NOAA and companion agencies are moving into environmental forecasting – air quality, harmful algal blooms, and more.

Watch for it. Society will internalize the new intelligence – first to warn of pollution episodes, and over time to motivate and guide strategies and actions to improve air and water quality.

[3] [Emphasis added.]

[4] George Will’s recent column first brought this report to my attention.

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Matthew? It’s not the hurricane, it’s the vulnerability.


The previous three LOTRW posts took up the topic of environmental intelligence – addressing, tangentially, the state of the environmental intelligence community itself. The first provided a snapshot of the collaboration between NOAA and the larger Weather Enterprise. The second looked at the academic pipeline producing the stream of environmental intelligence analysts needed in the near future. The third considered what matters the most to any intelligence community: how attentive is the host society to the intelligence provided? Is it used to save lives? Build the economy? Protect critical ecosystem services? In sum, does it make a difference? Or is the host society oblivious to environmental intelligence, focused on other matters? Do the alerts and outlooks go unheeded?

The next several posts shift the focus from the environmental intelligence community of practice to what recent environmental intelligence has to tell us. What have we been learning over the past few months? What is the Earth system saying to mankind?

We start with Hurricane Matthew. Wikipedia offers this account: Hurricane Matthew was a very powerful, long-lived and deadly tropical cyclone which became the first Category 5 Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Felix in 2007. The thirteenth named storm, fifth hurricane and second major hurricane of the active 2016 Atlantic hurricane season, Matthew wrought widespread destruction and catastrophic loss of life during its journey across the Western Atlantic, including parts of Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Lucayan Archipelago, the southeastern United States, and the Canadian Maritimes. Over 1,600 estimated deaths have been attributed to the storm, including 546 to 1,600 in Haiti, 1 in Colombia, 4 in the Dominican Republic, 1 in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and 49 in the United States, making it the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Stan in 2005, which killed more than 1,600 in Central America and Mexico. With the storm causing damages estimated in excess of $10.5 billion (USD), it was also the costliest Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, as well as the tenth costliest Atlantic hurricane in history.

 (The fuller text and other on-line accounts of Matthew merit a read.) Numbing statistics, but they reveal a simple story.

Matthew presented two faces.


To the poor, Matthew threatened life itself. It killed, and compromised public health, and drove home to the survivors a message that life might not be worth living. Take Haiti. For Haitians, Matthew wasn’t a one-off. It hit before the country had recovered from the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, which according to accounts took between 100,000 and 200,000 lives – and indirectly left a cholera epidemic in its wake, courtesy of UN troops who’d been brought in to help restore order. Fact is, order and hope have been hard to come by in Haiti for as long as anyone can remember.

Though tragically pronounced there, the vulnerability of the poor was not confined to Haiti; it was also on display here in the United States as well. More than forty days later, FEMA is still extending deadlines for requests for help; the last shelters for those driven from their homes are finally closing only now. Here too, the loss was repetitive. Some of those driven out of their homes had been forced out earlier – by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. And the timing of the flooding – coming in the middle of the political season – may have affected voting in the area. (The Atlantic provides a more extensive look.)

Richer areas experienced economic loss. Much of this was in the form of damage to coastal property, especially homes. But let’s zoom in on one particular aspect, which illustrates how vital natural resources, hazards, and environment are woven together, and how in today’s interconnected world, local, placed-based challenges are tied to global interests and trends:

Damage to North Carolina’s hog farms.

2300-ncanimalwaste10171The Washington Post reported at the time: A filthy brown sea, a slurry of mud, debris, chemicals and waste, has overtaken miles of rural counties in North Carolina. Against the drab water, the shiny metal roofs of hog houses are impossible to miss, visible from the air, as are the rectangular and diamond-shaped outlines of massive lagoons constructed just feet away.

When those lagoons are doing their job, the liquid excrement they hold is a deep reddish-pink. Berms and pumps are designed to keep that bacteria-laden sludge from spilling out. But across coastal plain here – home to one of the highest concentrations of hog farms in the country – the lagoons’ content now looks more like the surrounding floodwater.

In a state already reeling from lost lives, homes and livelihoods, the color is evidence of major environmental risks.

Hundreds of hog and poultry farms may have been inundated last week as the Neuse, Lumber and Tar rivers roared over their banks, a rampage powered by the deluge of Hurricane Matthew. The carcasses of several thousand drowned hogs and several million drowned chickens and turkeys were left behind. An incalculable amount of animal waste was carried toward the ocean. Along the way, it could be contaminating the groundwater for the many people who rely on wells in this part of the state, as well as threatening the delicate ecosystems of tidal estuaries and bays.

