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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

(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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 martin.mahony@nottingham.ac.uk and am.caglioti@berkeley.edu 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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


school bus

Back in 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote a famous book by this title. In it, he decried a sight-reading approach then coming into favor among educators and advocated a return to phonics, saying the latter provided children a sounder framework for learning new words and advancing their skills.

Monday’s Washington Post story on the recent Louisiana flooding by Ashley Cusick called all of this to mind. An excerpt (the fuller piece merits your attention):

BAKER, La. — Twenty-two districts across a vast swath of southern Louisiana were forced to close last week by a historic flood, delaying or interrupting the start of the school year for tens of thousands of children.

Although some districts remain closed indefinitely — and the superintendent of one hard-hit district is living in an emergency shelter — the majority plan to welcome students back within the next two weeks, according to John White, the Louisiana state superintendent.

But school leaders are far more worried about making sure they have enough teachers than they are about the physical condition of classrooms, White said.

“There is the facility and capacity in the region to serve all students,” he said. “The greater challenge is displacement, especially of teachers.”

He estimated that 4,000 teachers and other staff members who are critical to the schools’ operation — including bus drivers, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals and janitors — have been displaced by the flood.

Public servants considered “essential personnel” are entitled to expedited assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, White said, adding that his agency is pushing for educators and school personnel to gain this swift relief.

“But there is a very large number of displaced people,” White said. “So there is a question of what housing will be available.”

At stake is not only whether schools will be able to provide students with stability and routine at a time of great upheaval, but also whether students — many of whom are disadvantaged — will lose out on more precious learning time.

East Baton Rouge Parish Schools, the second-largest district in the state, had been in session just two days when floodwater coursed into the city. So far, six schools there have been deemed too damaged to reopen, spokeswoman Adonica Pelichet Duggan said. That number is expected to rise.

Classes in East Baton Rouge Parish Schools are scheduled to start again Wednesday. But Pelichet Duggan estimated that the flood affected about one-third of the district’s 6,000 employees, making it impossible to operate schools normally.

For meteorologists, or for the hazards community more generally, the story is depressingly familiar. Disasters such as the recent Louisiana floods tend to hit those already disadvantaged – including the poor, children (and especially children who are also poor) – the hardest. Speaking of the disadvantaged, when a society that underpays its teachers, they can themselves fall into this disadvantaged class. And schools, like other critical infrastructure, are not vulnerable solely by virtue of location or construction. Schools, every bit as much as the electrical or communication utilities, or water and sewage, healthcare, or transportation, require workers for their function and maintenance. When the teachers lose their homes, or vehicles, and their own kids lose their schools, then the educational system is compromised – and so are the future prospects of those kids in some corresponding measure.

Which brings us to the “what we can do” part.

In his exhortation sixty years back, Mr. Flesch had a more general audience in mind – educators and parents. But chances are that you and I, working in our more specialized community of practice: weather, hazards, community-level resilience resilience, or related fields, can make additional, vital contributions.

This is especially true when it comes to maintaining the continuity of the education at the community level. Through NOAA’s Weather-Ready-Nation initiative, and similar efforts sprouting across the country, meteorologists and social scientists can work with the public to increase America’s preparedness, raise public situational awareness, and improve emergency response. But we can also go further. Through stress-testing (modeling community-level performance under different weather-water-climate conditions), we can address a very simple set of questions:

  • What severe weather-, water-, and/or climate scenarios will disrupt our community schools?
  • What policies, regulations, and other measures available to us (land use, building codes, fortifying critical infrastructure, dealing with endemic poverty, etc.) can change our level of public-school risk and by how much for what level of investment?
  • Ranking options by greatest impact for lowest cost, what are reasonable first steps?

Interestingly, I’m told something like this was the first approach suggested for an international decade of natural disaster reduction back in the very early 1980’s. Gilbert F. White, the great American geographer, chaired an NAS committee at that time charged with formulating a plan. They proposed a deceptively simple goal: that every community worldwide protect its public schools from natural hazards. To achieve it would be more than a matter of rigid school-building construction. It would require communities to adopt sound land-use planning and safe housing for every family with kids, as well as for the teachers; ensure business continuity; invest in and maintain robust critical infrastructure; eradicate community pockets of poverty; and more. Schools can’t be more resilient than the larger system in which they’re embedded. In the event, the prevailing powers rejected this approach and established a second committee, under the leadership of George Housner. That second report was published in 1987 and became the basis for the IDNDR.

Had we listened to Gilbert White 35-40 years ago and taken action, who knows? The recent flooding might not have produced such dreadful consequences. Can’t change the past… but we could change the future.


Posted on by William Hooke | 4 Comments

Remote-sensing nostalgia

“Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar…” ― William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

“Nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land, grew especially strong in spring.” ― Vladimir Nabokov, Mary

Faulkner got it right. It’s August, and in the steamy sauna that is summertime Washington, DC (even without any climate-change contribution), Faulkner’s reflection seems particularly poignant. I’m filled with nostalgia for the thin (cool, dry) air of August in Boulder, and for two research facilities there that were meaningful to my early career. In the last month, I have learned with regret of their decommissioning.

