So live, that when thy summons comes to join  

The innumerable caravan, which moves  

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take  

His chamber in the silent halls of death,  

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,  

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed  

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,  

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch  

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams. – William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis.

Timothy A. Cohn, devoted son, husband, and father, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, ultra-marathoner, and one-time Congressional Science Fellow for then-Senator Bill Bradley, died this morning. Tim was just a few days short of his 60th birthday.

To be around Tim, whether for moments or hours or days, was for that span of time, to live life on a higher plane. This was true in several respects:

He didn’t merely like science, he loved and honored it. He was meticulous in his own work, diving into arcane statistical analyses (core to much of hydrology) to such depth as to scare off the rest of us, yet always emerging with new insights. At the same time, that experience made him cautious when it came to accepting the work of others. He was skeptical of shortcuts and premature judgments, and found more of this than he liked in climate-change discussions. To dialog with him on these issues was always an education. To leave was to leave with a stronger determination to be more thorough, to do higher-quality work, be more self-critical.

In-depth statistical analysis? He applied that same grit to exercise. Why run one mile when you can run ten? Why run ten miles when you can run one hundred? He loved running long distances. And he’d tell the rest of us, “Ultra-marathons are more fun than marathons. You don’t just run. You talk. You stop for meals. You’re in community…” (Mere mortals struggled to find this line of argument entirely convincing.)

Tim was a closer. He got things done. He finished his races, and he finished his statistical analyses. When we worked together during the late 1990’s with the Institute for Business and Home Safety to put on once-monthly workshops as part of the Public-Private Partnership 2000, Tim was a leading force in marshaling USGS, NOAA, and IBHS colleagues in taking vague workshop ideas and making them actually happen, over a two-year period.

Tim was a gentleman (as in: a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered man). The word doesn’t get used so much these days – it’s so twentieth-century, or maybe even nineteenth. But it applied to Tim – everything about him, everything he did, and every way he went about life. He was extremely well-educated, but never threw that in anyone’s face. He had a great sense of humor but never employed it at anyone else’s expense. To be around Tim was to experience dignity and respect.

Enthusiasm/positive energy. But time with Tim was never dry, or stuffy, or ordinary. He radiated an extraordinary vitality and passion for all aspects of life and the human experience that was infectious. Remarkably, and most tellingly, it extended to his battle with the lymphoma that finally took him. He was fascinated by the clever medical science and therapies keeping him alive, asked questions of his doctors, read up, and transmitted his keen interest to everyone around him. To be with him during this time was to be built up, not drained. (Truth be told, much of this was also due to his best friend and wife Sarah, who has radiated this same positive force, even as she dedicated months to his care and nurturing. Tim and Sarah didn’t just endure these months; they lived them, filling them with special times and memories shared with the rest of us through CaringBridge, in a way that inspired.)


A closing note: At Wilkinsburg High School in the 1950’s every senior had to memorize 150 lines of poetry. One scrap I selected at the time was this last bit of Bryant’s Thanatopsis. (Wikipedia tells us Bryant may have penned these words when he was only seventeen.) In the years since, I’ve reflected on these sentiments, and always wondered why I chose them.

That is, until today. Thanks, Tim, for embodying the spirit of these lines – and for being the person you are. I know you were a bit of a skeptic about spiritual matters – but I’ll see you in heaven (hydrologists analyze statistics; meteorologists make forecasts). For me, and for countless others, it won’t be heaven without you there. And I’ll bet you’re already finding that your love of science, and exercise, and gentlemanly manner, and enthusiasm and positive energy, are blending right in.

We love and miss you.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

The Oroville Dam… and extrapolation to the national implications.

Two weeks ago, the risks posed by the Oroville dam occupied relatively few minds. But in the days since its near-failure and the evacuation of 200,000 people downstream, it’s become a household word. The news media have devoted much ink and uncountable electrons to the discussion.

The Atlantic provides a particularly well-balanced article, beginning with some background:

In December 1964, three years into the massive barrier’s construction, a huge flood struck the northwest, killing dozens. The dam was nearly overtopped, which could have led to its failure even before it was completed. Instead, the partially completed dam helped prevent a larger disaster by reducing the flow of the Feather River…

The dam, which sits south of Chico and north of Sacramento, was eventually completed in 1968, creating the nation’s tallest dam. It forms the head of California’s massive, byzantine State Water Project (SWP). The SWP moves water from Northern California south toward Los Angeles, an average of 3 million acre-feet per year. A drop of water that starts at Lake Oroville, above the dam, takes 10 days to move all the way to the end of the system, south of Los Angeles

…There’s some bitter irony to the problem of too much water menacing the Golden State. California has suffered through a long and severe drought, at times driving Governor Jerry Brown to institute stringent—critics say draconian—water controls. This winter has seen much more snow and rain, which is good news for the parched state, but bad news for the Oroville Dam, where huge amounts of water are collecting. The lake rose 50 feet in a matter of days. Earlier in February, as operators let water over a concrete spillway to reduce the pressure, a crater appeared in the spillway. Faced with too much water in the lake, they continued to use the spillway anyway, and the damage got worse. On Friday, the crater was 45 feet deep, 300 feet wide, and 500 feet long.

The full article provides more particulars, and explores three contributing causes to the emergency: drought, climate change, and infrastructure maintenance.

Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences this morning posted a discussion with in-house experts Noah Diffenbaugh and Newsha Ajami on what happened at Oroville Dam and what Californians might see. Some excerpts:

Noah Diffenbaugh is a professor of Earth System Science in the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and the Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. He focused on the climate change aspects. A sample, to whet your appetite for the fuller discussion:

What’s happening now is very much in line with our recent research analyzing the historical climate record and projections of future climate change. It’s really an issue of extremes. Right now, we’re having an extremely wet year, on top of a record-breaking five-year drought. The basin upstream of Oroville Dam is at a record 224 percent of normal precipitation, and we are witnessing what happens when so much precipitation falls in such a short amount of time. Our research has shown that global warming doubles the odds of the warm, dry conditions that intensified and extended our recent drought. At the same time, that warming atmosphere carries more water vapor, so you have the potential for more extreme wet periods like this winter.

Dr. Newsha Ajami is director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Water in the West Program[1]. She focused on the infrastructure:

[The Oroville event] …demonstrates that our aging infrastructure requires better maintenance and upkeep, otherwise it can fail, especially under new climatic realities that are quite different from the historical knowledge used to design and build it. We have to become smarter in the way we manage our water infrastructure system. Using 20th-century tools and governance strategies to manage our existing infrastructure will not meet our 21st-century challenges and needs. We also have to update our water governance tools and strategies at every scale to incorporate today’s climatic realities in our decision-making process and consider innovative solutions that can enable more effective management of our system without any social or economic consequences…

my colleagues in the transportation and energy sectors might not fully agree, [but] people are much more willing to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of roads, bridges or energy transmission lines than our water system. This is partly because water is a hidden system and people are disconnected from our complex and sophisticated water network. Most people hardly know where their water comes from or where it goes after use. To change the public’s attitude toward water, we have to do a better job educating the public and demonstrating that reactive responses to our water challenges will end up being costlier than proactive ones. Authorities need a steady fund to maintain the water system and that may mean a change in water rates.

Well said!

Returning to The Atlantic narrative, we find:

In 2005, a trio of environmental groups filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, saying the emergency spillway was unsafe, The Mercury News reports. Their worry proved prophetic: The groups said in the event of heavy rain and flooding, the hillside would wash out and produce flooding downstream. They asked that the auxiliary spillway be paved with concrete, like the primary one. But the federal government rejected the request after consulting with the state and local agencies involved in the water system, which said they did not believe the upgrades were needed.

 As for the primary spillway, the state did some repair work around the area of the collapse in 2013, CBS Sacramento reports. The last state inspection was in July 2015, but workers did not closely inspect the concrete, the Redding Record Searchlight notes, instead eyeing it from a distance and concluding it was safe. Officials say repairs should cost $100 million to $200 million, once it’s dry enough to begin them.

 For comparison, let’s estimate that the cost of the emergency evacuation and housing for 200,000 people for five days is of the order of $1000/person. That comes the order of $200M. Failure to perform routine maintenance on the dam essentially doubled the cost to the Nation. And that was without actual dam failure, and the resulting property damage that would have raised losses by an order of magnitude.

This calls to mind the periodic assessments by the American Society of Civil Engineers on the need for infrastructure maintenance of all types. Focusing on the dams alone, we learn from their 2013 report that

Dams again earned a grade of D. The average age of the 84,000 dams in the country is 52 years old. The nation’s dams are aging and the number of high-hazard dams is on the rise. Many of these dams were built as low-hazard dams protecting undeveloped agricultural land. However, with an increasing population and greater development below dams, the overall number of high-hazard dams continues to increase, to nearly 14,000 in 2012. The number of deficient dams is currently more than 4,000. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that it will require an investment of $21 billion to repair these aging, yet critical, high-hazard dams[2].

As of 2012, there are 13,991 dams in the United States that are classified as high-hazard, showing a continued increase in the overall number of dams with that classification. The number has increased from 10,118 high-hazard dams just ten years ago. Another 12,662 dams are currently labeled as significant hazard, meaning a failure would not necessarily cause a loss of life, but could result in significant economic losses.

The average age of our nation’s dams is 52 years. By 2020, 70% of the total dams in the United States will be over 50 years old. Fifty years ago dams were built with the best engineering and construction standards of the time. However, as the scientific and engineering data have improved, many dams are not expected to safely withstand current predictions regarding large floods and earthquakes. In addition, many of these dams were initially constructed using less-stringent design criteria for low-hazard dams due to the lack of development below the dam…

 …Dam failures can not only risk public safety, but they can cost our economy millions of dollars in damages… Since dam failures can cause severe consequences to public safety and the economy, emergency action plans (EAPs) for use in the event of an impending dam failure or other uncontrolled release of water remain vital. While the number of high-hazard dams with an EAP has increased, only 66% of dams have EAPs, far below the national goal of 100%.

The complexity of monitoring the conditions of our nation’s dams is partly because they are owned and operated by many different entities. While some of the nation’s dams are owned and operated by federal, state, and local governments, the majority, 69%, are owned by a private entity. The federal government owns 3,225 dams, or approximately 4% of the nation’s dams. It may be surprising to some that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns only 694 dams.

 Other than 2,600 dams regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the remaining dams in the nation are not regulated by the federal government, but instead rely on state dam safety programs for inspection. State dam safety programs have primary responsibility and permitting, inspection, and enforcement authority for 80% of the nation’s dams. Therefore, state dam safety programs bear a large responsibility for public safety, but unfortunately, many state programs lack sufficient resources, and in some cases enough regulatory authority, to be effective…

Putting Americans to work to maintain dams and avert catastrophe seems an attractive alternative to paying comparable amounts to evacuate and house those threatened by dam failure.


[1] Full disclosure: Dr. Ajami, when a graduate student at UC Irvine, participated in the 2005 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium (can’t understand how the Stanford News Service failed to catch and highlight this… ).

[2] A small fraction of the $3.6T the ASCE estimates is required to renovate all U.S. infrastructure, including levees and drinking water supply, energy, waste disposal, transportation, etc. For comparison, Americans spend $20B annually on pet food.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

To march? Or not to march?