This is just the beginning of the story. The Washington Post article goes on to discuss the scale of the hog farming, and the contentious dialog swirling around to what extent the state and the industry had learned the lessons of Hurricane Floyd and whether more should have been done over the past fifteen years.

A further sidenote (not explicitly covered by the Post this time around), indicating the connectedness of all things in today’s world: Smithfield Foods, cited in the story, and one of the big producers in the region, is owned by Chinese interests. Much of the North Carolina hog production is in fact destined for China; in fact, the industry took off in the 1990’s in order to satisfy a growing Chinese appetite for meat in what had hitherto been a more grain-and-vegetable-based diet. That trend in turn has been enabled by rising Chinese prosperity fueled by global trade. (Because some ten pounds of grain is needed to provide and pound of meat, this change in eating habits by one nation was equivalent to, say, a 30-50% increase in world appetite.)

Environmental intelligence tells us: what matters as much as the natural hazard itself is the vulnerability. The good news is: we can assess vulnerability in advance of a catastrophe. Just as we subject banks these days to stress tests to hedge against repeats of the 2008 financial sector meltdown, we could subject communities and industries to similar stress tests to foresee and forestall catastrophic failure resulting from natural hazards.

The interconnectedness of all things reminds us that the stakes for getting this right are high: lives, economic growth, U.S. standing and place in the world, and, as the recent elections have shown, even our social fabric and the vitality of our Nation. NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program and Weather-Ready Nation initiative, and similar programs, take us in the right direction. But the signs are that increased investment in these efforts and others like them would realize a substantial return.

In the next LOTRW post: air pollution.

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Environmental intelligence, and the National Sea Grant Program at 50.

50-yearsStart with this: environmental intelligence[1] faces two big challenges in the 21st century.

The first is scientific/technical. The second is social. Both are profound[2].

The scientific challenge: Do we want a safer, more prosperous, more secure future that will endure throughout the 21st century? We’ll never get there flying blind – ignorant of what the planet we live on is going to do next, either on its own initiative or in response to the pokings and proddings of 7 billion people.

Instead, we need a predictive understanding[3] of the Earth system up to the task of 21st-century decision-making – guiding government and business actions with respect to agriculture, energy and water; public health, public safety and emergency response; and protection and extension of ecosystems services. What’s more, the zero-margin world we now live in no longer allows us to make any of these decisions in isolation. Everything’s tied together in a tangle. Take a few examples from recent news stories. Profitable location and long-term operation of hog farms requires we know the likelihood and impacts of hurricane rains and riverine flooding. $20T of water infrastructure will be needed worldwide between now and 2030. But we need to know how much water will be available where and when if we’re to avoid laying “pipes to nowhere.” The job creation and prosperity promised by manufacturing based on cheap and widely available fossil fuels turns out to expose a billion kids worldwide to levels of atmospheric particulates that limit their promise to develop into the workforce needed for tomorrow. Fracking makes such fuels cheaper still, yet leads to earthquakes – some of which threaten major oil storage hubs. Fifty-percent reductions in vertebrate population in just fifty years are driving the natural world into an uncharted future that might last for millennia.

Who knew? And what will happen next?

The short answer is: No one knew. And no one knows what will happen next, at least with the specificity needed on the future time scales that matter for planning and decisions.

Fact is, such questions have only recently been tabled. The hard-won predictive skill we enjoy today remains limited compared with what’s needed. Growing economies and populations are driving up the stakes. The value of incremental skill is growing, as are the costs of prediction errors and uncertainty. But improvements in that skill are stubbornly slow in coming.

Today, worldwide, though the science is complex and daunting, some have developed a glimmer of what’s in store. Hundreds of thousands, indeed several millions of men and women working in disciplines covering every aspect of the Earth sciences and related observing and information technologies are racing to forecast what lies ahead, with respect to specific bits of this puzzle as well as the big picture.

All that brings us to

The social challenge: A few million people working the scientific problem might seem like a lot, but it’s a mere handful of the world’s seven-billion+ population.

And coping is a far bigger task than understanding.

If we are to cope successfully with these present and future challenges, all 330 million of us here in the US, and all seven billion of us worldwide, though necessarily focused on other concerns – manufacturing, IT products and services, healthcare delivery, (and what’s for dinner tonight?) – have to have a shared awareness of what lies ahead, and enough trust and willingness to explore and test a variety of options for moving forward, together. What’s more, this can’t and won’t ever lend itself to top-down, command-and-control. Instead it will take the form of short- and long-term problem solving at local and regional levels, with heavy emphasis on the communication needed to develop some harmony of approach across boundaries, while making constant, incremental adjustments along the way in response to early signs of success or failure, and all the while building trust.