The Platteville wind profiler.

platteville wind profiler

This first news reached me only belatedly – two years after the fact. Google this subject, and you’ll find precious little. The matter was brought to my attention by a friend who passed along a link to an NWS change notice:

For me to see this notice was to remember the days when wind profilers were a new and exciting technology. Maybe “exciting” wouldn’t be your word of choice. But that’s because you didn’t work in NOAA’s Wave Propagation Laboratory in the 1970’s and 1980’s, under the direction of C. Gordon Little. A great leader, not just a good one[1], Gordon had convinced all of us that there was no world ill that couldn’t be cured by more and better remote sensing. The wind profiler was one of the crown jewels in the lab’s treasure trove of capabilities. In Gordon’s vision, weather balloons would be replaced by wind profilers, which offered advantages of time resolution that weather balloons would never match, required no expendables, etc. One bothersome detail? The profilers wouldn’t directly measure temperature and humidity. Our proposed answer at the time was to add radiometric and/or laser sensors, and/or to explore various modeling techniques to infer temperature and moisture data from the massive amount of data on the winds and their evolution. (This approach is similar to methods used today to infer winds from millions of satellite temperature retrievals.)

For years, Gordon sought appropriation language to deploy a nationwide network of these instruments, but he would never get much past the original demonstration network of twenty or so. Capital cost was an issue, but at first, it seemed to us in the lab that tradition was the barrier. I used to speculate in talks about an alternative universe in which the wind profilers had been introduced first and put into widespread use, and weather balloons had only come along later. Protagonists would point out their ability to measure temperature and wind directly, but traditionalists would carry the day: You mean you’re littering the landscape with collapsed balloons and crashed rawinsonde packages? It takes an hour to get a profile, and the profile isn’t vertical but some irregular, elongated line reflecting a windblown trajectory? That you launch by hand? That you struggle to launch in stormy weather? That you’ll only be able to do this a couple of times a day at a few hundred locations worldwide?

In that universe, weather balloons would never fly.

Of course, since then, as the NWS-change-notice documents, time and other technologies and platforms passed the ground-based profilers by except for specialized application here and there.

A brief aside. The Platteville, Colorado profiler shown was built near the site of an earlier Platteville radar designed to observe, and, incidentally, to modify the ionosphere through ionospheric heating. Such ionospheric heating held potential as a diagnostic tool but also offered practical application of then-classified interest (incidentally occasioning my first security clearance[2]). Ironically, such radar work was sited in the Boulder area because the region was considered “electromagnetically quiet,” a quaint concept. Nowadays cellphone coverage is nearly ubiquitous worldwide and in urban areas you get the feeling that if you held up a hot dog on a city intersection the ambient microwave radiation would cook it in minutes (perhaps the hidden secret explaining today’s otherwise mysterious profusion of food trucks).

The Boulder Atmospheric Observatory (BAO).


When I transferred from the Ionospheric Telecommunications Laboratory[3] to the Wave Propagation Laboratory in 1970, WPL was in an exciting phase. Engineers and scientists were hard at work on theory and experiment with active- and passive optical-, radio-, and acoustic ground-based remote sensing. The instruments were providing an unprecedented look at boundary-layer and tropospheric processes. But ground-truthing these new capabilities against in situ instruments remained frustrating. Such comparisons were fiendishly difficult technically. The logistics also left something to be desired.

Because Colorado was then electromagnetically quiet, its expansive real estate was being used to compare tropospheric radio wave propagation with that expected on the basis of meteorological conditions – atmospheric temperature and humidity, and the profiles of these near the ground, which at times allowed wave ducting and at other times inhibited it; turbulence and precipitation which scattered or attenuated the signal. For experiments, radio transmitters would be set up on a tower at Table Mountain, near Boulder, and receivers set up at Haswell, Colorado, a town about 200 miles to the southeast. A 500’ tower had been erected at Haswell and instrumented to monitor the atmospheric conditions, generally assumed to be horizontal over the entire path. The lab would truck remote sensors down there for testing; some of the rest of us would fly back and forth in a small plane owned by one of our branch chiefs, using the dirt road that serviced the site for a landing strip[4].

The Haswell tower had a flimsy elevator instrument carriage also used to carry technicians to fixed levels to install and maintain other sensors. On one occasion the elevator cable snapped just as two technicians were preparing to ride down from the top. The cable left the entire tower oscillating violently, as our two men, still shaking from fear at their near-death experience, were forced to clamber down the 500 feet on foot. The one motel, at nearby Eads, had fungus problems. One or two staff overnighting there came down with nasty infections.

Hardly ideal.

Gordon (and the rest of us) used to dream of a tower closer by, and, finally, after the cable accident, we got our chance, to build a 980’ tower at Erie, Colorado. Just one problem. The $750K we’d allocated to build the tower (1970’s dollars), were short by a factor of two. That’s because at the last moment before letting the contract, Gordon decided the tower should withstand 150 mph winds and half an inch ice accumulation on all exposed surfaces. (Each weather condition is common in Colorado, but they’d never occurred simultaneously in anyone’s memory.) The lowest bid came in at a cool $1300K. To our amazement, the same NOAA headquarters that had dithered for two years to give the go-ahead at the $750K figure took only two weeks to come up with the extra cash letting us go ahead. Instead of a cable elevator, we had a cog-and-gear elevator designed and built by a Swedish firm; no way would it ever fail. The Georgia company that put it up for us told us it was the most rigid structure they’d ever built.