“…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy.

“If you want a barge to move, and you kick it, you just hurt your foot. But if you lean against it, sooner or later it has to move your way.”Joseph O. Fletcher.

To march? Or not to march? … that is (Hamlet notwithstanding) NOT the (most important) question – at least not for American scientists.

But it’s a question on many a scientist’s mind. Here at the American Meteorological Society, we’re individually and corporately asked these days what we think about the upcoming March for Science, scheduled for April 22, Earth Day. March, or not? Make a stand and a statement, or stay on the sidelines? Many of those doing the asking, whether our members, or the larger community (including a number of other scientific societies) see the choice as clear cut. But integrate over all the comments, and it’s clear that scientists are divided, even internally conflicted on the issue.

There are thoughtful voices on both sides.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from an article in The Guardian:

Elizabeth Hadly, professor of biology, geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University, has spent more than 30 years studying the impacts of environmental change on animal biodiversity. She explained that “scientists have battled the political and ideological forces against concepts such as evolution and climate change for years. We have patiently articulated the physical and biological laws governing the universe, assembled the data, and presented it in the pages of journals, at public seminars, to the halls of Congress. What is occurring now against science and scientists in the US goes beyond ideology and political party. Now we find our discourse under attack.”James Hansen, former director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified to the US Congress about the dangers of climate change in the 1980s. He welcomed the plans for the march, saying that it was “an overdue change for scientists to become more active. Scientists understand the urgent danger that we could leave young people a climate system out of control.”

Professor Anthony D. Barnosky of Stanford University is an expert in past planetary changes, and what they mean for forecasting the changes to come on Planet Earth in the next few decades. “Scientists deal in facts, not politics, so most are reticent about speaking out. Social media and the halls of scientific institutions are now abuzz with scientists upset about an administration trying to muzzle the facts that don’t agree with certain political agendas. That they are ready to march on Washington, tells you just how serious this is”, he said. Barnosky’s concerns are grounded on some fundamental aspects of science. “Basically, the data are the data, and the public has a right to know, so that they can participate in democracy. Filtering the findings of the nation’s government scientists, who are among the best and brightest and whose work is paid for by taxpayer dollars, goes counter to everything America stands for.”

These views were echoed by meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus… He explained the explosion of interest in the march. “It’s broader than about limiting communication. Scientists are seeing this as a full scale attack on truth itself and the principle that government should take scientific information onboard and incorporate it into policies and so act for society as a whole.”

Contrast that with the perspective of Robert S. Young, a professor of coastal geology and the director of the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University. Writing in the New York Times, he suggests:

Talk is growing about a March for Science on Washington, similar to the Women’s March the day after President Trump’s inauguration. It is a terrible idea.

Among scientists, understandably, there is growing fear that fact-based decision making is losing its seat at the policy-making table. There’s also overwhelming frustration with the politicization of science by climate change skeptics and others who see it as threatening to their interests or beliefs.

But trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends…

 …the lesson I learned from [my] experience… was that most of those attacking our sea-level-rise projections had never met me, nor my co-authors. Not only that, most of the public had never met anyone they considered a scientist. They didn’t understand the careful, painstaking process we followed to reach our peer-reviewed conclusions. We were unknowns, “scientists” delivering bad news. We were easy marks for those who felt threatened by our findings.

A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.

Rather than marching on Washington and in other locations around the country, I suggest that my fellow scientists march into local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs and, privately, into the offices of elected officials. Make contact with that part of America that doesn’t know any scientists. Put a face on the debate. Help them understand what we do, and how we do it. Give them your email, or better yet, your phone number.

(And, if you’re inclined to dig deeper, you might check out this post from Vox, which juxtaposes the case both for and against.)

If to march or not to march isn’t the question, then what is?

Robert Young hints at it (and likely Elizabeth Hadly, James Hansen, and Anthony Barnosky, if asked, would heartily agree).

The truth is, any march, however visible or memorable (and there are real risks that the marches won’t be that memorable, or that they’ll be memorable in a negative way) is momentary. Its impact will be fleeting, much like Joe Fletcher’s kick against the barge.

Instead, the real challenge for each of us stems from this sobering reality. We’re not pursuing our science out of our own resources. Instead we’re financially supported, both personally, and through investments in the computers, observing instruments, and laboratory facilities we use, by the larger society – 330 million Americans, most of whom are far more strapped than we are.

True enough, the innovation such research spawns more than repays the investment. (The invention of the transistor, by itself, may well have paid for all the research that has ever been done or ever will be done. Then there’s the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, the mapping of the human genome, etc…)

But in a world where seven billion people face daily crises of every sort and unprecedented long-term challenges with respect to food, water, energy, and quality of life, we can’t afford to be complacent. We personally owe society an account of our stewardship. Scientists should wake up every morning with a sense of urgency, asking Jack Kennedy’s question: What can I give back? How can I best contribute to my country and the world? Today? Tomorrow? Over the rest of my career?

If the social contract between science and society is frayed, what can be done over the long haul to restore it? We need to be as intentional and disciplined in our approach to this question as we are to our science. The answer might lie in advancing the science per se. That’s what we were trained to do and what we do best. But it might lie in devoting a bit more attention to what Robert Young suggests – reaching out to our neighbors and local communities, listening to and coming to understand their concerns. Building trust and mutual acceptance – and then a shared vision.

Here’s a prediction. If we do this, as a continuing way, then society will take notice, and fulfill the other part of Jack Kennedy’s quote. They’ll ask what they can do for us – as they have, steadfastly, for decades. If we look in history’s rearview mirror, we’ll see that American support for science has been sustained for decades if not centuries.