How well are we doing with this second task? U.S. elections, just concluded, provide a data point. Throughout the year of campaigning, with all the ups and downs, the vitriol, the polarization – the focus remained on which presidential candidate was least likeable and trustworthy and why, with back-and-forth on jobs and global trade, immigration, health care, and war and terrorism thrown in. The environment, natural hazards, and natural resources? These topics received the merest and some cases derogatory mention. But our domestic experience isn’t unique. It’s reflecting a worldwide trend. Abroad, we see the same sharp disagreements and division regarding international trade, preoccupation with the balance and projection of national power, armed conflicts, the resulting growth and mass movements of refugee populations, etc. Our leaders have their hands full just on these bits. As for trust, it’s faded into the background.

Two meta-lessons have emerged. First, from either side, and whatever the topic, the task is not a matter of bringing “others” to “our” point of view. Communication is vital, but it’s not communication as manipulative marketing technique. It’s about starting with listening, and patiently allowing communication to build understanding. Second, it’s hard, if not impossible to reach consensus on environmental intelligence without first, or at least in tandem, building shared vision about other issues: Jobs. Immigration. Trade. Education. Healthcare…

Okay, Bill, but a bit abstract, high-level. Can you bring all this down to earth, make it a bit more tangible, concrete?

Yes, I can – and furthermore, I can offer something positive.

Last month, at the age of fifty, NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program held its biennial strategic planning retreat in Newport, Rhode Island. It was my privilege to be with the group for a few hours of their week together. Throughout my NOAA career, I’d admired Sea Grant from afar. In 1963, on the 100th anniversary of the Morrill Act and the establishment of Land Grant Colleges and Universities, Athelstan Spilhaus suggested the nation ought to make a similar investment in its (coastal) oceans and coastal populations. Finally, in 1966, the deed was done. Since then, Sea Grant has had its ups and downs, depending upon successive administrations. But twin strengths have kept it going. The first is the development, state-by-state, of research networks – scientists of every stripe adding to our understanding of the coasts and coastal oceans as an integrated physical-ecological-societal system. The research has been anything but top-down. It’s built a base of predictive understanding at the local level by continuing sharp focus on place-based realities, and then aggregated that up to form a larger national picture. The second is the parallel development of what started as “extension services,”[4] but now represent strong locally-based collaborative efforts to build coastal resilience, grow coastal economies, and protect coastal ecosystem services. These benefits have been quite visible at the local level – across the 26 coastal states – and that awareness has built broad, across-the-aisle political and popular support for the research and its application even as other areas of environmental intelligence have struggled to gain traction. Further, all this has happened even as the country has grown more polarized.

What was especially striking during the week was the high positive energy of the group, and increasing scale of the initiatives they were tackling, ranging these days from offshore wind energy to aquaculture, tourism, and workforce development projects.

Sea Grant thus points the way for the larger environmental intelligence community. It’s a success story with respect to the two big scientific and social challenges that has proven small enough to be doable and show concrete results, yet large enough to motivate further progress. NOAA’s continually adding new wrinkles. One recent example:  Weather-Ready Nation Initiative, which offers the same scientifically-enabled, place-based problem solving approach, and is building enthusiasm and constituency in an otherwise divided world. Another is the current R2X set of initiatives designed to realize tangible improvements in NOAA’s services and stewardship from research advances.

Here’s a forecast: Fifty years from now, we’ll have seen another 6-12 political administrations come and go. They’ll have been of every persuasion. Sea Grant will be observing its 100th year, receiving a Nation’s gratitude for its part in navigating another half-century of sea-level rise and guiding coastal development. The country will recognize the 50-year-old Weather-Ready Nation initiative as one of the country’s better ideas, building community resiliency in the face of the world’s most hazardous weather. And NOAA’s R2X initiative, itself going on 50, will be regarded as a landmark success in sustaining an American culture of innovation.

A good time to be alive!


[1] Continuing this LOTRW mini-series on environmental intelligence and events of this past summer

[2] And both – important to emphasize this given recent events – are non-partisan.

[3] As in – answering the question what will it do next? – with the specificity needed if society is to adjust, either to capture opportunity and potential benefit or to avoid potential danger or hazard.

[4]in analogy with the agricultural extension services dating back to the Morrill Act.