Hundreds of BAO stories are flooding back, but let’s just focus on two.

First, at about the same time we were going operational, Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories was phasing out its boundary-layer research program. The NOAA administrator at the time, Robert White, had contacts there and across DoD. Through some miracle he succeeded in getting AFCRL to transfer their world-class team of scientists – John Wyngaard, Chandran Kaimal, and Duane Haugen, along with their indefatigable technician Jim Newman and $500K of priceless sonic anemometry to WPL. Once they arrived, and set up their equipment, our remote-sensing ground-truthing went from abysmal to superb. Radar and sodar winds matched tower winds. Temperature- and humidity comparisons fell into line. Echo strengths from our active remote sensors matched those measured at the tower. Turned out we had been great at the remote-sensing all along. We just didn’t understand how to take in situ observations properly. Wasn’t long before researchers and manufacturers started coming to the BAO to evaluate their work.


Second, the AFCRL group had made its reputation in part by working with university scientists over a period of years to match boundary-layer theory with observations. A key element of this was setting up equipment thousands of miles from Boston – in Kansas – in order to be on terrain level enough (billiard-table-flat) for the theory to work, and then recording weeks of data to get a few periods of an hour or more sufficiently stationary for the theory to apply. Of course, most of the earth’s surface is irregular, and most of the time surface conditions are highly-variable. With the new remote-sensing capabilities, we felt ready to address the more general conditions. We attracted a number of distinguished scientists to work on this problem, the most notable including John Finnigan from Australia and Julian Hunt from the UK. Julian had worked out a rather elaborate terrain-following coordinate system. He was stunningly brilliant and a pleasure to be around, but at the time I’d have voted him “least-likely-to-become-head-of-the-UK-Met-Office.”

Baron Hunt

Baron Hunt

What did I know? Of course, that’s what he went and did. Today he’s retired, and knighted, and Julian Charles Roland Hunt, Baron Hunt of Chesterton. You can (and should) read more about Sir Julian and his work in the House of Lords and his return to academia on the link. In 2001 he was good enough to come speak to our first AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, and stick around with us a couple of days.

Ah, those were the days. Faulkner did indeed have it right.

But Nabokov got it right as well. You and I can and should feel an even greater nostalgia for tomorrow – longing for it, eagerly looking toward it, and working with vigor to shape it in a positive, beneficial way. Today’s remote sensing instruments and an array novel platforms, including drones, for probing the atmosphere and oceans offer truly breathtaking diagnostic power. More-advanced capabilities are in the pipeline. Coupled with big data and data analytics, they’re going to transform our understanding of how the Earth works and what it will do next. And not a moment too soon! We’re transitioning to a managed planet, and it’ll require our very best natural and social science, our cutting-edge engineering, and above all our very best manners and social skills as seven billion of us collaborate with each other to anticipate and avoid environmental trainwrecks and keep things going.

What a great set of opportunities! What an overwhelming array of challenges! Today has to be the best time in history to be alive – except for tomorrow.


[1] See, for example, the material on Gordon Little in Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet.

[2] My Ph.D. research focused on ionospheric physics. I worked as a graduate student one summer at Boulder’s Environmental Research Laboratories, then part of the DoC Environmental Services Administration (ESSA), which was renamed NOAA in 1970, when President Nixon transferred the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (now NMFS) from Interior into Commerce.

[3] ITL would not be incorporated into NOAA; it would instead be folded into the newly-formed National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA), established when NOAA was created.

[4] That dirt road seemed plenty wide to me until one time coming home we stopped at Stapleton Airport (the predecessor of today’s Denver International Airport) for lunch. The runways looked so wide it felt like we could land crossways on them.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Every community needs a weather-ready stress test.


The story is heartbreakingly familiar. Once again[1], weather and water have hammered Louisianans. Figures put the recent death toll at 11, and the number of families displaced from their homes at 40,000. The cause? Two feet of rain falling over the area in something like two days, with another 6 inches or so in the days since. The scale of the disaster, still unfolding, defies comprehension. For those who lost loved ones, grief has come in an instant. Their lives will never be the same, and they know it – all too well. Those who’ve lost home, possessions, and treasured keepsakes sense that any climb back to normalcy will be steep and long; their pain is only beginning. State and local officials struggle to formulate an area-wide recovery. The rest of us – living outside the region, merely reading the news accounts – experience what the social scientist Paul Slovic calls “numbing”. The statistics overwhelm singular but myriad stories, and this tragedy merges with and dissolves into others unfolding nationwide and across the globe: rampant terrorism, large displaced populations confined to tent encampments or on the move, deaths due to the Zika virus, and more.