So march, or don’t march, as the better angels of your nature guide you.  But don’t neglect the bigger work of devoting your science to the benefit of life. And be intentional about this; don’t leave it to chance.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Meanwhile, outside the Beltway…

For me, the week after the annual AMS meeting each year is usually a week of catch-up in my home DC-based office. But this year finds me instead in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I’m sitting in as a member of the advisory board for the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence at the University of North Carolina. A brief squib from their website gives the background:

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill leads the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (CRC), made possible through a five-year, $20 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate, Office of University Programs. The CRC is a consortium of universities, private companies, and government agencies focused on applied research, education and outreach addressing threats to coastal communities due to natural hazards and climate change.

 The CRC expands on work conducted through the DHS Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence, which was co-led by UNC-Chapel Hill and Jackson State University from 2008 to 2015…

 …The CRC’s leadership team is comprised of Dr. Rick Luettich, Lead Principal Investigator; Dr. Gavin Smith, Director; Dr. Robert Whalin, Education and Workforce Director (Jackson State University); Dr. Tom Richardson, Associate Director (Jackson State University); and Anna Schwab, Program Manager.

One hundred people are crammed into the meeting room, which crackles with positive energy, laced with a bit of constructive tension. There are the academics doing the research and teaching, coming from more than twenty universities stretching from Oregon to Rhode Island, from Florida to Texas, and points in between. DHS has a small crowd of representatives here; others are listening in/participating by phone/webinar. Partner agencies – NOAA, USACE, Coast Guard, and others are all here. The progress made since the last meeting has been extraordinary, on topics ranging from adaptive-grid, numerical modeling of storm surge and merging of hydrologic and ocean models to get at inundation, to engineering, risk communication, community planning, and STEM education. Projects that had seemed silo-ed and disjointed a year or so ago are better integrated.

But the pressure is on. DHS is focused, looking forward to a biennial review of the Center to take place soon. This meeting is something of a dry run. At the biennial review, they’ll be requiring concrete evidence of high-quality, peer-reviewed research; concrete contribution to impact-based decision support for specific, identified end users; quantitative measures of progress and value; not just numbers of STEM participants but individual narratives of the minority- and other students who’ve participated in the STEM education and how their career trajectories have been changed.

Stakes are high. DHS will work with the Center after the biennial review and decide which of the various projects will continue for the next two years, and which will be terminated in order to free up funds for promising new starts. As one P.I. shared with me privately, it’s not as relaxed as NSF. The academics are struggling a bit to adjust. But they are adjusting. And even with the extra reporting requirements, there’s a sense of team, pride and accomplishment across the room. The DHS panel isn’t sitting in judgment so much as actively engaging with investigators to tighten things up. The researchers aren’t whining; they’re on board and getting clever about meeting the DHS objectives.

In between struggling to keep up with the fast pace of the presentations and the Q&A, and marveling at the speed of progress that CRC and its member institutions are making, I reflect on the fact that this is merely 100 people, and $4M a year worth of work. When it comes to Earth observations, science, and science-based services, we’re talking about maybe $20B a year and by inference perhaps maybe 500,000 engaged professionals working with equal focus, industry, and a sense of urgency across the whole of the natural-resource, hazard-, and environmental protection-agenda. That translates into 50,000 such 100-person groups. I can’t see them but they’re also making progress at similar warp speed.

If you’re reading this post, chances are good that includes you and your network of collaborators. I know you have to dive back in, but before you do, please give yourself a moment and the grace to reflect on the significance of your work and your contributions to making this a better world. Give yourself and your co-workers a mental pat on the back.

A refreshing change, and reassuring to see, given the current season of sturm und drang inside the Beltway.

Reassuring? Far too tame a word. Make that inspiring.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


Amicus briefs are legal documents filed in appellate court cases by non-litigants with a strong interest in the subject matter. The briefs advise the court of relevant, additional information or arguments that the court might wish to consider.

An amicus curiae (literally, friend of the court; plural, amici curiae) is someone who is not a party to a case and is not solicited by a party, but who assists a court by offering information that bears on the case. The decision on whether to admit the information lies at the discretion of the court. The phrase amicus curiae is legal Latin.

 Amicus humani generis: a philanthropist (literally, friend of the human race).

 Today the American Meteorological Society joins the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists to file an amicus brief in support of the U.S. Department of Commerce, defendant, in a suit brought by Judicial Watch, Inc. This formal action of the Society prompted this (wholly personal) reflection. Three points.

Amicus brief.

Without getting too entangled in the thicket of events and actions and perceptions that is the context here, the basic history is that NOAA has publicly released the data and the methodology behind a specific scientific publication to the Congress per a request dating back many months (in the Obama administration). However, Judicial Watch, Inc. is seeking additional, privileged correspondence and preliminary material. The amicus brief argues that this is a misuse of public records laws, an unfortunate practice that is on the rise. The amicus brief maintains that the deliberative process privilege appropriately protects the confidentiality of government scientists’ correspondence and drafts.

Amicus curiae.

It’s important to note that the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the American Meteorological Society submitted this brief, unsolicited, as friends of the court, to help the court in its deliberations, to help get the legal process right. The brief happens to support the defendant in this instance, but is aimed at the larger question that justice be served. The court alone decides whether these materials are truly helpful, or are to be ignored.

Amicus humani generis.

Most of us think of philanthropy as a matter of funding, but in fact the concept is broader:

  1. altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement, usually manifested by donations of money, property, or work to needy persons, by endowment of institutions of learning and hospitals, and by generosity to other socially useful purposes…
  2. an organization devoted to helping needy persons or to other socially useful purposes. [emphasis added]

One of the most satisfying aspects of being an AMS member for half a century has been the sense of belonging to an organization – a community – that sees itself as, and acts like, a friend of the entire human race. A friend of Congress – all members and staffers of Congress. Of Federal agencies. Of Courts. Private enterprise. Universities. NGOs. Of 330 million Americans, and seven billion people worldwide. Advancing science? Applying that science for the protection of lives and property in the face of natural hazards? Aiding the world in its quest for food, water, and energy and other natural resources? Helping maintain critical ecosystem services? This feels like a much needed form of friendship for the whole human race.