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20th Biennial Joint AMS/AGU Heads and Chairs Meeting 13 – 14 October 2016 Boulder, CO

Dave Jones is a leading figure in the Weather Enterprise (in fact, the reach of his innovation and influence extends far more broadly, across the world of IT). His comment on the last LOTRW post is gracious, well-said and germane to where we’re going today. Accordingly, it’s reproduced here in its entirety:

“Great article Bill. I agree the meeting was informative and upbeat with NWS communicating a vision that is transformative. The fact that roughly 44% of the NWS workforce is eligible for retirement in 5 years is alarming and this reorganization is coming just in time. New energy from the growing number of young professionals need a vision and a purpose, to want to protect the nation and make it more resilient in the face of increasing extreme weather.

 Some of those who will emerge as future leaders are already in the organization while others are now looking for ‘something exciting to dive into’. The main point is that none of these future leaders will get the spark unless they are driven by a purpose. NWS leadership is evolving that purpose and it is beginning to show. Everyone will benefit from this painful two year period of reorganization as the NWS and its partners in the private sector put more environmental intelligence to work than ever before through innovation and the desire to succeed.”

44% of the NWS workforce is eligible for retirement over the next 5 years?


Dave is right to draw attention to this indicator emerging from the Q&A during Tuesday’s NWS Fall Partners Meeting. The demographic isn’t a mere statistic – it defines both a challenge and a milestone opportunity for the National Weather Service – in the ways and for the reasons he eloquently states.

But it also challenges the academic community: how should departments and faculties prepare the new generation of professionals entering meteorology? What should new entrants be taught? What do they need to know? This piece of the puzzle didn’t receive much explicit follow-up discussion in Silver Spring, but it totally preoccupied another meeting – one held two weeks earlier and two thousand miles away, in Boulder, Colorado.

Every two years, UCAR extends its annual fall governance meetings by two days to co-host, with AMS and AGU, a meeting of chairs of university earth sciences departments. This year’s discussions focused on three topics: (i) the role of academic departments in communicating science issues to policy makers, (ii) challenges posed by data storage and access, and (iii) a discussion of the upcoming 2017 revision of the AMS Statement on the Bachelor’s Degree in Atmospheric Science.

Each bears on what new NWS entry-level employees will need to know.

Let’s start with the latter. What skills and knowledge should define a college-level graduate in this field in the years 2017 and beyond? Some basics, of course, remain unchanged. But new, additional needs are entering in. For example, should today’s graduates be expected to know and understand the science of communication, and social science more broadly? The conclusion from the Boulder meeting was an emphatic yes if they’re going into careers forecasting for NWS or private-sector weather firms, or into broadcast meteorology. But the discussion also made clear that in a packed-full curriculum these new topics could only be introduced if some existing curriculum material is dropped. Lest any reader think such tradeoffs would be minor, consider that some of the candidates for trade included differential equations (vital to understanding atmospheric fluid dynamics) and Maxwell’s equations (important for understanding of lightning, space weather, and much of remote sensing). Meeting participants emphasized the obvious – for undergraduates hoping to pursue research careers in meteorology such mathematics and physics would be a sine qua non. For those planning private-sector employment in agribusiness or energy or transportation sectors, additional background in economics and finance would be essential.

Working backward, the presentations on data access and the ensuing discussions were equally eye-opening. University faculty have clearly been focused on this issue for years, but to a bystander it was striking to realize how profound a transition has been underway in undergraduate education. Back in the day, faculty and students looked to UCAR for access to computing per se, and use of field facilities such as radars, aircraft and the like. The twin concerns continue to this day, but in recent years, the focus has broadened to include access to the world’s data and to the analytic capabilities needed to mine and synthesize the bits and bytes from diverse data sets for their underlying information. Such access to the world’s existing and growing data trove is essential for students and faculty attempting to meet their responsibilities to the Weather Enterprise and society at large. This is more than a simple matter of providing a few links to “the cloud.” Access requires education and training for students (and their faculty) across a range of IT – yet another claim on the finite number of classroom hours available for a bachelor’s degree.

Which brings us to the first of the topics taken up by the UCAR Heads and Chairs – communicating science issues to policymakers. As argued in Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, as world knowledge grows and with it the need to tackle problems holistically, it becomes ever-more important to leverage our puny human intelligence by means of effective policies that make our thinking productive, in much the same way that higher-level computer languages and software help us transcend the limitations of working in machine language. But – you guessed it – engaging effectively in the policy process versus making a hash of it requires education and training. We need to be as disciplined in our approach to the policy process as we are to our science. The focus here was on faculty, but new entrants to the field need this situational awareness as well.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve already drawn your own conclusions about all this.

First and foremost, today’s students, even undergraduates, need to learn a lot!

