Twenty Questions: hazards-style.

“A river is made drop by drop.” – Afghan proverb.

Last week, the 43rd Annual Natural Hazards Workshop ran July 8-11 in Broomfield, Colorado. Several features make the occasion unique. For example, though the meeting is largely invitational, every year about a third of the participants are first-timers. The crowd is international and diverse. The organizers work hard to get academics in the same room with practitioners. The result is a lively learning environment!

The workshop is hosted by the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center. The newest Center director  – Lori Peek – has taken a more hands-on approach to crafting the workshop than some of her predecessors. This, her second meeting, comes hard on the heels of a catastrophic 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, California wildfires, and volcanic activity on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Workshop sessions treated in succession twenty questions, designed to get past mere understanding of the causes of disaster losses and concentrate minds on the actual reduction of risk and loss on the ground:

  1. Question 1: What is our moonshot—that big, exploratory, ambitious, groundbreaking idea—for the hazards and disaster community?
  2. Question 2: What environmental and social conditions produce cascading disasters, and how do they, in turn, ultimately influence what society can deal with and what it cannot?
  3. Question 3: How can the public sector, investors, and capital markets be encouraged to invest in risk reduction and resilience building activities?
  4. Question 4: To what extent, and under what conditions, do culturally competent initiatives increase representation of and reduce disaster vulnerability among underserved communities?
  5. Question 5: We know that natural hazards mitigation saves, but where do we go from here?
  6. Question 6: How can we best encourage a culture of preparedness, communicate risk, and promote meaningful action from the public?
  7. Question 7: How do we align research questions and policy applications to save lives, reduce injury, and improve mental health outcomes in disaster?
  8. Question 8: In light of recent catastrophic environmental extremes, how can we ensure that communities that experience “low-attention” disasters get the resources and support they need?
  9. Question 9: How do we plan for just and equitable disaster recovery?
  10. Question 10: How useful is the continuing expansion of disaster research and its regular creation of new concepts and jargon?
  11. Question 11: How do we best use hazards information to reduce disaster losses?
  12. Question 12: How do we continue to address the needs of vulnerable populations in emergencies, while also working more systematically to reduce social, economic, and health disparities?
  13. Question 13: How can we imagine equitable and resilient infrastructure design when so much of our existing infrastructure is in such dire need of repair?
  14. Question 14: If there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster, then who should be held responsible when catastrophe strikes?
  15. Question 15: Considering the investments being made in emergency response and recovery in the areas affected by recent major disasters, how can we also ensure resources and attention are dedicated to those who are at high risk of disaster, but that haven’t recently experienced one?
  16. Question 16: How can we better coordinate post-disaster research and integrate the findings from those efforts into education, training, practice, and policy?
  17. Question 17: What would it take to build a national movement focused on hazards mitigation, while still supporting local, grassroots mitigation champions?
  18. Question 18: What did the 2017 disaster season teach us that we did not already know?
  19. Question 19: How do we ensure that those who care for survivors—the first responders, volunteers, and others caught up in the disaster aftermath—receive the proper health care and support that they need?
  20. Question 20: Why, if this is so easy, is it so hard? What is stopping us from taking decades of knowledge and moving it into action?

Whew! What a mix! Expansive breadth, big-picture, rich detail. The several days barely allowed time to scratch the surface of these topics. And it by no means ends there. If you’ve read this far, chances are good you can raise additional issues meriting equal attention.

The make-up of the list invites a couple of conclusions. Consistent with the charter of the Center, the emphasis is not so much on the advance of knowledge per se but on converting that knowledge into societal benefit. Second, societal uptake of knowledge doesn’t seem to have progressed much in the seventeen years since the classic paper by Gilbert White, Robert Kates, and Ian Burton, Knowing better and losing even more: the use of knowledge in hazards management (Environmental Hazards 3 [2001] 81–92). Losses from hazards vary significantly year on year, but generally ratchet upward, as shown below:

White, Kates and Burton offer four putative explanations for the dreary trend: (1) knowledge continues to be flawed by areas of ignorance; (2) knowledge is available but not used effectively; (3) knowledge is used effectively but takes a long time to have effect; and (4) knowledge is used effectively in some respects but is overwhelmed by increases in vulnerability and in population, wealth, and poverty.

Contrast this with another arena, one in which knowledge about the root causes of catastrophe is put into practice to reduce losses more effectively – commercial aviation:

This graph shows that despite a four-fold increase in air traffic over the past half-century, losses have declined since about 1970. As has been noted in previous LOTRW posts, this inflection in what had been a steady prior rise in aviation fatalities is roughly coincident with the establishment of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB is central to the commercial aviation community’s effort to make air travel safer. The NTSB/community response to an aviation accident or (importantly) to any near-miss is to learn from experience, that is to assert “this must never happen again.” Important to note here is that the NTSB adjustments can be sweeping but also quite particular.

While an NTSB and an associated national policy framework is hugely helpful, perhaps it is not absolutely necessary. The lesson for the natural hazards community is that efforts to reduce losses can be guided by general principles, many of which are implicit in the framing of the twenty questions, but can only be accomplished by concrete individual, place-based actions. Here’s one example of such local action, this from Yankeetown, Florida – interestingly, one accomplished in the face of an unsupportive policy environment.

We need more of such initiative.  A river is made drop by drop.

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Doug Lilly, 1929-2018

Doug — and that signature smile.

Last night’s inbox contained the kind of e-mail string none of us wants to see, but the sort that nevertheless insists on showing up all too frequently:

Dear AMS Council Members  –  We lost an AMS Honorary Member yesterday;  see message from Kelvin Droegemeier below.  I was privileged to serve on the School of Meteorology faculty with him for 22 years, and enjoyed eating lunch with him every Friday.  He had a wonderful grasp of physical processes and a great sense of humor.


Begin forwarded message:

 …Dear colleagues,

 Just a quick note that the Nation lost an amazing scientist and former OU School of Meteorology faculty member yesterday.  Doug Lilly, our only National Academy of Sciences member, passed away yesterday at age 89.   Doug joined OU in 1982, I believe, and with me in 1988 wrote the proposal that established the Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms.  To say he was brilliant is a VAST understatement.  Every paper he wrote was seminal.  Doug retired from OU in 1994 and mentored some of our most amazing graduates.  After retirement, Doug and his wife, Judy, moved to Nebraska to be with their daughter and family, and Doug’s health had been declining in recent months.  Doug was one of those wonderfully gruff but brilliant people who one loved to be around…. a rare mind that truly transformed science.  He will be missed.


