AMS second-century countdown. Two great purposes.

“The American Meteorological Society advances the atmospheric and related sciences, technologies, applications, and services for the benefit of society.” the AMS Mission

The AMS logo (above) may have an entirely new look heading into the second century, but the AMS mission remains unchanged.

That ought to be reason for cheer. 

Why? Because, from its 1919 inception, the AMS has been addressing two crucial questions:

  • What is the nature of our world and how does it work?
  • How can we improve on our world – how can we make life on Earth better?

It’s important to understand that these are existential human questions; they’re not mere meteorological preoccupations. The stakeholders number nearly eight billion – not just a small handful who might self-identify as meteorological experts.

Let’s take a look.

What is the nature of our world and how does it work? We’re told that the apostle Paul, in his travels across southern Europe in the first century A.D., spoke to Athenians about the nature of God thusly: “In Him we live and breathe and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28). He was, of course, referring to God as he understood him, but at the same time he was speaking to the Athenians in language they knew well. To their ears, Paul was also channeling the semi-mythical 7th-6th-century B.C. Cretan philosopher Epiminedes, who had made a similar such reference to Zeus. Everyone at the Areopagus that day caught Paul’s drift.

In today’s lights, putting matters of faith aside, most of us would agree that in the Earth’s atmosphere itself we all live and breathe and have our being. It’s easy to take this atmosphere for granted, to assume that each breath will always be safe, life-sustaining, satisfying. Few of us live (for very long) in any degree of suspense about this. Breathable air is the most fundamental of our needs. By comparison, desire for food and water can wait. (Don’t look for air in the Wikipedia link on Maslowe’s hierarchy of needs, which speaks to this; it’s buried in the much classier term homeostasis.) 

And that air can act up. When it blows – hard – as did the recent Nashville tornado, it causes death and destruction. Heavy rain or snow? Corresponding impact. What’s worse, extremes of flood and dry spells can coexist/interweave; Melbourne and Sydney have been pounded by tropical storm Esther, just weeks after the end of drought-induced Australian wildfires. And when the air turns bad – it can shorten lives worldwide. A recent estimate suggests air pollution drives a global excess mortality of more than 8m lives/year – a reduction of life expectancy of almost three years, due to such causes. That’s before we get to airborne disease – a virus, say. These days we know too well the disruption that can trigger.

To improve our understanding – especially our predictive understanding – of all this? Not just an intellectual and technological challenge for a few experts, but hugely consequential for the human prospect. It’s the vital starting point for the second question:

How can we improve on our world – how can we make life on Earth betterTo the extent we know what the atmosphere will do next,we can exploit this understanding for great human ends. We can harness the energy of the wind, ocean currents, and the sun. We can improve agricultural productivity and feed eight billion hungry beings. We can use water more efficiently. In these ways we accommodate other needs also near the base of Maslow’s pyramid (LOTRW: the value of Earth observations, science, and services: about to skyrocket). Meeting needs for natural resources; building resilience to nature’s extremes and making lives safer; maintaining and improving upon air and water quality – all this allows the majority of the world’s peoples to turn their attention to innovation in countless ways – in science and engineering, in commerce of every kind, improving health and education, and extending to the arts and humanities. Bottom line? Knowing what the atmosphere will do next not only makes life possible, it enriches life and makes it meaningful. (Using Maslow’s language, we can self-actualize.)

But take a closer look at the question: what will the atmosphere do next? It turns out for a world of eight billion people in a highly developed global economy, next can extend to some rather long time scales. Even our nomadic, hunter-gatherer forbearers needed to know not just weather at the moment (which direction is downwind from the game we’re tracking? Do we need to seek immediate shelter?) but also information about seasons (is it time for us to pull up stakes, to move the clan/tribe along to another location altogether?). Of course, early humankind grew frustrated with the fickle nature of the atmosphere. As soon as they were able, our ancestors exchanged hunter-gathering for agriculture, urbanization, and the development of trade and, ultimately, industry. In the same manner they traded dependence on wind- and water for power in favor of fossil fuel use. In today’s society, with its large investment in and dependence moment-by-moment on fixed critical infrastructure with design lifetimes of decades, climate variability and change over those time frames start to matter. 

Meteorologists struggled to keep pace, but after decades of hard work we now know that our future climate circumstance looks dire, thanks to the most recent century or so of that same fossil fuel use. 

To conclude – those two questions remain crucial, not just for the human race but for all of life on Earth:

  • What is the nature of our world and how does it work?
  • How can we improve on our world – how can we make life on Earth better?

even as the ground under our feet has shifted. Our capacity to address these questions has never been greater, while ever-better capabilities are coming on-line. Oh – and our work has never mattered more.

What a great moment in world history to be alive! What a great moment to be a meteorologist, and an AMS member!

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