Speaking of personal narratives, media coverage in Louisiana has brought to light many examples of individual courage and neighbor-helping-neighbor. It’s clear that emergency response has gone far beyond that accomplished by state and local agencies. On the ground, professional responders were aided significantly by often-anonymous volunteers who either worked alone or self-organized to save lives and property. We’ll undoubtedly learn of many more examples of such love, compassion and fortitude in the recovery that lies ahead. To the residents of Louisiana, good-on-you!

Coverage of and commentary on this Louisiana flood of 2016 continue to light up the Internet. One example: a few words from Mark Schleifstein, a Times-Picayune reporter who provided insightful coverage of Katrina in 2005, and in fact wrote extensively for his newspaper about the build-up of vulnerability across the region back in 2002, years prior to that event:

The Louisiana Flood of 2016 was triggered by a complicated, slow-moving low-pressure weather system that dumped as much as two feet of rain on parts of East Baton Rouge, Livingston and St. Helena parishes in 48 hours. The record two-day rainfall in those areas had a 0.1 percent chance of occurring in any year, the equivalent of a “1,000-year rain”, according to the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, based at the Slidell office of the National Weather Service.

In the two-day period ending Saturday at 7 a.m., several parishes saw rainfall amounts equaling a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, a so-called 100-year event. They included parts of Tangipahoa, East Feliciana, Washington, Ascension, Lafayette, Iberville and St. Martin.


Surveying Louisiana’s experience of the past decade, it’s natural enough to think:

The first reaction is wrongheaded. A look at rainfall data suggests that rainfall totaled two feet over two days over perhaps 10,000 square miles of surface area. (Even accepting a problematic terminology/framing), this may indeed be a “thousand-year” event, but with United States land surface area approaching some 4 million square miles, such an extreme might be expected to hit somewhere over a comparably-sized area within the United States every couple of years or so.

(NOAA 24-hour rainfall records suggest something like that is indeed the case. A sampling: Alaska, 15 inches, 1986; Arizona, 11 inches, 1970; California, 26 inches, 1943; Florida, 23 inches, 1980; Georgia, 23 inches, 1994; Hawaii, 38 inches, 1956; Illinois 17 inches, 1996; Minnesota 15 inches, 2007; New York 13 inches, 2014; Texas, 42 inches, 1979; etc.

These are records, not exhaustive inventories of the precipitation extremes in each state. The time series go back only 100-200 years, versus 1000 years. They strictly adhere to 24-hour time periods. Thus for example, there’s no note of the 17 inches of rain over a period of a few days responsible for the Colorado floods of 2013. There’s no mention of the impact of lesser rains over smaller areas, such as the eight inches of rain dumped over portions of West Virginia in a few hours in June of this year, killing 26. But you get the idea: even in relatively arid parts of the country, wherever we live, we can reasonably to expect to endure as much as a foot of rainfall in a 24-hour period every so often, most likely in the span of a single lifetime.)

The second reaction merits reflection. Scientists detect early signs of this feature of climate change; those of us in the general population can all see it coming. Nevertheless, posed this way, the problem risks appearing simply too big. It is pervasive but vague. What’s more, any solutions lie in the hands of “others” – elected officials, and business leaders of the energy sector. This invites us to be passive and/or to content ourselves with feelings of anger and reflexive finger-pointing at those we hold accountable.

A third thought, along different lines, might prompt us to act – and act more effectively:

I wonder if my community could pass a weather-ready stress test.


An extended sidebar: On an individual level, we are familiar with such notions. For example the Mayo Clinic defines an exercise stress test this way:

A stress test, also called an exercise stress test, gathers information about how your heart works during physical activity. Because exercise makes your heart pump harder and faster than usual, an exercise stress test can reveal problems within your heart that might not be noticeable otherwise. An exercise stress test usually involves walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike while your heart rhythm, blood pressure and breathing are monitored. Your doctor may recommend an exercise stress test if he or she suspects you have coronary artery disease or an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia). The test may also be used to guide your treatment if you’ve already been diagnosed with a heart condition.

In another arena: For the past quarter-century, but more pointedly since the financial-sector meltdown of 2008, governments have been subjecting their banking institutions to financial stress tests:

A stress test, in financial terminology, is an analysis or simulation designed to determine the ability of a given financial instrument or financial institution to deal with an economic crisis. Instead of doing financial projection on a “best estimate” basis, a company or its regulators may do stress testing where they look at how robust a financial instrument is in certain crashes, a form of scenario analysis. They may test the instrument under, for example, the following stresses:

  • What happens if unemployment rate rises to xx% in a specific year?
  • What happens if equity markets crash by more than x% this year?
  • What happens if GDP falls by z% in a given year?
  • What happens if interest rates go up by at least y%?
  • What if half the instruments in the portfolio terminate their contracts in the fifth year?
  • What happens if oil prices rise by 200%?