Fred and Kelvin have spoken correctly! But (they would be the first to agree) there’s so much more to Doug’s story (as Kelvin’s brilliant=vast understatement remark suggests). Two classes of audience would like to read more: those who knew him, who’d like a trip down memory lane – and those who didn’t know him, but are open to being inspired.

That doesn’t leave many people sidelined! Fortunately, there’s material on-line that meets the need. It’s a brief bio excerpted from a 2004 Cambridge University Press book, Atmospheric Turbulence and Mesoscale Meteorology: Scientific Research Inspired by Doug Lilly Edited by Evgeni Fedorovich, Richard Rotunno and Bjorn Stevens[1].

The bio starts out this way:

Douglas (Doug) Lilly was born on June 16,1929 in San Francisco, California. He grew up on the San Francisco peninsula where,as he describes it, “there is not much weather!” He states that he was interested in weather and the atmosphere starting from his years in high school in California. The predominant cloud features there were stratus decks that would come into the bay area,stay for a while, and eventually break up. He used to borrow the family car to drive up hills to observe these stratus decks. One might say this was his high school hobby. Doug attended Stanford University and completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1950. At Stanford, he was a member of the rowing crew and of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program. From 1950 to 1953, during the Korean War, he was on active duty in the Navy. He was stationed for a while in Hawaii, and then later on a minesweeper off the coast of Korea. After completing his military service Doug decided to pursue a graduate degree in Meteorology. It was early in his graduate studies at Florida State University (FSU) that Doug first met Judith (Judy) Anne Schuh, who would later become his wife. She was pursuing a degree in Education with a minor in German. They dated for one year and married on August 12,1954 (the year Judy graduated) in her home town Jacksonville, Florida. Their first child, Kathryn Elizabeth,was born July 19,1955 in Tallahassee, Florida. In this same year, Doug completed his Master of Science degree in Meteorology at FSU. During their time living in Florida,and driving back and forth between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, Doug was fascinated with the tropical convection and spent a good deal of the rides with his head out of the car window! In 1956,Doug took a job with Radio Free Europe and the family moved to Munich, Germany. His responsibilities there included prediction of wind directions and weather conditions for the purposes of launching balloons with news pamphlets into Eastern Europe during the early years of the cold war. This was a nice opportunity for Judy to perfect her German in which she had earned a minor in college. Doug also learned German there and later also some French. During this year they lived in the apartment of a retired opera singer…

Hopefully this includes a few morsels about Doug you didn’t know, and (continuing the metaphor) whets your appetite for more. If you do follow through, and give some time to the pdf today, as your  way of privately celebrating a life well lived, you’ll come away inspired. You’ll set the bar for yourself a bit higher. And whether that extra push  proves enduring or only lasts a day or so, it will make you so much more effective you’ll more than recoup the time invested.

You’ll have carried Doug Lilly’s legacy forward.


A small postscript: years ago, when I started this blog, the second post unpacked the Charles Darwin quote on the LOTRW masthead – and tied it to a brief vignette – a seminar Doug gave during the time he lived and worked in Boulder.


[1] Brilliant? There’s an evidence-based litmus test. When the published literature includes a volume entitled Scientific Research inspired by (insert your name here), you’ll know you have arrived.

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The future is in good hands: Chapter 18.

(Older guy’s annual question) What’s the favorite hobby of people my age?

(early-career group’s annual answer) Travel? Golf?… Reading?… Bridge?… (old guy shakes his head, prompting increasingly sarcastic guesses) Bingo?… Naps?

(Older guy) No… the favorite hobby of people my age is getting together with each other and saying “The world used to be terrific but now it’s going to hell in a handbasket…”

(early-career group – laughter, flash of recognition; after all, they’ve all watched this scene play out at home, year after year – at the dinner table, while growing up; at family reunions; on holidays…)

(Older guy, continuing) …but the cure for that is hanging around you all! To do so is to realize that the future is in good hands.

2018 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants

In a wonderful TED talk, Shawn Achor posits that the barrage of news each day – dwelling as it does on sordid aspects of politics, terrorism, war, social inequities, natural disasters, and the acrimony and polarization characterizing national conversations on all this – insidiously gives us the false impression about the reality of the world we live on. The negative emphasis blinds us to all the powerful, positive trends underway – worldwide reductions in poverty, gains in agricultural productivity, progress towards renewable energy, statistically verifiable reductions in the rate of violence, and more. It breeds those twin imposters for wisdom – cynicism and pessimism.

Worse – this negative view inhibits our common progress towards building this better world. Mr. Achor argues that the end of each day we should reflect back for a few minutes on the day’s events – identifying three aspects for which we were grateful, and journaling about one positive event. He asserts that such a daily practice will develop in us an attitude of looking, searching for – and expecting– the positive. His studies suggest that this simple attitude adjustment makes us more successful in work and the rest of life.

For the past eighteen years – predating Mr. Achor’s talk and work by a few years, it’s been my privilege to see this in action – not intentionally, but as a happy incidental consequence of something else entirely. When I arrived at the American Meteorological Society in 2000, Ron McPherson, then the Executive Director, set me to work establishing an AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. His idea was the Colloquium would be the policy counterpoint to the eminently successful NCAR Summer Colloquium(then over 30 years old, and continuing to this day), which each summer brings small groups of students and faculty to Boulder for a period to consider a specialized scientific or technical topic[1]. The plan was – every year – to bring some 25-40 early- and mid-career professionals from our Earth observing, science, and services community (spanning public, private, and academic sectors) to DC for ten days. They’d meet with counterparts from Congress and Congressional staff, the White House, State Department, federal agencies, and the private sector (many – a slight majority – with scientific backgrounds themselves). They’d dialog about science policy. The Colloquia wouldn’t be enough to ground Colloquium participants fully in federal policy for science, and science input into policy and politics; they could only provide a taste. But ten days of such conversations would whet participants’ appetite to learn more. The encounters would equip and inspire them to engage more effectively and actively with political and business leaders going forward.  And they’d get to know each other. Over the years, as the number of Colloquium alumni grew, our geosciences community (or Weather Enterprise – or whatever alternative label you prefer) would grow more effective in helping society realize benefit from our work: more rapid growth in food, water, energy, and transportation sectors of the economy; increased community-level and national resilience to hazards; protection of the environment and maintenance of critical ecosystems services.