But two additional realities also come to mind. Today, all of us in the 21st century, no matter how far removed from the days of our formal schooling,  need the mindset of students. We’re continually being asked explicitly or implicitly to learn more – so much more that along the way somewhere we have to “learn how to learn.” Unsurprisingly, there’s a wealth of literature that falls under this heading. (Should you want to chase that rabbit today, here’s a link to get you started.) Indeed, the biggest challenge here with all the offerings on the internet and elsewhere is the highly personal task of “learning what to learn,” specifically, distinguishing between opportunities and distractions. You and I can’t learn everything. We have to bring to bear those two most important commodities – our energy and our time – on learning those few things that matter most to us on the most fundamental and satisfying and enduring level, and that lay a foundation for the next round of learning.

That calls to mind an old term that was popular when I was at university: a so-called “liberal arts education.” Wikipedia provides a couple of nice paragraphs in introducing this subject:

The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberalis, “worthy of a free person”) to know in order to take an active part in civic life [emphasis added], something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts, while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education.

 In modern times, liberal arts education is a term that can be interpreted in different ways. It can refer to academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences, or it can also refer to overall studies in a liberal arts degree program. For example, Harvard University offers a Bachelor of Arts degree, which covers the social and physical sciences as well as the humanities. For both interpretations, the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curriculum…”

On the eve of the 2016 elections, it’s worth ending on this note: the key challenge for the environmental intelligence community is not how to organize NOAA, or the relationship between NOAA and its private-sector and academic partners, or in the professional development of the workforce, although these carry weight. Rather it’s how “to take an active part in civic life” – that is, engage the larger public/civil society on the resource,- hazard-, and environmental issues that matter most.

More in the next post.

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(Incidental) environmental intelligence[1].

Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Atmosphere and Oceans, and NOAA Administrator, has throughout her tenure, in venue after venue and at every opportunity, framed NOAA as America’s environmental intelligence agency. An example (just one of several):

“NOAA is America’s environmental intelligence agency. We provide timely, reliable, and actionable information — based on sound science — every day to millions of Americans. NOAA’s products and services are used by decision makers around the country to better understand risk and prepare for the future. We’re helping people, communities, businesses, and governments make smart decisions that directly impact the future of society, the economy, and the environment. The demand for products and services that NOAA provides continues to increase – from the daily weather forecast to seasonal drought outlooks, to decadal sea level rise projections, and much more.” 

A useful framing.

Unlike other U.S. intelligence agencies (a reclusive group by nature), NOAA makes every effort to be transparent. It’s therefore possible from time to time for ordinary citizens to get a glimpse of how things are at the agency. Tuesday’s National Weather Service Fall Partners Meeting provided just such a look.

What was on display was encouraging.

For the past two or three years, partners meetings at NWS have revealed an agency and a headquarters in major transition. Complete recasting of the budget categories and programmatic alignments. Redefinition of relationships with partners and end-users. Commensurate agency reorganization. New players, struggling to do incompletely-defined, evolving jobs while engaged in a professional version of musical chairs – competing for restructured job positions. A blizzard of recommendations for further change from both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Public Administration. Working with McKinsey, a consultancy, on implementation of these recommendations. Strengthening fragile infrastructure. Bringing new centralized computing on line. Taking exploratory steps to simplify forecast messaging while amping up communication of impacts and options for action. Standing up a new National Water Model and a National Water Center. Preparing for a new geostationary satellite. NWS intentions have been good throughout, but the atmosphere has been turbulent if not chaotic and the stress/toll on the players has been palpable. It’s been hard to see progress.

This Partners Fall Meeting felt different. The tumult has quieted. Change is still underway, but chaos has given way to convergence. Wrenching disruption has morphed into controlled innovation. NWS headquarters staff have settled into their respective roles, and are moving ahead with new confidence. The McKinsey Operations and Workforce Analysis has transitioned into an NWS evolution, but not a revolution. What had been a fragile vision, obscured by the murk of two years of upheaval, has become a new reality. Uncertainties in the forecast problem of the day, not uncertainties in the organizational future, can once again dominate the discussion.

Really quite amazing.

This has implications for the partners. In contrast to the situation prevailing as recently as a few years ago, partners today see an agency with a clearer understanding of its role in the larger weather enterprise, an agency able to segment and tailor its collaboration with partners depending upon their capabilities and reach. Partners can see a basic NWS/NESDIS NOAA infrastructure poised to disseminate data and model products of higher quality and with more reliability than in the past. Partners know where to turn within the agency to share ideas for improvement and for help when needed. They see an agency pursuing relationship, not lost in introspection. They see an agency regaining a culture of innovation and teamwork, not competition. Form follows function.