[A little history]:

A bank stress test is a simulation based on an examination of the balance sheet of that institution. Large international banks began using internal stress tests in the early 1990s. In 1996, the Basel Capital Accord was amended to require banks and investment firms to conduct stress tests to determine their ability to respond to market events. However, up until 2007, stress tests were typically performed only by the banks themselves, for internal self-assessment. Beginning in 2007, governmental regulatory bodies became interested in conducting their own stress tests to insure the effective operation of financial institutions. Since then, stress tests have been routinely performed by financial regulators in different countries or regions, to insure that the banks under their authority are engaging in practices likely to avoid negative outcomes. In India, legislation was enacted in 2007 requiring banks to undergo regular stress tests. In October 2012, U.S. regulators unveiled new rules expanding this practice by requiring the largest American banks to undergo stress tests twice per year, once internally and once conducted by the regulators. Starting in 2014 midsized firms (i.e., those with $10–50 billion in assets) are also being required to conduct Dodd-Frank Act Stress Testing. In 2012, federal regulators also began recommending portfolio stress testing as a sound risk management practice for community banks or institutions that were too small to fall under Dodd-Frank’s requirements. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in an October 18, 2012, Bulletin recommends stress testing as means to identify and quantify loan portfolio risk. The FDIC made similar recommendations for community banks.

Since the initial Dodd-Frank Act Stress Testing began the Federal Reserve has found that post-stress capital has increased. Furthermore, the Federal Reserve has continued to advance their expectations and adopt more complex scenarios in bank stress testing.

Statistician and risk analyst Nassim Taleb has advocated a different approach to stress testing saying that stress tests based on arbitrary numbers can be gamed. A more effective test is to assess the fragility of a bank by applying one stress test and scaling it up, which provides an indicator of how sensitive a bank is to changes in economic conditions.


How might that apply here? Let’s start by making that question specific.

What happens to my community if/when we experience a foot of rain over 24 hours?

Whose lives are most in danger? What homes and property will be lost? Who will need to evacuate? Where can they go? What critical infrastructure will fail? Are hospitals and schools safe? What are the risks of cascading failure (e.g., electrical grid failure triggering disruptions of communications, water supply, road transportation, etc.)? What major employers will be compromised? How many small businesses will shutter their doors? What will be the hit to the local economy? How long will recovery take?

To ask these questions is to discover that our communities have much in common with the banks early in their quarter-century of experience with such tests. We learn quickly that we know far too little about the risks we face, with regard to their nature, their severity, and their particulars.

We also discover what little we do know is unsettling.

Such humility makes for a healthy starting point. It combines with the sure knowledge that the futures of people we know and love – not faceless strangers – are at stake to spur action.

A few observations.

First, note from the history of financial stress tests that the sector gradually discovered volunteer testing tended to be to generous. (We ought to recognize this universal human tendency from exercise stress testing; as individuals we kid ourselves into thinking we’re in better physical shape than evidence will support.)

Second, notice that the central question from stress tests isn’t “how likely is it that my community (or my bank, or my body) will be subjected to a certain level of stress?” But rather, “how will my community perform under a given stress level?”

Third, note that the wide range (and rapidly growing number) aimed at building resilient communities tend to be a bit vague on the importance of estimating community performance in this way. Take for example, these elements required to obtain a storm-ready designation from the National Weather Service:

  • Establish a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center
  • Have more than one way to receive severe weather warnings and forecasts and to alert the public
  • Create a system that monitors weather conditions locally
  • Promote the importance of public readiness through community seminars
  • Develop a formal hazardous weather plan, which includes training severe weather spotters and holding emergency exercises.

Meeting each of the required elements is certainly meritorious, and in the event, will save lives. The NWS and their participating storm-ready communities should be congratulated for their progress to date. But there’s no reason for complacency here. A plan, however formal, focusing on emergency response and not extending to building codes, land use, ensuring continuity of critical infrastructure, and appropriately stress-tested, leaves much to be desired. We can work together to take such next steps.

Fourth and finally, take note of Nassim Taleb’s comment with respect to the financial sector: he points out that rather than focus on a single arbitrary threshold, we need to focus on (community) fragility as characterized by performance under stress over a range of levels, and in several respects. For example, the invitation is to ask: what happens to my community if/when we experience several inches of rain over a few hours? A foot of rain over 24 hours? Heavy rains of several-days duration? And then expanding to ask similar questions under the stress of drought, or extremes of heat and cold, feet of snow, high straight-line and tornadic winds, for example. It’s essential to consider a wide range of diverse scenarios.


A closing comment. Taleb uses the word fragility. Some might prefer the term resilience, arguing that it’s more positive. True enough. But to accept, maybe even embrace fragility fosters the appropriate attitude of humility. As the lessons of Louisiana remind us, we all have a big job ahead.

[1] Other recent instances include but are not limited to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and floods of 2011.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An earth observations dream gone awry.


“Dreams are never concerned with trivia” – Sigmund Freud

“Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” – Virginia Woolf

My dream last night featured EarthOracle, an entirely hypothetical e-business collecting and offering Earth observations – in short, weather data.

Things started innocently enough. In that dreamworld, EarthOracle worked with vendors to provide surface weather-observing kit to anyone interested in setting up a station and contributing data from his/her location to EarthOracle’s pool. EarthOracle bundled and sold an array of tailored data streams to governments and to private sector users of the data – trucking, rail, and aviation; agriculture; utilities; water resource managers; any and all who had use for local observations. Those citizens operating the observational sites received payback from EarthOracle based on demand for observations from their particular locations. For most, including EarthOracle itself, it was initially a money-losing proposition, but there was the pride of participating in crowdsourcing for societal benefit.