In a small way, this AMS amicus spirit parallels the closing thoughts shared by President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Words to live by, especially today, when civil strife is so rampant, and so many people, of all persuasions, feel like combatants.

You can find Lincoln’s entire speech here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

AMS and the “Horton-Hears-a-Who” strategy for making a difference.

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”


“This,” cried the Mayor, “is your town’s darkest hour!

The time for all Whos who have blood that is red

To come to the aid of their country!” he said.

“We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts!

So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!”

(with a tip of the hat to Dr. Gina M. Eosco of ERG, who in various presentations has helped us all see so much of the world through the lens of Dr. Seuss)

I get asked a lot why AMS “doesn’t do more advocacy,” with particular reference to e-mail-writing campaigns, for example. Have to confess I’m not a big fan. First off, Congressional staffers are almost unanimous in expressing disdain for form letters, even when they come in relatively large numbers. (The NGO’s that do this? Many are doing no more than helping their members “feel involved.”)

And the AMS doesn’t bring to bear relatively large numbers. Let’s compare ourselves to AARP. We have 13,000 members around the world. Not bad! But AARP has something like one million members – in Virginia. We have unrestricted net assets order of $10M. Again, not bad.[1] But AARP has assets totaling something more like $3B.

So guess which NGO is in favor of seeing who can yell the loudest, and thus sling its weight around?

Who yells the loudest? That’s where Horton and the Who’s come in. A smidgen of the plot: Horton the Elephant, who, while splashing in a pool, hears a small speck of dust talking to him. Horton surmises that a small person lives on the speck and places it on a clover, vowing to protect it. He later discovers that the speck is actually a tiny planet, home to a community called Whoville, where microscopic creatures called Whos live. The Mayor of Whoville asks Horton to protect them from harm, which Horton happily agrees to, proclaiming throughout the book that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

You remember (or can guess) what happens next. Preserving a people so tiny in Horton’s world is a daunting task. Horton’s contemporaries find his behavior crazy. They refuse to believe his narrative, and taunt and vex him repeatedly, finally putting the Who’s in great jeopardy. It’s vital that Horton’s companions hear what Horton’s been hearing all along. The Who’s shout in unison, but still can’t be heard. Just when all seems lost, the mayor finds one shirker, JoJo, who hasn’t been making noise. When JoJo adds his voice to the chorus, they reach the needed threshold; the other jungle animals hear them and help Horton bring matters to a happy conclusion.

Okay, Bill, please tell us there’s a point to this.

Sure! The AMS is most effective when it takes the time needed to construct a single statement that has the weight of Council deliberation and full membership input behind it, such as the statement on freedom of scientific expression, just renewed at the AMS Annual Meeting in Seattle this past week.

The AMS also has great effect when it partners up with the Hortons of the world. Two examples:

The first is our membership in the American Institute of Physics – a coalition of physical-science societies, representing 120,000 members. This membership now brings the AIP monthly journal Physics Today to our mailboxes (a kind of Bulletin of the AMS on the big screen, but featuring articles from our members, such as “How to Deal with Climate Change,” published by Paul Higgins in October of 2014). But it also means that we can contribute to, and benefit from, more policy-focused AIP activities, including but not limited to a suite of publications available under the label FYI. An excerpt from a recent e-mail from AIP CEO Robert Brown describes the newest FYI product, FYI This Week:

At this time in our nation’s history, it is more important than ever for scientists to galvanize support for continued federal funding of science and to promote well-informed science policy. Developments in the coming weeks and months will be critical. We can help keep your membership informed through FYI, a science policy news service from AIP.

The sign-up is free, and it is an easy way for interested parties to stay on top of what is happening within the Trump administration and in Congress. Today, the FYI team launched a new product, FYI This Week. Click here for the first edition. Each edition will include a look at the week ahead and a review of the week just passed. It will also list upcoming events, opportunities to get engaged, and links to articles from other publications.

If you’re interested in staying abreast of events and actions in the turbulent Washington scene, especially as they impact Earth observations, science, and science-based services, FYI merits your attention and support.

The second? The AMS joined AAAS and numerous other signatories in responding to the ill-considered January 27, 2017 White House Executive Order on visas and immigration. The letter lays out in clear crisp terms how scientific progress depends on openness, transparency, and the free flow of ideas and people, and these principles have helped the United States attract and richly benefit from international scientific talent.

It points out that the Executive Order will discourage many of the best and brightest international students, scholars, engineers and scientists from studying and working, attending academic and scientific conferences, or seeking to build new businesses in the United States. Implementation of this policy will compromise the United States’ ability to attract international scientific talent and maintain scientific and economic leadership.

151 institutional signatories? Memberships totaling in the millions?

A great deal of extra effort on the part of Keith Seitter, the AMS Executive Director, AMS staff and volunteer leadership, but leveraging our impact.

In these and other clever ways the AMS Who’s can be heard. And the community of Ed Lorenz’ butterfly should certainly understand the importance of JoJo. Each of us matters.


[1] A brief infomercial: you can improve that AMS balance sheet by donating to the AMS Centennial campaign just getting underway. Information will soon be up on the AMS website.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Want to make a difference in today’s political turmoil? Think like a meteorologist.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. – Proverbs 26:4 (NIV)

Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. – Proverbs 26:5 (NIV)

Yes, you read that right. The two proverbs follow one another in the Old Testament. It’s not possible to read them in isolation. They lead to only one conclusion: in the presence of a fool, you’re in a lose-lose situation. Silence and acquiescence are not the answer; neither is confrontation.