NOAA- and NWS-level leaders, personnel at every level down to the bench forecasters and interns, and all the private-sector and university folks who’ve kept the weather enterprise functioning throughout this period should be applauded for the combination of vision and effort and patience and yes – forgiveness – that have brought matters to this point.

Of course things aren’t perfect. There’s still room for improvement across the board. Each and every person involved is experiencing new frustrations and living with the memory of past wounds on a daily basis. And challenges lie ahead. Extremes of drought and flood, snow and ice storms, hurricanes and tornadoes that will pose existential threats to American safety; to production of food and energy and water resource management; and to the environment. But there’s general agreement on how to approach the work remaining. There’s a shared sense that the job still to be done seems more manageable than truly daunting trials just conquered. And what’s most important, there’s a growing trust across the enterprise that’s providing the foundation needed to move forward – not to feather the nests of those in the room, but in shared service to the American people.

Again, those present could feel that at the Meeting. Presentations and the resulting conversations focused on substance, not rhetoric. Side discussions were animated and positive.

And final subjective measure, perhaps the most telling of all… participants lingered afterwards. An hour later, folks were still in the room talking…

Of course there are other measures of the health of the environmental intelligence community. You probably have your own favorites, but two that come to mind are (i) efforts to prepare the professional workforce of the future, and (ii) the receptivity of the larger society to environmental intelligence. What’s the uptake?

Look for LOTRW posts on these topics.


[1] For much of June-October, I’ve been out of the office, (mostly) on business punctuated occasionally by (some) pleasure. Hard on the blogging! But a great, though patchy window into the state of environmental intelligence (as a thing), into trends in the environmental intelligence community, and into recent findings of environmental intelligence and what they tell us. This and subsequent posts will offer a taste.

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Hope: GOES-R, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, and the people behind these achievements.

In the year 2000, Andrew Delbanco, a Harvard professor, published The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope. An excerpt from a New York Times book review of the time:

…The three lectures in ”The Real American Dream” are titled ”God,” ”Nation” and ”Self”: three candidates for the central figure in a narrative that may, by providing hope, avert ”the lurking suspicion that all our getting and spending amounts to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait for death.” Such a sustaining narrative, as Delbanco says, is called a culture when it ”establishes itself over time in the minds of a substantial number of people.”

 Delbanco thinks that the 19th-century American attempt to substitute the nation for God was, in its day, fairly successful.

 Delbanco doubts that many present-day Americans are buoyed up by the hopes that Lincoln and Whitman shared. ”We live,” he says, ”in an age of unprecedented wealth, but in the realm of narrative and symbol, we are deprived.” Neither God nor Nation works anymore. Yet the Self — the consuming, narcissistic Self — is a nonstarter, for the whole point of a sustaining narrative is to take one beyond self-involvement. Delbanco quotes Melville as saying, ”We become sad in the first place because we have nothing stirring to do,” and his third lecture argues that this sort of sadness has become pervasive among Americans at the end of the century.

 Delbanco echoes many other recent accounts of what has happened to America when he says that ”something died, or at least fell dormant, between the later 1960’s, when the reform impulse subsided into solipsism, and the 1980’s — two phases of our history . . . that finally cooperated in installing instant gratification as the hallmark of the good life, and in repudiating the interventionist state as a source of hope.”…

In sum (these few snippets really fail to do justice to his thinking!), Delbanco argues that a hope in God was largely responsible for the founding of our nation, that as an early Puritan influence faded, over time that hope was re-centered on the Nation, and that more recently, hope has been centered on self. He argues what some might see as the obvious – that this trend, especially that last step – has not gone well. He suggests, albeit tentatively, that it might be possible to return to a better place, by a refocus, if not on God, at least on a better Nation.

…all our getting and spending amounts to nothing more than fidgeting while we wait for death? Really? Pretty depressing. And yet, recent reading suggests that we’ve proceeded even further down this bankrupt path than Mr. Delbanco may have envisioned sixteen years ago. Two hints, of many:

The first from a cover story on the August 13th issue of The Economist: Cheating Death. The article suggests that biotechnology is brining us tantalizingly close to what has been called “longevity escape velocity,” where life expectancy grows by more than a year every year, a state approximating immortality. The second from a front-page story in Sunday’s Washington Post, “A Fortress against Fear,” shining a spotlight on a small number of Americans resettling in Idaho on land known informally as the American Redoubt, where by arming and fortifying themselves they hope to survive coming apocalyptic scenarios, whether from war or natural calamity or societal collapse.

The current state of human affairs notwithstanding, surely seeking hope in either of these directions is misplaced. The former leads to an ethical and policy nightmare; increasingly those of us alive today and generations to follow will have to deal with it. The latter ignores Nikita Khrushchev’s observation that “in and after World War III, the living will envy the dead.”