Time passed. A few individuals, sensing opportunity for enhanced returns, went through the work and trouble needed to establish small subnetworks of observations providing coverage for areas they saw as having special commercial potential. These weather-data collectors were content to pay EarthOracle overhead. As they saw it, EarthOracle was performing a valuable function in aggregating the data and then marketing and brokering them to governments and companies worldwide – a kind of PayPal for Earth observations. About the same time, EarthOracle found itself ready to branch out – to deliver CASA-like radar data covering urban areas and gaps in the conventional U.S. weather-radar coverage. In offering such additional services, EarthOracle was starting to eat from the rice-bowl of established-but-small private-weather-service providers.

Venture capitalists began to take notice. With the additional cash inflows, though still losing money, EarthOracle was in a position to launch cubesats – small satellites weighing only a few pounds, and costing less than $100K per unit, that could be placed into orbit in large numbers and provide global observations from space. The new data streams seemed insignificant in the scheme of things – most satellite observations were still being provided by the big government-owned-and-operated polar orbiters and geostationary satellites. But it wasn’t long before EarthOracle comprised a small but vibrant ecosystem of private-data providers.

EarthOracle leaders then expanded their vision. They knew that for most locations at most times, the additional data EarthOracle had on offer provided only minor incremental value to numerical weather prediction (NWP) and forecasts. Often the weather outlook itself would be benign, so that uncertainties in those forecasts of the kind that could be reduced by more data were themselves small and didn’t matter much. Sometimes the weather outlook would matter, but the EarthOracle data were either of the wrong type or from the wrong locations. But sometimes, and for some places, EarthOracle data could make a consequential difference in the forecast – increasing accuracy, reducing uncertainty, and adding significant utility to impact-based decisions with respect to some high-dollar-value, weather-vulnerable circumstance. For any given spot, such conjunctions would be unlikely. However, given Earth’s 200 million square miles of surface area, on any most days a handful of such locations would be in play somewhere worldwide.

Their customers began to catch on. Use of EarthOracle data was on the rise. EarthOracle balance sheets showed new strength. For the first time, building assets and positive cash flow could support further innovation.

That’s when the EarthOracle CEO had the aha! moment. She realized that the ensemble forecasts in wide use by weather services across the world didn’t simply identify areas of forecast uncertainty at critical places and times (regarding the details of genesis, path, timing, intensity and duration for landfalling hurricanes, winter storms, major tornado outbreaks, or flash floods). The model runs also pinpointed regions upstream from these events where lack of data contributed most to the forecast uncertainty. Moreover, the relevant data-sparse regions could sometimes be determined days in advance – providing enough time to collect additional observations adaptively. Accordingly, EarthOracle developed and deployed fleets of instrumented aircraft and drones that could be flown on short notice into the areas where supplementary observations would add value. EarthOracle could use quick-and-dirty model runs to spot areas of need even as they were beginning to attract the attention of conventional weather services, private and public. EarthOracle would then nimbly collect high-value data, and again run realtime NWP to confirm reductions in forecast uncertainty in response to the added proprietary data. They could then confidently promote and market these.

EarthOracle’s value proposition to its government and private-sector customers exploded. As the success stories multiplied, and were widely reported, EarthOracle usage soared. Worldwide, national weather services and companies couldn’t afford to be denied the additional data, and besides – they were cheap. What’s more, governments and companies hadn’t had to foot the bill for the instrument platforms; they only had to purchase the data streams.

My sleep was troubled. I began to toss and turn… but continued to dream on…

At this point EarthOracle leadership, flushed with success, went a step too far – introducing surge pricing[1].

Most of the time, and for most places, EarthOracle would make its data available for a nominal fee. But when EarthOracle could identify instances of special public or commercial concern, combined with forecast uncertainty, they’d use their adaptive observing capability to capture needed data of high-value, and then sell it only at prices several times above acquisition cost.

Both government- and private-sector users now found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. EarthOracle had demonstrated in specific past instances that it had skill in identifying the value in its data. It wasn’t bluffing. Governments had no in-house capability for taking such adaptive observations; the money and the investment history weren’t there. In the early going, they’d found it seductively easy and inexpensive to simply purchase the data on offer. EarthOracle’s capability had even been welcome; it had saved government agencies from major capital costs Congress was in no mood to incur.

But now government had to meet EarthOracle’s price or fall short of delivering the best-available weather forecasts for protection of life and property. And thanks to extensive and growing media coverage of weather events, all this was becoming public knowledge. EarthOracle’s market value skyrocketed – exceeding one hundred times earnings. An initial public offering (IPO) in the works that looked to value EarthOracle at over one hundred billion dollars.

Then came the day when, one week out, it was clear that a major nor’easter – a 500-year event) was going to hit the east coast, somewhere between New York City and Boston. EarthOracle offered a data set it said would pinpoint the area of greatest risk – asking a cool $500M. At the same time, a second storm event that had been poorly forecast was unexpectedly hammering the California coast, producing flash floods, triggering landslides, and causing major loss of life and property damage. No analogous EarthOracle data had been available. The reason came to light: EarthOracle management, lacking the assets to meet the data needs for both the east- and west coast forecasts, had made a choice just days earlier, favoring the east coast, on the basis it would maximize profits. Congress and the public were coming unglued; picketers blocked the entrance to EarthOracle’s headquarters…

…I awoke with a start, in a cold sweat. Whew! – only a nightmare!

Of course, none of this could ever actually happen. This was a mere bad dream. No reason for concern or thoughtful reflection by anyone living on the real world.


[1] Some may be unfamiliar with the term or how surge pricing works. For the car-ride-for-hire firm Uber, here is the background, taken from the Wikipedia article:

Uber uses an automated algorithm to increase prices to “surge” price levels, responding rapidly to changes of supply and demand in the market, and to attract more drivers during times of increased rider demand, but also to reduce demand. Customers receive notice when making an Uber reservation that prices have increased… The practice has often caused passengers to become upset and invited criticism when it has happened as a result of holidays, inclement weather, or natural disasters. During New Year’s Eve 2011, prices were as high as seven times normal rates, causing outrage. During the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis, Uber implemented surge pricing, resulting in fares of up to four times normal charges; while it defended the surge pricing at first, it later apologized and refunded the surcharges. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has responded to criticism by saying: “…because this is so new, it’s going to take some time for folks to accept it. There’s 70 years of conditioning around the fixed price of taxis.” Uber released a post detailing why surge pricing is in place and how it works. They emphasized that without surge pricing, Uber would not have its trademark service of pushing a button and getting a ride in minutes. This is detailed in a case study around a sold-out-concert at Madison Square Garden when surge pricing took effect. During this event, the number of people who opened the app increased 4x, but the actual ride requests only rose slightly, enabling ride requests to be completed with the usual ETAs.

Surge pricing makes supply and demand match so efficiently that the waiting time is almost always below five minutes, regardless of the circumstances. Surge pricing increases economic efficiency in two ways: 1. rising prices motivate more drivers to start driving, 2. when there are not enough drivers for everyone, the rising prices make only those customers accept a ride whose needs are highest.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Speaking of driver ed…

Turn around -- don't drown.

Turn around — don’t drown.

An alert reader of the previous LOTRW post suggested I link it to the extensive body of material available on National Weather Service and other web sites warning against driving on flooded roadways.

Their content falls under the heading Turn Around, Don’t Drown! 

A thumbnail capsule, taken verbatim from that website:

“Each year, more deaths occur due to flooding than from any other thunderstorm related hazard. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that over half of all flood-related drownings occur when a vehicle is driven into hazardous flood water. The next highest percentage of flood-related deaths is due to walking into or near flood waters. People underestimate the force and power of water. Many of the deaths occur in automobiles as they are swept downstream. Of these drownings, many are preventable, but too many people continue to drive around the barriers that warn you the road is flooded. A mere 6 inches of fast-moving flood water can knock over an adult. It takes just 12 inches of rushing water to carry away a small car, while 2 feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles. It is NEVER safe to drive or walk into flood waters.”

The underlying reasons are captured in this picture (worth 1000 words).

buoyant car

No car weight pressing tires down on firm ground? No traction. The car obeys the water, not the driver. Simple concepts, right?  Simple… except that you can’t be sure they’re taught in your local driver education class. Or that those realities have been taken to heart.

A vignette. During last month’s AMS Summer Community meeting, held in Tuscaloosa, an Alabama emergency manager shared this story. He happened to be on the scene at a roadway flooded by heavy rains on July 4th. A car approached, and the driver started to go around him and past the barrier that had been erected. The road pavement ahead was still visible under a few inches of water and appeared to be intact, but several feet of soil underlying the pavement had been scoured away by the floodwaters. Should any vehicle attempt a crossing, the pavement was going to collapse and the vehicle would be swept downstream. The emergency manager rushed in front of the car, blocked its progress, and began negotiating with the driver. She was having none of it. She had her mother in the car, along with her two small children in the back seat, and she was desperate to get home. Both she and the grandmother heaped abuse on the emergency manager, finally asking in exasperation why he was so unreasonably obstinate. He replied that he wasn’t going to be asking his crew to risk their lives trying to recover her family’s bodies on a national holiday. Only then did the driver relent.

At the close, emergency managers and the general public were on the same team, actively working together. Communication was good. Everyone accepted reality and shouldered responsibility. At that place and for that moment, they were weather-ready.

Doesn’t always end that way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Weather-Ready Nation? Lessons from driver ed.


The previous LOTRW post touched on the idea that public schools teach kids important life skills in addition to the formal disciplines such as reading, writing, history, mathematics, and branches of science. In the past such life skills included wood- and metalworking and home economics (often by another name, such as family and consumer sciences).

The 21st century requires an additional life skill: the effective use of information technology. Note that effective use means more than mere facility – off-the-charts gaming skills or high-frequency use of social media. Rather it means the ability to harness today’s IT to accomplish one’s larger personal life goals – education, development of professional work skills and career accomplishments, spiritual formation, and more.