This isn’t some mere abstraction. In fact, some might see this catch-22 in today’s political climate. The turbulence and noise from today’s politics is deafening – and feels more than a little sinister. Whether the topic is health care or immigration or trade or environment (or science more broadly) or education or national security, the first sound we hear is the sound of a wrecking ball being put to years of established precedent (imperfect precedent, to be sure, but nonetheless hard-won, the product of years if not decades of national dialog). That’s followed by a more distressing sound, the anguished cries of the largely innocent who chanced to be at the point of impact and are now falling into the category of “collateral damage.” It is these few who are unfairly bearing the brunt. Half of the nation is gleeful; they take these cries of alarm and suffering as “proof” that the change is “working.” The other half of the nation is horrified, and moved to demonstration, but nonetheless anesthetized by some distance from the personal impacts and by what Paul Slovic has called the “numbing effect” of statistics. Not since the Civil War has the country been so split down the middle, with both factions so utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

What to do?

The answer might lie in thinking like meteorologists, and drawing from the lessons of cloud microphysics. Such a notion might seem impossibly simplistic, in the face of such trying times. But hear me out.

With apologies to my colleagues and friends who are card-carrying cloud microphysicists and actually know this complex and important subject at some considerable depth, here is what I remember.

The water vapor in clouds doesn’t condense to form water or ice at random in the air. Instead they coalesce around cloud condensation nuclei or CCN’s – aerosol particles so small that they’re carried about by the wind and remain aloft for extended periods. Many materials function as CCN’s, but loosely speaking, they fall into two categories.

The warm cloud nuclei foster formation of water droplets in clouds at temperatures above freezing – 320 Fahrenheit or 00 Centigrade. By and large, these particles are hygroscopic. They’re particles of salt and/or acidic (aggregates of oxides of sulfur or nitrogen, for example). They absorb water, and – this is the important bit – they are dissolved by that water.

Ice nuclei – the particles responsible for water-vapor coalescence in cloud temperatures cooler than the freezing point – work differently. They’re soil particles such as clays, or other substances, whose crystal lattice structure happens to mimic the structure of ice crystals at corresponding temperatures. That structure remains firm, unchanged, as the water freezes onto it. They discipline the water, rather than lose their identity in it.

The lesson for us? As individuals, and as groups of individuals? To focus more on who we are – our core values – and what we stand for, rather than what we’re against.

For an individual, or even an organization, no matter how big (or whether government or private-sector or academic) to choose to stand against ideas or actions, from whatever source or however evil, is to risk being torn apart by all the competing pulls and tugs from such great diversity. Seven billion people, singly, and in different combinations (aggregated as other countries, etc.) can think of and promote an uncountable number of things that we disagree with, even violently. But to engage in firefighting (to argue with the fools, plural) is to be spread so thin and to be necessarily so reactive as to quickly burn out. There’s no way this route is sustainable.

By contrast, standing for something, or for a small basket of somethings – core values, ambitions, and things – is to make the task manageable, and sustainable. Consider, for example:

We’re members of the American Meteorological Society. We advance the atmospheric and related sciences, technologies, applications, and services for the benefit of society.

Standing for something is not to be drawn into empty argument. But it’s not to be silent either. It works equally well with fool or wise, or enemy or friend. So you want to survive the world of 2017, and not just survive, but make a substantive, positive difference? You might start with the AMS mission, as stated above. Add the mission statement of your agency or university or company or NGO or church or any other group that matters to you. Integrate with your personal core values of integrity and compassion, and all the rest. (Or reverse the order; any order works.) Take time to write that all down in a simple paragraph or page, or as a set of bullets you find satisfying and compelling. Then start living out your life that way, working out of your list and making adjustments as you encounter circumstances that require a tweak or a bit of reworking. Listen as others make their case to you. Have a high tolerance for what others stand for, and patience for what they rail against. But avoid argument, instead quietly insisting on a common search for truth – what to stand for. It still won’t be easy. But it will be manageable, and you can sustain it for the long term.

An extra bonus. You just might discover that other person, the one you’d been quick to label a fool, is wiser than you’d first thought.

Truth be told? Most of us have been living our lives this way all along. If we haven’t been, if we’ve allowed ourselves to be complacent and drift along with this or that tribe, then making this vital adjustment will be a bit more difficult at first, but well worth the effort.


Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The AMS has changed my life. How has it changed yours?

I’m Bill Hooke, and the AMS changed my life.

A bit of departure from the usual fare for these posts.

The 97th annual AMS meeting is wrapping up here in Seattle. Exhibitors are breaking down their booths and displays. The last day’s scientific sessions are in full swing. And for those of us on AMS staff, along with the much larger number of folks who generously lead and serve the AMS in diverse volunteer capacities, the final batch of side meetings is underway. Some, like the NWS stakeholders meeting, draw a big crowd. Others involve smaller numbers yet are nonetheless vital. For example, each year, Thursday focuses on meeting planning: this time around, a debrief on the 2017 meeting just concluded and thanks to the program chairs and exhibitors. Planning conversations for the 2018 Meeting to be held in Austin, Texas, drawing on a blend of lessons learned and moving in the direction of the incoming AMS president’s chosen theme of communications. The AMS Annual Meeting Oversight Committee, considering strategic opportunities and trends for annual meetings over the long term. And so on.