But this past week’s news also reminded us in this midst of this destructive self-absorption, others – large numbers of others – have remained focused on creating a better world, and they’re making progress. Some of this has been close to home. Again, two threads, of many:

LM-insert-8.24 goes-r

First, after many years of preparation, GOES-R has been delivered to Florida for launch. The satellite will provide unprecedented weather data from geo-stationary orbit that will underpin and sustain U.S. efforts to build weather-readiness for a decade to come. Second, President Obama this past week quadrupled the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. This comes as America observes the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, commemorated a few years ago by the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns as “America’s best idea.” With parkland harder to come by, recent American presidents have added a complementary interest in preservation of marine treasures. Though only some forty years old, the National Marine Sanctuaries Program, by the time it reaches its 100th birthday, may be similarly venerated.


Such programs, however grand – and these two programs truly are – matter most because they’re accomplished by and for people. Most of you directly involved are still soldiering on, thinking about other tasks that lie ahead. But each contributor deserves to take some time for reflection on what you have helped accomplish, and draw from such contemplation the fullest measure of satisfaction, and hope. You’ll need it for the work that lies ahead!


It’s of course unfair to single out two leaders for special mention and thanks – and they’d each be the first to protest – but I’ll do so nonetheless. The first is Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the NOAA Administrator. Both these programs are in her purview, and speak to the breadth of the NOAA remit, and the agency’s important place in American affairs going forward. For years, she’s been steadfast in working toward these and other national goals, while at the same time protecting the integrity of government science from politicization and wading through a whole bunch of policy issues that were probably the furthest things from her mind when she studied marine geology and became an astronaut.

010715 AMS

The second is Wanda A. Sigur, Vice President and General Manager of Civil Space, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. A Louisiana native, Ms. Sigur has not only provided overall technical leadership for the GOES-R program but also a good dozen other major civil space projects over the same time period. All sides credit her with playing a critical role in keeping these programs on track under the most difficult circumstances, including Space Shuttle setbacks, the ravages of Hurricane Katrina on Lockheed-Martin’s facilities along the Gulf Coast, and other challenges over the past decade.

Two major national achievements. Each reflecting the efforts of thousands of people, working together, over decades of public-private partnership, to realize the vision and desires of hundreds of millions of Americans. The United States at its best – its most high-minded, and creative.  Reason for hope in the Nation, as opposed to Self.


A closing note: Andrew Delbanco hinted that hope in Nation might be a poor substitute for hope in God. Not everyone agrees, but if you’ve a mind to explore that further, you might consider a Timothy Keller podcast sermon series dating back to 2009. Well worth your while; impossible to listen without growing more hopeful… and better understanding the real-world basis for it.

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Relocating meteorology.


To be a physical scientist is to operate in a very confined world, treating only a small class of variables susceptible to easy measurement and contributing to a narrow range of processes amenable to mathematical treatment and laboratory experiment or observation. Living things, especially thoughtful, reasoning living things, are presumed to play little or no role. As I’ve observed elsewhere, doing physics is like bowling with the gutter guards of math and experiment up and functional. It’s like looking at the world through the large end of the telescope. Newton was right to say that oceans of truth lay undiscovered all around him[1].

To be a social scientist is to live under the same constraints. Logic still rules. Tools and means for experiment and observation are available. Surveys, interviewing, focus groups, and every sort of psychological test all provide data which can be subjected to rigorous statistical analysis. The number and diagnostic power of all these tools grow daily. Technology and social networking create new opportunities for understanding.

But relatively speaking, social scientists live and breathe free. Their work is more like bocce – and in fact, more like bocce on unprepared, irregular terrain. More daunting – and more adventuresome.

Today’s example comes from this morning’s e-mail, and from the history of meteorology. Until minutes ago, I did not know that meteorology can and possibly should be relocated. Now my social scientist friends may have known of this possibility all along, and I may be the last person standing to hear of it, but I’m betting most of my fellow meteorologists were similarly ignorant.

Here’s the call for papers from the International Commission on the History of Meteorology for submission to special issue of their journal The History of Meteorology.

The text of the call in its entirety is reprinted here to call the attention of social scientists to the opportunity, and to give meteorologists a feel for the language and the thought process. What an interesting and refreshing set of ideas!

A side-note. In the text you’ll see reference to work of Roger Turner, who participated in the 2004 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium while a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s now an associate fellow in history at Dickinson College.