That has been the plan. Even after eighteen years, there’s still room for improvement in both the substance and logistics of the Summer Policy Colloquium. But there’s one area that hasn’t needed upgrading. That’s the participants’ strength of character, intellect, positive energy, and shared desire to help the seven billion people build a safer, more prosperous, greener world for themselves and future generations.

Over the years, more than six hundred professionals have been through the program. Hardly a day passes without e-mail exchanges or phone calls or face-to-face encounters with one or two, or reading about some of their latest accomplishments.  Usually enough, by itself, to meet Mr. Achor’s standard of three pieces of good news each day. But for ten days every year, when the Colloquium is running, the vitality of the conversations, the inspiration of the personal narratives, the sheer vigor and potential of the group is something special.

But the secret sauce is not the 40 people in the room. What makes the Colloquium uplifting is the breathtaking extrapolation it reveals. Just short of 700 people participating over nearly 20 years? A drop in the bucket compared with the world’s 7 billion. The vast majority of these aren’t waiting for a Colloquium experience to do something positive. They’re already working in their respective, diverse ways to make a better world – and there are ten million times as many. The next time you’re on the sidewalk, or in traffic, or in your office or the neighborhood – look around you. You’re part of a seven-billion-person support group – people just like you who wake up each morning with a common thought – to do good[2].

Thanks to all of you. Looking forward to meeting another contingent at the Colloquiumnext year – and once again having my faith in human nature reaffirmed.


[1]The focus varies each year.

[2]Okay, so we all differ a little bit on just what it means to do good– but that’s a detail.

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Tragedy on Main Street: six U.S. tales of repetitive loss.


1.a lamentable, dreadful, or fatal event or affair; calamity; disaster:stunned by the tragedy of so many deaths.

2.a dramatic composition, often in verse, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically involving a great person destined to experience downfall or utter destruction, as through a character flaw or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or an unyielding society.

3.the branch of the drama that is concerned with this form of composition.


In today’s world, social media obsess over a small handful of entertainment, athletic, political, and business celebrities. It’s easy and tempting for the remaining seven billion of us to emulate, follow, and live vicariously through these few – breathlessly following ups and downs of the run-up (?) to a North Korean- U.S. summit, Meghan’s marriage to Harry, LeBron’s 50+ points Friday night, Roseanne’s latest tweet. We lose sight of reality – that we are, each of us, intended to be the heroes and heroines of our own lives.

What’s more, we’re not actors in some low-key sitcom, but rather a great drama – the challenge of living on the generous, dangerous, fragile real world.

Today’s focus is on the dangerous bit, and how we’re all involved. To see this, we need only to consider the news in recent days from…

Puerto Rico. The 64 deaths estimated last year from Hurricane Maria? That figure, we were told this past week, doesn’t even come close. Harvard public health experts analyzed excess deaths (over statistical normal) resulting over time since, from multiple stressors – interruption of vital medications; loss of shelter; the electrical power needed  to run health equipment and basic air conditioning; contaminated water supplies; the mental anguish from family injuries, property and job loss; and more. These analysts tell us the death toll to date lies between 800-8500, with the most likely figure something like 4600-4700. Remote regions of the island still lack power even as the next hurricane season has begun. Building construction and the repaired electrical infrastructure are no more resilient than before – if anything, less so. Puerto Ricans face repetitions of this tragedy down the road.

Houston, TX. On May 22, the Washington Post reported that Houstonians have begun rebuilding – in the flood plain. The city, the developers, and those who buy these homes are thereby setting into motion future loss and pain. And don’t think those hidden deaths in Puerto Rico aren’t mirrored here. The statistics may not have surfaced yet – they wouldn’t be so dire – but the stress of the Hurricane Harvey has undoubtedly taken a toll – on the ill, the elderly, the very youngest, the poor, anyone who had only been scratching by in prior months.

Ellicott City, MD. A week ago, the second “1000-year” flood in two years inundated this town, just as businesses and townspeople were beginning to recover from the 2016 flash flood. A wetter-than-normal month, saturating the soil, set the stage for flooding from ten inches of rain. But the town is situated in a stream channel. The canyon that provides much of the charm has flooded fifteen times since the 1700’s. Even so, another Washington Post writer pointed out:

there is no question that the downtown historic district will be rebuilt. The more than 200-year-old enclave is Howard County’s cultural heart, its highest-profile attraction and a big economic generator. But as the mud and debris get cleared, some locals acknowledge that it may be time to rethink some of the zone’s most flood-vulnerable spots.

Asheville, NC. Even as workers were digging out Ellicott City, a similar flooding event ravaged this Appalachian tourist town, hit by a comparable flood in 2004.

Berkeley, CA. This university community was badly damaged by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. But that was a rumble on the fault next door, the San Andreas. The Hayward fault runs right through town and the Berkeley campus; seismologists currently indicate it’s the Hayward fault that’s more likely to trigger the next big upheaval in the Bay area. Estimates suggest a 70% probability over the next 30 years. This may seem like a long time. Factor in uncertainty, and the day of reckoning might be still further out. But that uncertainty cuts both ways. Only one thing is sure. Each day brings us 24 hours closer to the inevitable tragedy, and each day’s construction across the Berkeley-Oakland area increases the scope of the resulting loss.

Leilani Estates, Hawaii. Lava flows continue to destroy this idyllic community, with no clear end in sight. Pele, the fire goddess, the “goddess who devours the earth” has been angry before and will be again. If the past is prologue to the present, she’ll find even more construction, people, and economic activity in harm’s way the next time around.


Takeaways from these six tragedies – whether just suffered, still underway, or in the future, but nearing in the future.