In addition, this morning also saw a meeting of the Centennial Committee, preparing for the 2019 and 2020 AMS Annual meetings that will frame the celebration of AMS’ 100th year. Actually, those two annual meetings, even with all the special functions being planned, are merely the tip of the iceberg. Under the leadership of Bill Gail, the Centennial Committee is also wrestling with opportunities for new AMS initiatives, institutional transformation, and engaging outside groups and larger publics more effectively, as well as addressing a set of cross-cutting issues. The 100th anniversary is a big deal. Please sign on! The celebration shouldn’t be confined to a small committee, with 13,000 spectators. It should involve 13,000 participants. (Come to think of it, the whole country should be celebrating – all 330 million of us. Maybe the broadcast meteorologists can lead us there.)

At the start of the Centennial Committee meeting, Bill Gail had those in the room do self-introductions. We were invited to share, individually: how has the AMS changed our lives?

You should have been there! A great set of inspiring narratives from the twenty or so people in the room. Reminded me:

In the 1960’s, I was a newly-minted Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. I was working in Boulder, Colorado, at the Institutes for Environmental Research of the Environmental Science Services Administration (what would become the research labs of NOAA in 1970). Out of the blue (the only color of sky in Colorado), the AMS reached out. They wanted a token young person (my framing) as a member-at-large of their Publications Commission. What a great opportunity! I eagerly signed on, for what would turn out to be the first of three three-year terms (things were less rigidly structured then). A year later, Ken Spengler, then the AMS Executive Director, put his arm around me at a meeting and suggested since I was on the committee, it would be a nice touch if I were actually an AMS member.


Anyway, that was the start. Because the AMS actually asked me to do something, that began a sustained relationship which has persisted to this day.

In the 1975 time frame, I got tired of the fact that gravity-wave researchers (my small tribe) were always consigned to last-day meeting sessions with lesser crowds. It occurred to me that I could start a STAC committee! So I did, working with Ken Spengler to establish a Committee on Atmospheric and Oceanic Waves and Stability. We held our first meeting here in Seattle in 1976, down the street at what was then the Olympic Hotel.

How to get people to attend the first meeting? A big concern. So I made two phone calls (no e-mails then). The first was to Jule Charney. The second was to Owen Phillips. They didn’t know me from Adam.

Were they interested? Could they come across the country and give a talk? Long story short… of course they could! After all, they were AMS members. Sharp scientifically, but also people-oriented, encouraging, helpful by nature, inclined to mentoring. So, that allowed me to make dozens of phone calls after that, always leading with Jule Charney and Owen Phillips are coming to this meeting. Would you be interested? Joe Pedlosky came. Hsaio-Lan Kuo came. Francis Bretherton gave a keynote. Jim O’Brien came. And many more. Eventually something like 200 people showed up. And it worked. The meeting was five full days, and only ten percent of us gave our talks on the sparsely attended, dreaded Friday afternoon session. Today, 40 years later, under the name Atmospheric and Oceanic Dynamics, the Committee is still going strong.

Down the road, the AMS asked me to run for Council. Sure! Set an AMS record for the smallest number of votes ever cast for any candidate. A few years later, they asked me a second time. That time around, served on the Council and briefly on the EC for three years in the 1990’s.

The AMS had changed my life.

Not long after, in 2000, the AMS became my life.

Then-AMS-executive-director Ron McPherson and Dick Greenfield invited me downtown from my NOAA Silver Spring office under false pretenses. McPherson asked: Brother Hooke, what’s keeping you from joining the AMS Policy Program staff? After a nanosecond’s hesitation: Nothing. Greenfield piled on: When can you start? Another nanosecond dragged by. Seemed like forever. Two weeks?

Dick laughed, Bill, maybe you ought to give NOAA more notice than that. So I extended to 30 days. Left NOAA on May 31 and started with AMS on June 3.

Quite simply, the last going-on-seventeen years have been the most satisfying of my career. At Ron McPherson’s suggestion, we started the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium (infomercial: Please apply! This year we run from June 4-13. And in case you’ve just returned from Mars, you should know that things have changed since you left. 2017 promises to be an especially interesting year.) And Ron and then Keith Seitter have generously allowed me to plug in across a wonderfully wide range of other AMS work.

You have your own truth to tell. How has the AMS changed your life? Please share your narrative, not just on this blog (although that would be great), but also with your friends and colleagues. We want to hear your story! And your story will prompt theirs.

While we’re all celebrating this history, we can lift a glass in the AMS direction. Maybe even contribute to the development fund, give back to AMS, help AMS pay it forward.

Excuse the personal digression. Next post, back to the fate of western civilization. 🙂

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Signal and the Noise

“Distinguishing the signal from the noise requires both scientific knowledge and self-knowledge: the serenity to accept the things we cannot predict, the courage to predict the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Nate Silver[1]

“The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.” ― Nate Silver

The year 2017 might be a good time for those in the business of Earth observations, science, and science-based services to heed Nate Silver’s 2012 encouragement to focus on the signal and not the noise[2].

Two important signals dominate our times (though not necessarily our thinking).

Physical-world realities: what is the Earth doing? The state and dynamics of the atmosphere, ocean, and solid Earth. Trends in average conditions, extending out to centuries and beyond. The cycles of flood and drought, heat and cold, and other acute, localized, extreme departures from the averages. The availability of water, food, and energy, and other natural resources. The threat of hazards. Response of the physical world to human actions – the impact of seven billion people on habitat, biodiversity, air and water quality, and ecosystem services.

Social realities: our need to know. Seven billion people must track and anticipate what the physical world will do next. What’s coming? Locally, over the next few minutes? Globally, or time scales extending out to centuries and more? What is the physical world up to? Of course, day-to-day, in our manmade urban cocoon, we may fail to take notice for a short period. We can lose ourselves even further – absorbed, even transfixed by the seductive virtual realities that the Internet makes so widely and reliably available. But we can ignore the actualities of our physical environment only for so long. Sooner or later, wherever we may be, however sheltered we deem ourselves, on whatever time horizon, the Earth we live on does things that claim our undivided attention.