History of Meteorology.Call for Papers – Themed Issue Relocating Meteorology. Editors: Martin Mahony (University of Nottingham) & Angelo Matteo Caglioti (University of California, Berkeley)

Geographers, STS scholars, environmental historians, and historians of science have recently rediscovered the history of meteorology. They have recognized meteorology as a central, rather than peripheral discipline at the intersection of the relationship between science, environment, and society. Histories of nineteenth and twentieth century meteorology tell of great theoretical strides and pioneering individuals. However, they also increasingly focus on new questions, concerning, inter alia, the role of technology and material culture in meteorological knowledge production, the use of weather knowledges in the service of industrial, financial or agricultural interests, and the enduring significance of local cultures in the face of new emphases on global processes. Global and local at the same time, the history of meteorology is being re-articulated as the result of a plurality of histories that still offer a largely uncharted territory to historical inquiry.

This themed issue of the journal History of Meteorology aims to build upon these new trajectories by bringing together innovative papers that together open new research directions and pioneer the task of ‘relocating meteorology’. In his influential book Relocating Modern Science, Kapil Raj calls for a historiographical revolution in how we deal with the development of ‘western’ sciences, calling for a shift in focus from processes of diffusion from metropole to periphery, towards models of circulation and intercultural encounter in the production of inherently hybrid forms of knowledge. Historians of meteorology can profitably view the challenge of ‘relocating meteorology’ as both a call to question the geographical boundaries of our historical inquiries, but also as an invitation to examine various ‘relocations’ of meteorology itself – the processes and practices through which meteorology ‘travelled’, found new audiences and users, and was woven into new social and environmental projects of world-making. Papers for the themed issue may therefore address some of the following – or related – topics:

 New spaces and places. Current histories tend to focus on developments in various meteorological metropoles, and historians often remain prisoners of the boundaries of the nation state and its centralized archives. But what was happening in locations more distant from the centres of western wealth and power? What were the histories of meteorology in European colonies, emerging post-colonial states, and trans-national networks of intellectual exchange? How did new theories and practices change, adapt, and hybridise as they spread from Bergen or Washington, for example? What was the role of natural environments in such processes of transmission and transformation? Following these broader circulations, and the technologies, resources and intermediaries that made them possible, may permit new answers to the question of the enduring importance of space and place in the history of meteorology.

 New actors. Theory-builders and institution-builders tend to dominate our histories. Yet new questions are now being asked about how a broader range of actors contributed to

the production of knowledge of weather and climate. How did agriculturalists, engineers, insurance clerks, colonists, military personnel, medics and others produce new forms of knowledge and put them to work? To what extent can we characterise meteorology and climatology as products of encounter and exchange between diverse social and cultural groups? And what do such questions mean for how we think about issues of authority and credibility in the history of the atmospheric sciences?

 New practices and material cultures. Technology played a crucial role in driving developments in meteorology, shaping new practices and opening new fields of atmospheric vision. Knowledges of weather and climate have also played key roles in the development of broader socio-technical systems, most notably perhaps in the case of aviation where, functioning as what Roger Turner calls an ‘infrastructural science’, meteorology quietly participated in the construction of the atmosphere as a traversable space, amid new practices and cultures of observation, forecasting, and risk management. In Paul Edwards’ terms, meteorology was a crucial part of the transformation of the study of the atmosphere into a global “vast machine.” What more can be said about such ‘hidden’ aspects of meteorology, and the mutual transformations of meteorological science and broader socio-technical systems? What was the role of the circulation of standardised forms, instruments and data in the production of infrastructural networks? How did these systems become sites of contestation over scientific authority, trustworthiness and risk?

Submissions are invited from scholars in history, science & technology studies, sociology, geography and related fields who are interested in addressing these and related questions in the history of meteorology, climatology and the atmospheric sciences from the 19th century to the present day. Early career researchers are particularly encouraged to make submissions. Please send an extended abstract (300-800 words) to and by Friday 30th September. Full papers will then be requested by the end of January 2017.

Guest editors

Martin Mahony

School of Geography, University of Nottingham

Angelo Matteo Caglioti

Centre for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society, University of California, Berkeley

History of Meteorology is a fully peer-reviewed, open-access journal produced by the International Commission on the History of Meteorology. The Editor-in-Chief is James R. Fleming.

Fellow meteorologists, prepare to share the experience of those Crimeans who went to sleep in the Ukraine and awoke in Russia.


[1]Witness the fact that for centuries physics has focused unwittingly on the behavior of only four percent or so of the matter-energy in the universe, onlyin recent decades discovering and sharing with the rest of us that all that all that analysis and rigor doesn’t account for so-called dark matter and dark energy. So that this morning, for example, we learn of the existence of a dark-matter galaxy, some 300 million light years away.

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