First– our planet is inherently dangerous. No place is safe. All seven billion of us are hurtling through space on what is essentially a top-down convertible – a convertible convulsively shaking and vulnerable to flooding in the passenger compartment. Our six communities preoccupy minds today. But the fact is, another 6000 U.S. towns, counties, and cities are writing their own disaster narratives. Each and every day, each of these dramas is one day closer to denouement.

Our resources are limited. We can’t afford to eliminate disaster risk; we don’t control the vehicle or the route. All that contributes to the second part of the definition of tragedy – our efforts to survive confront “overpowering force.”

Second– while extremes are nature’s way of doing business, disasters are a human construct. We set disasters in motion through our choices and actions – historically, through where and how we have chosen to build – and more recently, through our impatience to reap immediate benefits from quickly installed, cheaply constructed, poorly sited infrastructure (versus taking the thought, time, and effort required to lay in place the more robust but also the more expensive sort that might better withstand the occasional extreme). The question is: can we learn from experience? After each disaster, can we relocate, rebuild more intelligently, otherwise adjust our behavior, rather than resign ourselves to repetitive (and often increasing) loss? Can we make life incrementally safer, secure happier hazard outcomes for our children and grandchildren? In principle, this looks doable. But as a species, perhaps we suffer from a fatal character flaw (tragedy’s primary contributor).

Third– disasters are personal. We can’t count on our political leaders, our entertainment and sports figures to surface these issues, let alone resolve them. J.J. Watt, a Houston-Texan defensive end, raised $37M for hurricane relief for his city last year; years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates Roberto Clemente died in a 1972 plane crash attempting to deliver earthquake relief aid to Nicaragua. Their efforts were noble, but isolated – and ultimately insufficient.

No, living on the real world works the other way around. Celebrities have to hope that you and I – the nameless – collaborate in large numbers locally and regionally to build community-level resilience – so that in years to come, “celebrity” will continue to be a thing.  We all have to get involved. We’re not merely passengers on planet Earth.

We’re members of the crew.

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What kind of world do we want?

“A world that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences in fostering creative solutions for the Earth and humanity.” American Geosciences Institute vision statement

What kind of world do we want[1]?

The folks at the American Geosciences Institute (above, per the previous LOTRWpost) have thoughtfully constructed an answer. It’s worth parsing.

A world…To start, note that AGI articulates a vision for the world– for seven billion people, not merely for its 250,000-odd geoscientists. The vision’s not about the geosciences community’s need for more research funding and infrastructure, or freedom of scientific inquiry, or opportunities for international students at U.S. universities, or public-private partnerships, or career development for geoscientists. These and other similar needs are vital to AGI and its members, and to society – but the vision deliberately sets them aside in pursuit of the larger purpose. They may eventually be uncovered in the effort to realize the world vision – but will be addressed then and only then, as a means to a larger, and frankly nobler, end.

…that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences… This isn’t the world we know today. And such a world won’t be achieved overnight.Under what circumstances can this understanding and trust be achieved? A little thought makes the answer obvious: the world can’t and won’t “buy in” unless and until essentially everyone becomes an active participant in the science, the conversations on the implications of the science and the options for action, and the actions themselves. The starting point for all this – a necessary condition – is improved universal public K-12 education. Not just private education for a wealthy few. Not simply public education isolated to this or that better-off public school district. Not even public education confined to the developed world. And not just STEM education – education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. No, to produce a world that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences requires the education of hundreds of millions of schoolkids worldwide. It requires education that prepares children to live in a changing world by emphasizing critical thinking and learning-to-learn as much more than rote memorization. Education that balances the sciences with the humanities. STEM education where the geo- and social-sciences take their place alongside physics, chemistry, and biology. As children so-educated mature into adulthood, then and only then will the reality year-by-year converge on the vision.

Two asides (both analogies):


Analogy 1. universal service.

Wouldn’t have thought it, but turns out some explanation is needed here. To google this expression these days is to find that the first page of listings deal with the idea of open internet access to all, rather than a privileged few. Terrific concept – but wasn’t what you’d have found back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In those days, universal service was generally construed to mean universal military service. Young American men[2][sic] were subject to the draft, and at that time arguments were advanced favoring universal service — a system under which all male citizens (apart from specified exceptions) are required to serve a preset length of time in the armed forces. Part of the logic behind this idea is that universal service creates a public better equipped to drive national conversations and decisions with respect to national interests, especially pertaining when and why to sue for peace – or go to war. Such decisions and actions would not be made lightly – as they risk being when only 1% of a given population is in a volunteer armed services, and are isolated culturally and socially from the larger general population.

In the same way, the key challenge facing geoscientists today is that the world has become divided into a few hundred thousand experts on subjects ranging from natural resources to hazards to environmental protection, and seven billion bystanders. We need a more participatory approach. We all need to be more involved, instead of leaving that to “volunteers.”

Analogy 2. Spousal trust, between life partners.

Husbands and wives, and life partners more generally, at least those in happy, satisfying, healthy relationships, trust each other. But that trust is shaped by shared history, experience, and both partners know that trust has limits. The spouse/life partner is unable to solve every problem that comes up. The spouse/life partner can be expected to offer a different perspective on many or all subjects – and even disagree strongly on some. In the same way, trust of geoscientists here can’t mean trust without limit, or trust without some due diligence, or some back and forth. It doesn’t mean that geoscientists will always have all the answers. Generally speaking, however, life partners trust each other’s intent, that is, to have their joint best interests at heart. That trust doesn’t just happen so much as it’s built– by extensive, sustained, close collaboration.


…fostering creative solutions for the Earth and humanity. Fostering! 250,000 geoscientists can at best contribute to solutions; we can’t implement. That’s the role of the larger society. Creative solutions!But it’s not sufficient for geoscientists to be scolds, to confine their work to “documentation of human failure.” Instead of noting the environmental destruction accompanying natural resource extraction, we have to help identify opportunities, means, and methods for renewable resource development/use. We have to go beyond inventorying increasing losses to natural hazards, and join in the task of building community resilience. And instead of merely documenting loss of habit, bio-diversity, air and water quality, and more, we have to work with the larger society to do a better job of maintaining invaluable and irreplaceable ecosystem services. It’s tempting to settle for piecemeal approaches that give the illusion of solving of problems; rather, we have to push together toward creative solutions that make new progress, and that address simultaneously and holistically the three-fold challenges we face – and at the same time create jobs, lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, improve public health and well-being.

