Meteorology’s greatest achievement over the past decade? It’s not what you think.

[and you have an opportunity April 1-5 to play a part in it.]

Ask this question of any member of the meteorological community, or any user of weather and climate information, and they’ll happily offer nominees. Some might note the October 2012 Hurricane Sandy forecasts, which would certainly be in the hunt for “best prediction of an individual weather event.” Perhaps the launch and successful operation of the Suomi NPOESS Preparatory Project (or NPP) came to your mind. Certainly that is proving an important technological advance. Others might point to research on climate-change connections to shifts in patterns of extreme events… cycles of flood and drought, as well as individual storms. Social scientists might point to improved characterization of forecast uncertainty, making weather predictions more useful to a range of publics.

All could make a strong case.

But here’s my candidate: community implementation of Recommendation 3 from the 2003 NAS/NRC report Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services:

Recommendation 3. The NWS and relevant academic, state, and private organizations should seek a neutral host, such as the American Meteorological Society, to provide a periodic dedicated venue for the weather enterprise as a whole to discuss issues related to the public-private partnership.

Discuss? Really?  Bill, you’re calling a mere conversation a great achievement? Wouldn’t Toby Keith hanker for a little less talk and a lot more action? Okay, okay. On its face, this sounds a little arcane, mundane. So here’s a rationale for the choice. Let’s say that to qualify, a great achievement should be (1) difficult to accomplish, (2) unprecedented, and (3) hold profound implications for the future of mankind:

1. Difficult to accomplish. The Fair Weather Report was commissioned at the turn of the Millennium in recognition that annual weather impacts on U.S. public safety and economic growth are substantial, contributing to thousands of deaths, injuries numbering several hundred thousand, and property loss and business disruption totaling tens of billions of dollars each year… that meteorological science and services are provided only through the collaboration of government, business, and academia… and that this collaborative relationship needed improvement. The committee’s special genius was the recognition that, as stated in the executive summary:

“Therefore, the committee’s primary conclusion is that it is counterproductive and diversionary to establish detailed and rigid boundaries for each sector outlining who can do what and with which tools. Instead, efforts should focus on improving the processes by which the public and private providers of weather services interact. Improving these processes would also help alleviate the misunderstanding and suspicion that exist between some members of the sectors. However, there is no “magic bullet” that will bring “fair weather” to the partnership. The recommendations below are first steps on a journey that will take time, effort, and persistence to complete.” [emphasis in the original]

The community did indeed follow the NAS/NRC advice, and reached out a decade ago to the AMS to provide a neutral host and a periodic dedicated venue for such discussions. Those who led- and participated in the formative stages of this discussion will tell you that the early going was fractious, at times barely civil. Mistrust and injured feelings were rampant on all sides. But, mindful of the larger national interests at stake… the safety of the public and the need to build community- and economic resilience to weather… the participants stuck with it, and continued to engage. NWS officials extended the olive branch, not just once but repeatedly. Private-sector leaders put aside past differences in order to forge common ground. Academics were… collegial. After a few years of conversation the sense of community started to grow. And today the discussions are deeply substantive: touching on the business model for the enterprise; the national-security and international implications; the needs of weather-sensitive sectors such as renewable energy, water-resources, and transportation; the state of play of the issues across the executive and legislative branches of government; and more.

To reach this point has required more than mere good will. It has demanded that participants never lose sight of the goal: a nation that is truly weather-ready, and resilient to extremes. It’s required the serious thinking and self-restraint necessary to create a level, open playing field where representatives from all three sectors… government agencies, businesses both small and large, and academic institutions… could convene and share ideas and views as equals. It’s tapped the management skills, patience, and sustained sense of purpose needed to construct and coordinate a volunteer infrastructure drawing on dozens of professionals across the enterprise. That infrastructure is essential to keep the conversation and work moving forward between the three big meetings that punctuate and define the dialog: the American Meteorological Society’s Annual Meeting (held in January or February); the April AMS Washington Forum; and the August AMS Summer Community Meeting. All this has been achieved against a background of bitterly partisan national politics, constrained budgets, and draconian fiscal shocks to the economy (the financial-sector meltdown of 2008; the fiscal cliff; sequestration; threatened government shutdowns, forestalled only in the last days; herky-jerky budget appropriations, etc.)… hardly the easiest of times to show good will, trust, and forbearance.

2. Unprecedented. Certainly the weather and climate enterprise has never enjoyed such a structured, purposeful, effective, sustained dialog at any earlier point in its history. But that’s only the beginning of the story. The fact is that virtually the whole of the American agenda… job creation, health care, education, foreign policy, and much more… depends upon public-private-academic partnerships. But very few of these partnerships function smoothly. All struggle to engage all sectors in the kind of meaningful, structured, strategic conversation the Weather and Climate Enterprise can now claim. Success stories are hard to find. Our case provides a kind of existence theorem (yes, public-private partnerships like this are possible!) that can help others.

3. Implications. Earth observations, science and services (Earth OSS) are foundational to the world’s three 21st-century preoccupations: acquiring and maintaining adequate supplies of water, food and energy; protecting ecosystem services, and building community resilience. To maintain this Earth OSS, and to extend its capabilities to meet demands that are growing more urgent and complex, requires, more than anything else, good communication and coordination. In the aviation world, this is referred to as crew resource management.

Experts tells us that when and where communication is non-hierarchial and task-focused among flight crews, planes and passengers are safest. The same applies to our planet. To the extent we in Earth OSS function effectively together, we help the world feed itself, slake its thirst, and meet its energy needs.

You and I can find the work of the AMS Weather and Climate Enterprise interesting. We can take comfort in its success to date.

But there’s much more to be done, and if we live near the Washington, DC area, we can join in. We can participate in next week’s AMS Washington Forum (details here) and move the dialog forward. It’s a critical time for our discipline(s), our community, and the country. Long-term prospects have never been better, but the intermittent federal appropriations process of recent years, the fiscal cliff, the sequester, the narrowly-only-temporarily-averted government shutdown, the impending debt ceiling limit, government restrictions on travel and conference participation combine to dampen spirits. Here’s a time and a venue where you and I can partner together to accentuate and seize the opportunities before us…in promoting public safety, building weather-sensitive economic sectors, and dialoging with executive-branch policy officials and Congressional members and staff.

See you there.

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