The LOTRW post zoomed in on one sliver of this – use of IT to build and maintain personal readiness in the face of weather hazards. Right now such readiness, or its lack, preoccupies the weather enterprise – the community of government agencies, private weather-service firms and academia collaborating to deliver weather warnings to the public. The question is: why, given that weather predictions have so improved, do death-and-injury rates, property loss, and economic disruption remain so high? Enterprise minds have concentrated on improving information delivery and messaging content.

But perhaps improved public uptake lies in another direction. It could be that awakening in each of us a sense of personal responsibility for seeking and acting on such information may matter as much or more than the quality, timeliness, and accuracy of the weather information itself.

To help see how this might work, let’s consider another important life skill young people have always been eager to learn: driving.

Think about it. Put yourself back in your frame of mind during those years. To get the keys to the car, or (if you happened to be one of those teenagers preternaturally gifted with parent-management skills) an actual car of your own? This was literally to grasp the keys to adulthood. To mobility. To freedom. And perhaps above all – to the social life you’d hungered for.

Or (lapsing into the autobiographical here), you could be a year younger than everyone else in your class, and consigned to the social outer darkness for most of high school. (Get over it, Bill. The girls tell me that wasn’t your only problem then.)

The stakes were high. So high, that you were willing to…

 …shoulder genuine responsibility. To start, you accepted the fact that before you could even take the wheel you’d have to build your knowledge and understanding of traffic regulations, roadway signage, a whole body of material on psychological reaction times, and braking capabilities, and how they played into the distance required to stop a car at different speeds. There was technology, and physical science, and social science, all co-mingled, and despite your aversion to much of the individual pieces of this material in the abstract you couldn’t master it in its totality fast enough.

You quickly made peace with the fact that you’d have to practice driving. That you would need to be licensed. That your license wasn’t a right, but was contingent on competency. That your competency would be periodically be reevaluated. That driving was governed by actual laws, not mere rules. That ignorance of any or all traffic and roadway regulations was no excuse for breaking any single one. That there would be punishments for lapses on your part – suspension or revocation of that precious license, fines, jail time, maybe even personal injury. Or, worse yet, the risk of living the rest of your life with some horrible, life-changing memory of how you’d damaged or ended the lives of others.

And again, because you were a teenager, you likely came face-to-face with the idea that you couldn’t just be responsible exclusively about driving, and solely during those hours you were actually on the road. You had to be responsible in other spheres of life. Your parents seized on this opportunity. They let you know your driving privileges would be contingent on whether you’d completed your homework, done your chores, been respectful to other family members, etc.

Years ago, you embraced all this. You’ve lived with this set of responsibilities every day since.

Given that this is LOTRW, a final observation: you and I are perhaps more weather-ready when behind the wheel than we are at home. When the rain or snow starts, we know to turn on the windshield wipers and the headlights. We know that the distance required to come to a stop increases, and that it’s time to slow down and increase the spacing behind the care in front. We know how to control the car in a skid.

Moreover, chances are good that if we’ve ever been terrified by the weather, it was in a car. The rain or the hail would start, and visibility would drop to zero. At the same time, the noise on the car roof was deafening, drowning out any audible cues of pending trouble. We were in danger if we kept moving, and we were in trouble if we stopped.

And we knew: whatever happened next, we were responsible. There would be no blaming of others in the weather enterprise. It was on us.

Perhaps, in today’s interdependent society, you and I can and should extend our understanding of our individual responsibility to include being weather-ready. When you and I make our homes on hazardous land, or construct those homes improperly, or through development practices lead others to do so, our decisions and actions in the face of weather hazards don’t just affect our safety, but those of others. Our kids and family. The neighbors downwind when the windblown debris from our house batters theirs, or when the burning embers from our house set theirs ablaze in the path of a wildfire. The search-and-rescue units who risk their lives looking for us after the hazard passes through. When we evacuate because we chose to live in places and in such a manner that shelter-in-place was not a possibility, we create incremental danger for other evacuees. When we evacuate despite being advised that our home is safe, again, we pose additional hazard to others. And when we’re complicit in development practices and social policies that contribute to poverty and confine the poor and disenfranchised to fragile construction in floodplains and atop seismic zones, we’re also responsible.

(These contingencies don’t arise daily, Bill. In fact, for most of us, they never happen. And regulations are fuzzy or lacking here, okay? Don’t expect me to feel guilty on this one. I’ve got bigger, more immediate problems.)

True enough. But it’s not about feeling guilty; it’s about responsible behavior.

Just saying.


A footnote. At some point in the future, when the Google car becomes a commonplace, and all automobiles are computer-controlled, we’ll say goodbye to yet another arena where we have unambiguous, intimate, firsthand experience of what it means to be personally responsible. Rules of the road? They’ll only be a concern to faceless car manufacturers, insurance companies, and governments. All we’ll have to do is complain. We’re drunk as a skunk? No matter. The car can still get us home. Too busy to go personally to the kids’ soccer games? Not a problem. The kids can go by themselves this time. Weather posing a hazard getting to and from school today? Again, we’ll let others pay attention to that.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment