AMS second-century countdown. Three threefold problems to be solved simultaneously.

Analysis breaks down a whole into its constituent parts. Synthesis combines distinct elements or components to build a coherent whole.

(To oversimplify greatly) The AMS’ first century, just celebrated, has been a triumph – of analysis. Over that hundred-year span, meteorology, hydrology, and climatology were identified and explored as three separable though related fields of study (in today’s vernacular, each became “a thing”).  Scientists and engineers further picked apart these three subjects, delving into the disaggregated set of disciplines and technologies that go into understanding and making distinct predictions with respect to each. Others applied these advances, to improve agriculture, energy and water use; to build resilience to hazards; to protect the environment and ecosystems. Three distinct societal sectors – governments, private-sector corporations, and the academy[1] – each developed and played individual roles.

Remarkable! But all this is dwarfed by the second-century challenge that now confronts us, demanding that we reassemble all these pieces, accomplishing multiple levels of synthesis:

1. Simultaneously, holistically addressing the resource-, resilience-, and environmental dimensions to successful living on the real world.

Today the relationship of seven-going-on-eight billion people with the planet we live on is severely strained. Our consumption of resources – food, water, and energy particularly – pushes the limits of what Earth is able to provide. The creation of large pockets of poverty has combined with urbanization and the emergence of critical infrastructure to produce new and growing vulnerabilities to natural hazards. Signs of environmental degradation and the decline of ecosystem services are everywhere – starting with climate change per se but extending to reduction in biodiversity and habitat, acidification of the oceans, ubiquitous increases in plastic waste, and more.

For most of human experience, the first two dimensions were taken for granted. Earth’s bounty seemed limitless. Hazards were acts of God. Environmental degradation was confined to a handful of locations, but otherwise ignored. What’s more, for most of the 20th century, the three challenges could be usefully considered in isolation. Now it’s apparent that the three challenges must be addressed simultaneously in the manner of simultaneously solving three equations in three unknowns familiar from algebra. What’s more, it’s apparent no once-for-all-time solution exists. Sustainability, if viewed in static terms, is an oxymoron. In reality, the world’s peoples can at best buy time, through continuous innovation[2].

2. Reintegrating the study of weather, water, and climate.

The natural Earth system operates refreshingly free of any artificial boundaries imposed by language and labels. Every atmospheric molecule, every drop of water, each speck of dust or bit of rock merely responds, insensately, instant by instant, to the forces acting on it. Such actions, when aggregated, reveal emergent properties such as gusts of wind, hurricanes, cycles of flood and drought, river formation and flows, ocean circulations, tides, and climate variability.

For most of the past century – the lifetime of the AMS – the larger world has accepted the artificial separation of Earth system processes into three distinct categories –  meteorological, hydrological, and climatological.  

The social contract between nations, corporations and publics on the one hand and scientists expert in these fields? Society has provided minimal resources for related predictive services provided along these three lines. In turn, societal expectations and needs were correspondingly low. Over millennia, the world had developed and refined muddle-through strategies that governed agriculture, energy, water-resource management, and emergency response to hazards that acknowledged and accommodated the limitations of such predictions. Any contributions meteorologists, hydrologists, and climatologists made over the past 100 years have been welcomed, but treated reservedly.

Today, by contrast, an increasingly anxious world is seeing rising global temperatures, accompanied by more intense cycles of flood and drought. Coastal populations, some 40% of the world’s total, are threatened by sea-level rise and near-shore subsidence and coastal deterioration related to extraction of resources covering the gamut from oil to sand.  Peoples and their leaders alternately beg and demand that Earth scientists do more to solve each of three forecast problems simultaneously – often over quite localized regions, and across time scales spanning minutes to centuries. Progress can’t be made fast enough, and yet needs are surfacing just as the urgency of the problems constrains the financial resources available for improvement. The gap between the predictive skill needed and what’s available is particularly conspicuous at time scales between a few weeks and a season or two.

3. Blurring the bright lines that had separated governments, industry, and universities in order to accelerate progress on complex, existential problems.

Earth observations, science, and services provide only one example of a much larger 21st-century challenge, but retaining the focus: for much of the past half-century, government environmental agencies have relied on the corporate world to build the instruments and platforms needed to observe the Earth and its atmosphere and oceans. Governments have owned the platforms and instruments, once built, as well as the data. Governments have done any necessary numerical modeling, while relying heavily on other corporations in the private sector to disseminate forecasts, especially over the “last mile” into individual homes and other users. Academics, meanwhile, were supplying needed innovation. (Of course these were mere stereotypes. The reality was never this black and white. NASA, NOAA, USGS, DoE national labs, the Agricultural Research Service, DoD, EPA and other government agencies were doing cutting-edge research. NOAA Weather Radio and government websites were also providing information directly to end users.) But in recent years, the private sector has made inroads into owning and selling data and holds aspirations to do more. Academics are vigorously incubating new companies. Numerical predictions are now being accomplished by private companies and by private-academic partnerships. Quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and other cutting-edge technologies promise further disruption. The challenge is to channel, even unify, these three streams of energy and innovation into constructive societal outcomes versus something less.

To sum up? We face a triad of problems, each demanding integration of threesomes of hitherto distinct entities, with the triad itself demanding similar integration – all against a ticking clock.

That calls to mind a triad of possible endings for this post:

  1. What could go wrong?
  2. We’ve got this.
  3. No pressure!

Or, you could choose, personalize your preferred ending…perhaps, in the spirit of the post, perhaps integrate the three, into something anagrammatic like:

No pressure. We’ve got this wrong! What could go?

Think about it.


[1] With a bit of catalytic help from a smaller human construct, one that punches above its weight – namely what is sometimes referred to as civil society – including NGO’s such as the AMS itself.

[2] The literature on all this is voluminous; a readable summary can be found here.

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