Living with extreme weather.

Folks in Norman, Oklahoma have set the table for a three-day workshop on this topic Monday-Wednesday May 18-20. Our hosts have done their best to ensure that the occasion will be not just interesting but groundbreaking and productive. To start, they’re assembling a sizable group of experts spanning meteorology and the social sciences. What’s more, they have everyone coming up to speed ahead of time. We’ve completed surveys declaring out our desired outcomes. We’ve viewed specially-prepared videos on the Moore and El Reno tornadoes of 2013, and reflected on the public response and recovery in the two instances. Our hosts have helpfully provided the following series of questions to structure our individual reflection and preparation:

1.What questions, thoughts or impressions did the videos evoke that you found surprising, troubling, or unexpected?

2. What gaps do you believe exist in our understanding of formulating and communicating information about extreme weather to those impacted?

3. What gaps do you believe exist in our understanding of human preparation and response to, and recovery from extreme weather?

4. What key research questions come to mind that could be addressed within a discipline, or in a multidisciplinary framework?

5. What opportunities do you see in moving social/behavioral science theory and research outcomes to operational application for most effectively dealing with extreme weather? 

6. What do meteorological science researchers and practitioners need to learn or understand about the social/behavioral sciences in formulating research questions and developing effective research collaborations?

7. What do social/behavioral science researchers and practitioners need to learn or understand about meteorological science in formulating research questions and developing effective research collaborations?

8. For what topics, and in what ways, do you see your capabilities being most valuable in addressing and/or exploring the issues presented?

[You can give this exercise a try yourself; the videos are publicly available here.]

A few thoughts prompted by viewing the videos a couple of times[1].

FACETs. (Forecasting A Continuum of Environmental Threats) NOAA and collaborators working together on this innovative, next-generation approach to warnings and watches to better serve the public in future years. FACETs offers much to like but its developers would be the first to say that for FACETs to work will require not just changing the way that NOAA does business but also the way NOAA’s collaborators and the American public understand, process, and respond to emergency weather information. However, the particulars of just what changes will be needed and how to go about their implementation can only be guessed-at now. The three days will therefore lay out a roadmap for R&D to gain the knowledge needed.

Tornadoes are unique. They pose challenges to safety – and to property, infrastructure, and business continuity – unlike those arising from flood or drought, or from hurricanes or winter storms. If 300-mph winds were a daily, pervasive feature of climatology, we could design for them. But when such tornadic winds affect patches of land a few square miles in extent out of millions of square miles, when they persist for only a few minutes and come along at any given location, even in the tornado belt, no more often than once every several years, then they pose unique challenges to land use and building design. If the videos are any guide, the workshop will focus on tornadoes. Its conclusions will likely offer new insights to the challenge of living with extreme weather more broadly, but there will likely be some findings or recommendations that won’t generalize particularly well across all weather extremes. By contrast, FACETS, suitably tuned, should serve well across all weather hazards, but some of that tuning will require attention beyond what this workshop can provide.

Warnings, however effectively communicated, are not enough. If FACETs warnings are to be helpful, the public has to have clearly understood and easily accessible options for action. That somehow should start with the home. Home should be the safest place to be. If an entire home in a tornado-prone area can’t economically be built to allow shelter-in-place, then it needs a storm cellar or safe room. Finding the means to achieve this, especially in lower-income housing, is a policy challenge every bit as much as an engineering one. It needs to be faced squarely in the tornado belt, not swept under the rug. Otherwise, as the videos show, in the face of approaching tornadoes, people will be tempted to hit the road, where far greater risks await.

The safety of schools and hospitals needs the same priority attention, to protect people who are too young to know what to do or too sick to move. That in turn brings us to the workplace. Here, as in other respects, we find that employers vary in how much attention they pay to worker safety. If more attention is paid to safety at home, employers will experience social pressure to provide a safer work environment quite apart from any incentive in the form of regulation. That will be enough for some. Others will do little unless compelled by regulation. FACETs addresses little of this mitigation challenge directly. Instead, it can only serve as a stimulus to broader actions across the whole of society.

Tornado emergencies. The videos touch on this nomenclature, which is a welcome addition to the language. It calls to mind snow emergency routes, familiar in the eastern and northeastern U.S., which are to be kept clear. The video material, which shows large numbers of people stuck in traffic gridlock in the face of the El Reno tornado, makes it evident that sometime soon, traffic during tornado events will have to be regulated and curtailed. The time frames are much shorter than in during snow events, but public safety will require such regulation, and today’s IT will enable it.

As the above material suggests, the policy, the meteorology, and the social-science focus needs to be on diminishing the scale of tornado emergencies (that is, reducing the number and geographic extent of people who have to take evasive action) versus learning how to manage tornado emergencies of ever-increasing scale and complexity.

The pain of loss and the illusion of recovery. In hurricane and flooding events, experts are inclined to cluck their tongues at the sight of television reporters knee-deep in floodwaters, or struggling to maintain their balance and footing in hundred-mph winds as dangerous debris soars by. They suggest that the journalists encourage dangerous public behavior[2].

If that bothers us, then perhaps we ought to be even more concerned and similarly outspoken about video coverage of the suffering and pain inflicted by weather hazards. We’re given the death tolls to be sure; we see images of grieving families numbed by personal and financial loss, but those images are brief in duration, and the coverage winds down rapidly over the ensuing few days. Sometimes reporters will visit a disaster site a year or five years on, but again these reports don’t capture for us the stupefying, oppressive effect of these tragedies that accumulates hour after hour and then day after day without letup, sometime for a lifetime, for thousands upon thousands of people. The media coverage may show rebuilding at disaster sites, but inadequately convey that those doing the rebuilding or profiting from it are often newcomers who’ve moved in only after the disaster. By trivializing loss and recovery in these and other ways, however unintentionally, we encourage repetitive loss and we invite the public to under-invest in mitigation of all sorts.

The American Meteorological Society has much to offer. For the public to take fullest advantage of the new capabilities offered by FACETs and improved weather prediction and risk communication will require adjustments in K-12 education and close coordination with broadcast meteorologists across all media. AMS members and programs can readily be harnessed to these ends. And more than 120 local AMS chapters offer the potential to build the needed community-level conversations on these subjects across the country.


[1]An apology in advance. The videos function a bit like a Rorschach test. My reactions therefore possibly reveal more about me than they serve to address the real problem. They don’t match up directly with the questions For all these reasons, take what follows with a grain of salt.

[2] Personally, I’ve never bought this argument. Embedded journalists bring us news coverage from war zones, but that doesn’t encourage civilians to take such risks.

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