Bottom line? A great vision statement, and suggesting that as a community we need to (1) advance our sciences and their application. But we can’t sustain such progress unless we (2) advance public K-12 education, both generally and with respect to the geosciences in particular. The two goals are on an equal footing.

Who could ask for more meaningful life’s work?


[1]As repeated often – one of the three questions that form the LOTRWmasthead, that serve as the foundation for everything in this column.

[2]This was focused on men, and males at the time, and, by and large, still is. Like so much else in our society, could stand some reexamination.

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AGI and geo(sciences)-diversity.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart. This week, happenstance more than logic saw me going to Salt Lake City, in order to attend a one-day American Geosciences Institute (AGI) Member Society Council Meeting. AGI, like AIP, is a society whose members are societies[1]. This was to be AMS’ first meeting as a member society; important that someone should go! But the reasonable, more obvious choices from our leadership had conflicts.

My good fortune! The meeting proved both substantive and eye-opening.


Traveling west a couple of time zones means a messed-up biological clock, insomnia, waking up early, a couple of hours before time for breakfast and the morning meeting. What to do? How to fill the time?

Well, maybe (full disclosure, what I’ve done all my life) cram for my finals. I’m here. Might as well learn something about AGI and not walk into their session cold.

Clicked on the AGI website. Clicked on About.

A lot of stuff there… a sample:

AGI was founded in 1948, under a directive of the National Academy of Sciences, as a network of associations representing geoscientists with a diverse array of skills and knowledge of our planet. The Institute provides information services to geoscientists, serves as a voice of shared interests in our profession, plays a major role in strengthening geoscience education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role the geosciences play in society’s use of resources, resilience to natural hazards, and the health of the environment.

 [Hmm. Can see why it made sense for AMS to join. But what’s this?…founded… under a directive of the National Academy of Sciences? Who knew?]

AGI is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to serving the geoscience community and addressing the needs of society. AGI headquarters are in Alexandria, Virginia.

 AGI’s Mission:

 The American Geosciences Institute represents and serves the geoscience community by providing collaborative leadership and information to connect Earth, science, and people.

 AGI’s Vision:

 A world that understands and trusts the role of the geosciences in fostering creative solutions for the Earth and humanity.

[Very cool vision statement! Who wouldn’t want to get behind that?] The site went on to list what AGI provides:

-Information Services aggregating research vital to geoscientists’ work

-Education and Outreach for schools and the public

-Public Policy facilitating the flow of information between geoscientists and decision makers

-Workforce Development research and analysis of career paths

-Publications that inform on a range of geoscience topics and news

-AGI’s Center for Geoscience and Society

-News on what’s happening now in the geoscience community.

-Recognition of excellence in the geosciences

-Your Connection to the Geosciences

AGI connects Earth, science, and people by serving as a unifying force for the geoscience community. With a network of 52 member societies, AGI represents more than a quarter-million geoscientists. No matter your individual discipline, AGI’s essential programs and services will strengthen your connection to the geosciences.

Okay! But absorbing this information only managed to kill only a few minutes; it was still dark outside; coffee still unavailable in the hotel lobby. What next? Well, AGI provides links to each of their 52 member societies. Maybe in the 90 minutes or so I had left, I could look at the website of each and every one of the member societies.

What a learning experience/wake-up call! For years I’d been thinking I know the diversity of the geosciences – I can recite the catechism of the AGU sections: seismology, petrology, volcanology, geochemistry, etc. – what else can there be?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

The great awakening started with the very first one: AASP… the Palynological Society. Really? How do they get AASP out of that? And what on Earth – or under the Earth – is palynology anyway?

Turns out, according to the website, that “Palynology is the study of pollen, spores, dinoflagellates, and other microscopic “palynomorphs.” Palynology originated in Scandinavia in the early 20th century and developed in America after World War II, particularly in the area of George Fournier, Third President of AASP petroleum exploration.”

Also happens that the group was founded as the “American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists, Inc.” In 2008, AASP changed its name to “AASP – The Palynological Society” to reflect AASP’s promotion of all aspects of palynology in academia and industry.

You already knew that[2]? Good for you. In any event, stratigraphical palynology is a branch of micropalaeontology and paleobotany. It offers context for these more familiar disciplines, provides insights into paleoclimates and their variability, and contributes to challenges as diverse as petroleum exploration and crime-scene forensics.

The next couple of hours’ overview held more of the same flabbergasting flavor. Of course several of the AGI members are big-tent, multi-disciplinary groups all of us have heard of – AGU, the American Geophysical Union; AAG, the American Association of Geographers; GSA, the Geological Society of America.

But others specialize: the American Rock Mechanics Association; the Clay Minerals Society; The Geochemical Society; the Mineralogical Society of America; the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology; the National Groundwater Association; and so on.

Many are more than mere science societies. They share the same mix of science and professional application supported by AMS. Their ranks include the Geological Society of America; the American Association of Geographers, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, et al.

Some are accrediting, standards-setting, licensing groups, operating like our CCM and Certified Broadcast Meteorologist Boards: the American Institute of Hydrology, the American Institute of Professional Geologists; and more.

Some are focused on the state level: take, for example, the Association of American State Geologists and the National Association of State Boards of Geology.

Others have an education slant: the Council on Undergraduate Research; the National Association of Geoscience Teachers; the National Earth Sciences Teachers Association, et al.

Some are based in other countries: the Geological Association of Canada; Geological Society of London; the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

A few specialize in the history of these fields: the History of Earth Sciences Society; the Petroleum History Institute; and (would you count this one?) the Society of Mineral Museum Professionals.

A few feel exotic, starting with that leadoff group, the Palynological Society. The AGI embrace extends to the International Medical Geology Association, the Karst Waters Institute, the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, the National Speleological Society, the Society of Economic Geologists, and the United States Permafrost Association.

All told, an amazing degree of disciplinary speciation – and a reminder that seven billion people can find richly varied ways to segment and self-identify, in ways resembling a Mandelbrot fractal. (Undoubtedly if we were to go back to atmospheric science and drill down we could find similar fine-structure.)