Day by day, year on year, these stakes of living on the real world increase. The rewards for knowing what’s on tap – what lies ahead – magnify. The value proposition of Earth observations, science, and science-based services ratchets upwards.

If these are the signals, what is the noise?

In a word? Politics.

Back in 2012, just as Nate Silver’s book was coming out, the Norwegian infotainment program Siffer put out a wonderful little one-minute video on trend and variation (translation: signal versus noise). You probably saw it at the time.

Take a(nother) look. As you watch it, remember: the importance of the Earth observations, science, and services that you do?

That’s the signal.

The political debate and public discussion about it – however loud or angry or divisive or turbulent? Or seemingly interminable?

That’s the noise.


If you’re interested, a 2011 entry in this blog (also posted from an AMS Annual Meeting, also in Seattle) treated a similar subject. You can find it here.


[1]With a presumed apology to or acknowledgment of Reinhold Niebur?. His serenity prayer goes like this: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

[2] Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t, (2012).

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

More inaugural augury. The outlook for ethics, (and the 2017 AMS Annual Meeting).

Ethics: that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

“Most people, when they consider the boundary between right and wrong, try to stay on the right side, as far away from the line as possible. Beware of those who promise to get you closer to that boundary than anyone has gone without crossing it.” – Robert Hooke (1918-2003).

On the occasion of today’s inauguration, yesterday’s LOTRW predictions continue: ethics will be a huge focus of the national discussion.

Really, Bill? Tell us something we don’t know.

Okay, okay. Given the headlines of the past year, and especially the past two months, this seems to belabor the obvious. Whether it’s the ethics of political leadership amidst financial entanglements, or dragging reluctant publics into a post-fact world, or using executive actions to circumvent Congressional will, or broad application of the presidential pardons, or falsifying auto emissions data, or the lead content of public water supplies, or hovering up the personal data of smartphone users, our political and business leaders are preoccupied with ethical issues and beset with critics.

But ethics begins at home, doesn’t it? Literally. That’s where you and I learn about ethics and see it in the behavior of our parents and neighbors and friends, whether in the observance or the breach. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of my mathematician dad’s advice, quoted above. And he lived by that code.

For most of us, the ethics discussion starts early but feels peripheral. There’s the matter of grabbing our younger sibling’s toys. Sorry, bro – but then again, my memory is that you gave as good as you got.

But thereafter, it ratchets up, usually discontinuously. That first time someone asks you to cheat on a school exam. The day you get a driver’s license, and are suddenly responsible for the lives of others on a daily basis. When you land a government job, and take essentially the same oath that presidents take today and every four years. When you get a security clearance. When you transition from private business to public official – maybe even president. On all these occasions, your technical abilities and life skills matter, but the one that’s paramount is your integrity – and your ability to be fair and just and open despite higher pressures and stakes of your new role.

Bring it home, Bill.

Just this kind of seismic shift is underway in Earth sciences, observations, and science-based services. Think about it. Ethics don’t matter so much when the stakes are low (those kid’s toys; they matter only because those are formative years; you and I are deciding what kind of adults we’ll become). They also don’t much matter when any scope for action is trivial. But as the stakes rise, and our actions become more consequential, then ethics move to center stage. Time was, when nature’s bounty seemed limitless, when sources of food and water and energy were abundant and cheap, and where populations were scattered and rural, ethics mattered less. Today we live in a zero-margin world, where all of us are interconnected and interdependent. Living on today’s real world feels more zero-sum. The rights of the poor and otherwise marginalized are in visible jeopardy.

Also, back in the day, our meteorological and climatological predictions weren’t of much value. They were uncertain, laughably so. An example: in every sector, farmers and fishermen and business owners assumed personal responsibility for their weather awareness. They were skeptical of forecasts and relied more on their own sense of the sky and its implications for their work. Today, by contrast, our outlooks and predictions are far superior to those of the past, and are getting more reliable year-on-year. At the same time, agribusiness and energy and transportation sectors and many others have come to depend upon forecasts extending out several days. They are adept in use of probabilistic information and insist on specification of uncertainty.

In this high-stakes environment where the products and services we provide are the basis for action, ethics matter. When can and should a NWS field forecaster begin to act when numerical guidance appears to diverge from on-the-ground reality? What observations, products and services should be considered public goods? What can and should be privatized? What’s at stake with warn-on-forecast? To list these few examples doesn’t do justice to the dozens of ethical dimensions to the daily work of everyone in every corner of today’s Earth observations, science, and services community.

So expect ethics to become a greater part of our dialog over the next four years – and for decades after that. And expect professional societies such as the AMS to pay more attention to these in each Annual Meeting and other venues. Here in Seattle in 2017, there’ll be a Sunday afternoon session in Room 613 of the Convention Center, from 1:30-3:30. Tom Ackerman (meteorologist and climatologist) and Steve Gardiner (philosopher and ethicist) of the University of Washington will lead the discussion.

Later in the week, a panel of the 12th Symposium on Societal Applications: Policy, Research, and Practice, entitled Shades of Gray: A Panel Discussion on Ethics, Law and Uncertainty in the Weather, Water, Climate Community, will be held in the same room, 613. Jay Austin will moderate the panel, which will include:Paul Higgins, Director, AMS Policy Program, Gina Eosco, Risk Communication Expert, Eastern Research Group, Harold Brooks, Senior Research Scientist, National Severe Storms Laboratory, and Jason Samenow, Chief Meteorologist, Washington Post Capital Weather Gang.

Drop by both these sessions if you can. Participate!

See you there.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment