Meteorologues sans Frontieres

(Forgive this post – the idea came to me during last night’s bout with insomnia. And no shaming, please; we all suffer sleeplessness for our own reasons and cope in our own ways…)

Let’s suppose you unexpectedly find yourself at some Friday happy hour or on a Metro commute or through some other lucky coincidence with that someone-you-think-or-hope-just-might-be THE ONE. Let’s take a further leap and suppose that against the odds you’ve somehow made it past your usual, lame pickup line, or you rose to the occasion, because this might be THE ONE, and you actually wanted to get off to a meaningful start, and so you managed to say something authentic. So the conversation continues and hope still lives and the evening and perhaps your entire future are suddenly full of possibilities.  But it’s all still a bit fragile.

Then he/she/they ask what you do for work.

(I know, I know, you, or this other, are not necessarily supposed to open up this topic on a first date – you’re not supposed to make the conversation feel like just idle work chatter, etc., etc. Google leads you to a plethora of advice on why this topic might be a bad idea. But this isn’t a date; it’s a first encounter. And it’s the 21st century, everybody has to work, it’s Washington DC [or some other city], so there it is.)

Now if you’re a meteorologist, the best, wisest, only thing to say, is “I’m a meteorologist, and I work for (fill in the name of the federal agency, or corporation, or university, or NGO),” and then hold your breath. If this person is THE ONE; he/she/they will have a great follow-up. (Full disclosure, I met and married THE ONE a long time ago, so this work question has been low-stakes for the past half-century. Today I usually answer the question with another question: “You may have noticed that sometimes your weather forecast is wrong?” Just about everybody provides a snarky response – some variation of “sometimes?” And then I tell them my job was to help make weather forecasts better…)

But if you’re a meteorologist, and it’s the middle of the night, and you’ve recently written a blogpost touching on the need for international data sharing, your restless, tossing-turning brain might have a “what-if?” stream of thought like this:

Suppose you ask someone what it is they do, and they say “I’m a doctor.” That’s interesting in a certain way, and brings to mind a whole bunch of follow-up questions. But if they say, I’m a doctor, and I work for Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), that’s INTERESTING – at an entirely different level. You know they practice medicine (with all the expertise and training and experience that implies), but there’s more; they bring medical humanitarian assistance to victims of conflict, natural disasters, epidemics or healthcare exclusion. For them it’s not about the money; it’s about reducing human suffering, making the world a better place, and all the rest. That’s special. You want to know more.

But (continuing the middle-of-the-night line of thought), if you think about it, ALL meteorologists are interesting in that additional, special way. To say “meteorologists-without-borders” is actually to be redundant. There’s no other kind! The atmosphere is no respecter of political boundaries, and its study and prediction require corresponding perspective. And meteorology is not the pathway to great wealth. It’s about making people safer, healthier, more secure. So every meteorologist is a “Meteorologue sans Frontieres.” And here’s the thing. Many non-meteorologists will fail to see that connection. The label will likely conjure up images of broadcasters, or (less-likely), a forecaster in a National Weather Service office, or (less-likely still), a researcher. Those impressions are okay as far as they go. But they don’t really capture the intrinsic humanitarian part. If we don’t convey that, as individuals, and as a community, then we’ve seriously sold ourselves short.

Truth be told, even we meteorologists, of whatever stripe, can struggle ourselves to maintain that fuller, more profound vision. The urgency of the broadcast job, with the constant updates, the struggle to refresh the social media feeds, the concerns with ratings; the government forecast job, with its shift work, public services, and engagement with emergency managers and other partners; the research job, with its publish-or-perish pressures – all these tend to move our higher calling into the background.

Today’s invitation, then, is for each of us to keep that higher calling front and center – and draw inspiration, courage, and satisfaction from it. Thanks to each of you for your humanitarian work.

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