With this disciplinary diversity also comes a focus on professional diversity. The AGI includes among its member societies the Association for Women Geoscientists and the National Association of Black Geoscientists. And that’s a good segue into another topic…

…The newly-released AGI Community Statement on Harassment. Just as diversity is one of the strengths of any human endeavor, harassment must count as one of diversity’s insidious adversaries. For this reason alone, the full AGI statement merits our careful attention, in all its particulars (and is receiving just that from AMS elected-leadership). To whet your interest, it starts out this way:

Geoscientists guide humanity in the use and stewardship of Earth’s resources, drive the scientific pursuit of new knowledge about the planet, and provide education in all of the earth sciences.  Professionals and students in the geosciences represent all walks of life with a full array of personal attributes and cultures.

The American Geosciences Institute (AGI) expects those in the profession to adhere to the highest ethical standards in all professional activities. This includes the active promotion of working and learning environments free of all forms of harassment, aggression or coercion based on any personal attributes, cultures, or differences in status.  This also includes a firm rejection of those who would harass other geoscientists of any rank or status in a manner that may jeopardize their personal safety or comfort or otherwise potentially impede their professional progress or growth.  The guidelines address shared aspects of this topic across the geoscience community; the professional codes of conduct for individual societies may expand beyond these guidelines.

This statement applies to geoscientists at all career stages, including students through senior professionals.  The statement is designed to allow and encourage comprehensive application within scope and span of member society rules, in the particular situations encountered by geoscientists within their ranks.  This document provides a coherent statement of values and conduct from and within the broader AGI community, and joins the voices of many other major STEM societies internationally in promoting healthy, supportive working and learning environments in our scientific endeavors…

It goes on to describe what harassment (including but by no means limited to sexual harassment) is; and then making recommendations to member societies for action, including intervention and enforcement, and best practices for reporting. The statement isn’t prescriptive, but rather provides a point of departure for member societies, better equipping them to develop their corresponding statements, and cope with harassment more generally.

Thoughtful. Actionable. Resource versus regulation. Helpful. Just one example of the benefits AGI provides member societies, and the 250,000 of us – the palynologists and the cloud microphysicists, the geologists and hydrologists, the oceanographers and space weather experts and all the others who belong.

Expect to see more value from our AGI membership in the months and years ahead: supporting our own AMS actions to advance diversity, such as ECLA, to be sure, but also across the full sweep of our agenda.


A postscript; the exploration of all this on-line material on AGI member societies proved so absorbing that I went from wondering how to fill an empty hour or two to scrambling to capture the last few morsels remaining from the picked-over meeting breakfast.


[1]In this instance AGI was taking advantage of an American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) conference and exhibition to hold a side meeting.

[2]Certainly Ana Unruh Cohen, a leading figure in our community, knows. Her Oxford Ph.D. thesis was based on dust samples from the Gobi desert.

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Weather’s 101st moment.

We each have our moments.

As it is with humanity, the same holds true for the weather. This week, weather celebrates its 101st moment – the release of Andy Revkin and Lisa Mechaley’s collaboration, Weather, an Illustrated History: From Cloud Atlases to Climate Change. The book chronicles, in crisp text and art, a series of vignettes on weather’s top 100 moments, spanning nearly five billion years.

A great read – fanciful and fun – and at the same time profound and thought-provoking.

We’re reminded that the Earth’s first order of business (moment#1) was cloaking itself in an atmosphere, and as soon as possible (moment#2), adding water. Takes a while, but eventually (moment#11), weather gains a human audience, and that audience is literally moved by the experience (100,000 BCE Climate Pulse Propels Populations). It’s not long before the audience enters the action (moment#15); agriculture warms the planet ca. 5,000BCE.

Keep reading (actually the path of least resistance – the experience is not unlike that encounter with a bowl of popcorn – it’s easier to keep going than to stop)! You’ll find all your favorites. The great atmospheric events – medieval warmth and the little ice age, cooling in response to volcanic eruptions, great hurricanes and storms, awesome floods, and more. The great human accomplishments – weighing the atmosphere, deciphering the rainbow, harnessing wind power, making useful forecasts, modifying the weather, and laying the foundation for geoengineering. The unintended human consequences, starting with that agriculturally-triggered warming, extending to acquired vulnerability to extreme weather and solar storms, the current global warming, Arctic sea-ice retreat (moment#97), and coral reef die-offs (moment#99). A closing conjecture about an end to the ice ages (moment#100) responsible for so many of the first 99 moments.

It’s all there – and more.

The book is a page turner. Savor the experience. But don’t fool yourself. Weather: an Illustrated History is no mere inventory. What elevates it to moment #101? Just this: Revkin and Mechaley have framed the early chapters of a suspense thriller.  Will humanity, now a major actor on the world stage – be the hero or the villain of the piece? Will we consciously comprehend the growing impacts of our acquisition of natural resources, our efforts to cope with hazards, and our unthinking environmental despoliation? Will that awareness drive us to harness our new technological capabilities and social networking tools with will and vision sufficient to change our current course, making it more sustainable?  Most fundamentally, can seven billion of us master our common spiritual challenge? That is, can we overcome our tendencies to resent, factionalize, and polarize, and instead build the trust, the vision, and the common purpose we need to move forward?

So – buy and read the book! You’ll be glad you did. But don’t stop there. Let the experience carry you forward; take another step toward personally creating or identifying  weather-moment #102. Play your part in moving that and the succeeding moments, yet to come, in a positive direction.

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AMS Early Career Leadership Academy (ECLA) holds two days of face-to-face sessions this week. From the looks of the final agenda, the event promises to be life-changing for the participants. Kudos to the sponsors and program organizers… you’ve set something powerful into motion!

A small contribution to the occasion (akin to the party-favor you might find by your place setting), this in the form of a question for each participant:

How might I make better use of questions in my life?

Okay, Bill: here’s a question for you… what on Earth do questions have to do with leadership?

Well, it turns out that management/leadership experts seem to agree that leaders make important contributions to their organization or community by asking questions.

Also happens, though, that the same gurus differ widely in their suggested framing of those questions. Consider these two examples:

Example 1:

  1. Is there a simpler solution or simpler way of doing this?
  2. Can you explain the solution to me?
  3. What should we stop doing?
  4. Is this urgent or important?
  5. Do you think our approach will be successful?

Example 2:

  1. What does success look like?
  2. What’s holding us back?
  3. Who has experience with this?
  4. What’s the climate here?
  5. What if this setback is really an opportunity in disguise?
  6. What hasn’t been achieved yet?

These weren’t chosen randomly; they just happened to be the first two that popped up on a google search. You can take a look for yourself and uncover millions (literally) of alternative question sets. Perhaps you see elements in these two (or some other) lists to admire; more likely you quickly start seeing ways they can be improved upon. Perhaps they seem too bland, or generic… or just slightly misdirected…

That’s the point. You don’t want to adopt someone else’s list; you want to formulate your own.

Do this with some care and thought. Craft an initial set and then revisit and refine it from time to time. Over a period of years, you’ll realize you’ve created a guide, a lodestone, a compass (insert your own metaphor here) that is helping you set the course of your life’s work – equipping  you to distinguish between what’s vital and enduring and what’s merely urgent and fleeting, between what matters and what’s irrelevant; to tell the difference between opportunity and distraction.

Wouldn’t ask you to do anything I haven’t done myself, so here’s…

Example 3:

My list of questions appears on the masthead of Living on the Real World. First formulated these thirty years ago, listening to conversations at the nascent stages of what is today’s full-throated climate-change debate, discussions of sustainability, and related issues. Had the naïve/grandiose idea that they’d make a great frame for a worldwide conversation to celebrate the run-up to the millennium – the year 2000.

We all know that didn’t happen!

More recently (and with humbler aspirations), in 2010, they seemed to provide a useful frame for the blog.

What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action? This is a science question – not just an Earth sciences question, but rather one that has three dimensions. Where is the natural world – the world of resources, extremes, landscape, environment, biomass and biodiversity – trending?  In what ways is it degrading? I what respects might it be becoming more robust? What about the social world – the world of seven+ billion people? Are we growing more urbanized? Richer or poorer? Equitable or unfair? Peaceful or fractious?  And finally what about our spiritual world? Are we suppressing our spiritual side, or allowing it to flower? Do we celebrate its diversity, or do we all tend to shoehorn it into something narrow, monochromatic?

What kind of world do we want? This is a social question, a societal question, a question for everyone, not just for scientists. The question clearly has no answer, yet it deserves ongoing attention. That emphasis extends to figuring out how we engage each other on this issue. How do we keep discussion from morphing into debate, and debate from degrading into polarization and dysfunction? And keep in mind this question also has the same three dimensions: what kind of “natural” world do we want? What kind of social world would be desirable? What kind of spiritual world suits?

(A google search doesn’t back this up but) I was once told that George Bernard Shaw said, “if you have everything you want, you might as well be dead.”  So, we’re not likely to ever “get what we want.” This will always be a journey. That brings us to the third question:

What kind of world is possible if we act effectively?  What’s achievable? What represents a step or steps in the right direction? What can I, or my community, or my organization, do next? How do I translate thought into action?

Regardless of your background, somewhere along the line a teacher or professor asked you to write a paper or thesis, and asked you to start with some articulation of “what question am I trying to answer?” That wasn’t just an idle academic exercise. The teacher was trying to equip you for life… for life as a leader. So, if you’re an ECLA participant and have already framed such questions as a guide to living and leading, use this ECLA event as a chance to reexamine them, refresh them. If you haven’t got a pre-existing list, develop a prototype list while you’re here.

Even if you’re well past the ECLA stage, or not directly involved (remember, seven billion people fall into this category) give your life questions another look, and in the process make your day and your relationships and your work just that much more meaningful and effective.

And remember, it’s not just about you. When you do this, you make life better for the rest of us as well. Thank you!

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The 2018 March for… and the Sustainability of … Science.

Scientists are appropriately focused on the sustainability of science: will it continue to prove useful and beneficial to society? Will society continue to support science?

Which brings us to the March for Science.

On April 14, if history runs true to form, thousands of scientists around the world, and an even larger number of supporters of science, will take to the streets in a second March for Science. Weather forecasts for that day are just coming into view. As of this writing, in Washington DC, the outlook is for fair and warm; a far cry from last year’s cold and rain.

Marking the occasion, this past Thursday, the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communicationmade public the findings from its survey of participants and followers in the 2017 March. Whether you’re preparing to join this year’s March or not, the survey results make useful reading.

(Substantive? Interesting? Evidence-based versus conjectural? Facts versus spin? These signature traits mark the work of 4C, as the George Mason researchers refer to themselves. Their stated goal?To develop and apply social science insights to help society make informed decisions that will stabilize the earth’s life-sustaining climate, and prevent further harm from climate change.Under the leadership of its director, Ed Maibach, the Center has developed a reputation for insightful studies and reports over an extended period of years.)

Here are the 2017 March survey key findings, reproduced verbatim:

  • Roughly 7 out of 10 survey respondents said they participated in a March for Science in person on April 22, 2017; about one third (32%) attended the main march in Washington, DC.
  • Although most had participated in a march or demonstration before (71%), for many, the March for Science was their first science-related demonstration (88%).
  • A majority (61%) felt that, in their country, conditions for scientists are headed in the wrong direction. Respondents in the United States assigned most blame for this to Republicans in Congress (93% said they deserve “all” or “a lot” of the blame) and Donald Trump (90% said “all” or “a lot”).
  • The most common concerns expressed by participants in the United States were: the current Congress and administration would make harmful reductions in the use of scientific evidence in government decision making (91%); cuts in government funding for research (90%); and reductions in access to government data for scientific research (81%).
  • Participants expressed many goals that they held for the March for Science. The two most commonly cited goals were “increasing evidence based input into policy making” (89% selected this as a goal, and 38% selected it as their most important goal), and “sustaining public funding of science” (88% and 20%, respectively).
  • Despite these aspirations, only about half of participants thought the march would be at least moderately effective at increasing evidence based input into policy making (46%), and at sustaining public funding for science (52%).
  • Majorities of participants in the United States said they thought the response to the march was positive among scientists (91%), Democrats in Congress (79%), the news media (70%), and the American public (55%). However, majorities also thought that Donald Trump (68%) and Republicans in Congress (64%) had a negative response to the march.
  • Nearly all participants said they were taking a variety of other advocacy actions to advance the goals that brought them to participate in the march, including discussing science-related issues with their family and friends (97%), contacting government officials (83%), attending another march or demonstration (80%), donating money to a scientific or political organization (78%), and discussing science-related issues online (73%).
  • Most participants felt that a number of actions would be effective at reducing harm to science from the current Congress and the president, if many people do them. The action seen as most effective was donating money to a scientific or political organization (84% perceived it as at least moderately effective), followed by contacting government officials (78%), engaging with the media (76%), attending a march or public demonstration (72%), discussing science-related issues with their friends and family (70%), and discussing science-related issues online (58%).
  • About half of participants (51%) viewed scientists as either a “somewhat” (44%) or “heavily” (8%) politically liberal group, whereas most of the other half (47%) see scientists neither liberal nor conservative in particular. Very few participants (2%) saw scientists as a “somewhat” (2%) or “heavily” (<1%) politically conservative group.
  • Only about one in six (17%) participants said that the political leaning of scientists hurts their ability to be objective. However, two out of three (66%) said that the political leaning of scientists makes it more difficult for people of another party to believe them.

You now have a flavor for the survey and the scholarship – but if you have the time, please read the entire report. There’s much more to be mined from the details of the 4C summary.

To recap, and distill down even further:

Respondents from the United States largely shared a view that conditions for scientists are headed in the wrong direction, and that one party was largely to blame[1]. Nearly 90% of participants were looking to see increased evidence-based input into policymaking, and sustained support for science. However, only half the participants figured the March itself would be effective toward these same ends.  Most figured one political party would view the March favorably; the other negatively. They viewed scientists as either politically liberal or politically neutral as a group as opposed to conservative. For the most part they didn’t see this as hurting their ability to be objective, but two-thirds thought this made it more difficult for people of a different political persuasion to believe them.

In a nutshell: March participants want increased evidence-based policymaking and support for science. They see the chances that the March will change minds as no better than 50-50. In fact they believe that conservatives (political leaders and general public) will see this as a poke in the eye.

Given this evidence-based social science, what should scientists do?

Science can’t be sustainable if only half of  Americans support it. In light of the 4C survey data, it follows the March ought to be substantially positive in tone and impact, across any partisan divide, OR it should be a miniscule, nearly invisible piece of scientists’ engagement with policymakers and the public. If it’s going to express a political message then it should be accompanied, even overwhelmed, by a rich, ongoing relationship that looks far more like collaboration – or even courtship– than confrontation.

The latter is in fact the reality. To start, US scientists wake up every morning to focus on the day job. Research: pushing back the frontiers of our basic understanding of how the natural world works, as well as the social science of how seven billion people think and engage socially with each other. Service: applying this understanding to technological advance; partnering up with individuals, corporations, and nations to build a safer, healthier, richer, more satisfying life for all, while preserving the web of ecosystems and natural resources that sustain us. Teaching: sharing the excitement of science with young people and inspiring them to join in. Scientists are providing an extraordinary return on society’s $100B+  investment.

And when scientists dialog with policymakers, the majority (?), certainly the effective bits, of the communications are characterized by respect, by two-way listening and learning as much as talking, by clarity but also by accommodation.

We know all this in part because the 2018 federal budgets for science were generally positive, exceeding substantially the initial administration requests… and these budgets were passed by majorities of both chambers of Congress, and signed by the president. Support continues to be widespread and bipartisan.

We want things to stay that way.

My dad, himself a scientist and a manager of scientists, always said to my brother and me: make your compliments public and keep your criticisms private.

So, this coming Saturday, as we prepare to join the March, and make clever signage, and join in any chanting, or model desired behavior for the kids we brought along, or perhaps even make a speech…

… let’s think like scientists – be (4C) evidence-based in our approach to the audience we’re trying to cultivate and persuade. Let’s defuse the confrontation and accentuate the celebration.

Let’s do our bit to make, and keep, science sustainable.


[1]Incidentally, the survey also noted in the body of the report that only a minority (roughly a quarter) of scientists thought they shared some of the blame as well. Non-scientist participants in the March viewed scientists more favorably.

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Meteorology: Where do we go from here?

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” – Martin Luther King, Jr.,  (from his last speech, I’ve been to the Mountaintop, April 3, 1968)

Today, April 4, marks fifty years since the tragic assassination of the reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. As part of its commemoration of the event, Memphis held a two-day symposium April 2-3 asking the question: where do we go from here? Unsurprisingly, participants arrived knowing that despite progress over the ensuing half-century, much more remained to be done. They decided that the path forward lies in a rededication to those causes Dr. King espoused: racial equality; reduction of poverty; greater economic equity; better education for all; and more. Time to enter, not just view, the promised land.

Today, meteorologists, and their close kin hydrologists, oceanographers, climatologists, Earth and space scientists, could well ask the same question. Although the particulars include many arcane scientific and technological bits, much of “where do we go from here” is aligned with Dr. King’s broader themes.

Inclusion is a major AMS concern and goal. With the transition in the meteorological profession from forecasts of geophysical conditions per se to impact-based decision support, meteorologists, whether researchers or service providers, find themselves drawn in not just to the social dimensions of their work but also a continuing need to translate “protection of life and property” and “economic development” into both public good and private interest. The act of balancing these two needs changes and grows more challenging with each scientific and technological advance and the unintended consequences for shifts in private and public provision of weather services. Underpinning the prospects for managing these challenges is the state of American public education, especially critical thinking and STEM education. Weather extremes – hurricanes, winter storms, floods, and other natural phenomena – are portal drawing young Americans into scientific fields more broadly.

The value of meteorology to society, but, more importantly, the connection of meteorology to American values?

Worth some reflection today. If as a meteorological community, we model inclusion; through continuing innovation foster public good as well as private interest; and do our bit for STEM education; we can help America and the world toward a more sustainable, vibrant, satisfying and meaningful future.

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