Moonshots, weather-readiness, and other human aspirations.

Doug Hilderbrand co-chairs with Eileen Shea the AMS Board on Enterprise Communication. We owe the two of them thanks for organizing this week’s upcoming AMS Summer Community Meeting, with the theme For The Greater Good: Strengthening Collaboration, Consistency, and Trust to Support Informed Decision Making.

This lofty language is not accidental but deliberate. For some time now both in private conversations and in public remarks Mr. Hilderbrand has drawn comparisons between the NASA program that put men on the moon in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and current efforts within NOAA and the larger Weather, Water and Climate Enterprise to make a great leap forward in improving weather warnings and their use. Recently he’s put those notions into print, on the AMS blog The Front Page. Some excerpts:

Have you ever imagined being a NASA scientist back in the 1960s – staring at the seemingly impossible challenge to send people to the moon and return them back to earth safely? And, doing it with the entire world watching? For the weather, water, and climate “enterprise,” that grand challenge might well be upon us…

…Is this our moonshot moment? Physical science, social science, and technological advances have aligned to where the foundational warning process can take a giant leap forward:

  • Improving how weather, water and climate threats are predicted and communicated
  • Enhancing information for risk management decisions through better expression of urgency and confidence
  • Supporting appropriate actions by the public

The challenges that we face today may not be quite as dramatic as landing astronauts on the moon, but they are certainly as important with so many lives and livelihoods at stake.

No doubt, all of us would quickly agree with this last, self-effacing remark to the effect that building weather resilience may not be so dramatic as landing astronauts on the moon. But that might be a bit hasty/over-modest. Landing astronauts on the moon (and bringing them back – repeatedly) was indeed a technological tour de force, a major triumph, especially with 1960’s technology. And it transformed mankind’s self-image. For the first time we could mentally visualize ourselves exploring and placing our stamp on the solar system and across our galaxy. But the reality is that Apollo was the actual achievement of a comparative few – funded and supported by all 200 million Americans, to be sure – but accomplished by a relative handful.

By comparison, building weather resilience, and greatly reducing our vulnerability to the hazardous extremes of our home planet might seem commonplace, humdrum. But it is immediately more consequential for all (now 320 million) of us. Perhaps more fundamentally, it can never be achieved by a few professionals in NOAA and other federal agencies, and a few cooperating aerospace corporations and weather-service providers, with an American public no more than a bystander or passive sponsor. Instead, it’s as much about the use of weather information as its provision. It calls for active, sustained participation of that entire public – a national culture change. If accomplished, it will be an achievement of all Americans.

In this respect, building American weather-readiness is less like the moonshot and shares much more in common with the eight so-called Millennial Development Goals (MDG’s), which have preoccupied nations of the world for the past fifteen years:

  • Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
  • Achieve Universal Primary Education
  • Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
  • Reduce Child Mortality
  • Improve Maternal Health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
  • Ensure Environmental Sustainability
  • Develop a Global Partnership for Development

For some, none of these eight initiatives may fire the imagination quite so readily as going to the Moon. But reflect on this: each bit of progress towards these eight aims of the past fifteen years (and a new set of Millennial Development Goals now under construction to guide us through the year 2030), creates a world more able to undertake space exploration. It’s not so evident that the reverse is true. Success in space exploration doesn’t necessarily bring us any closer to meeting these most fundamental and pervasive human ends.

A desire to live in safety in the face of Earth’s extremes would seem to fit right in with the MDG’s. What’s more, it clearly threads through the other eight. The comparison seems even more apt when we note that at this year’s Sendai 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, USAID, NOAA, and WMO agreed to work together toward building the weather-readiness of nations worldwide.

So here’s to improved environmental intelligence – earlier, more accurate anticipation of weather, water, and climate opportunities and threats, and wiser use of that knowledge by all who stand to benefit or stand in harm’s way. And here’s wishing every success to the men and women working to get us there – and their upcoming Summer Community Meeting.

In closing, we might tip our hats to one American – Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan – who as an astronaut and as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and in other roles has made unique contributions spanning three decades to both the exploration of space and building environmental intelligence here at home.

Good job! Keep it up.

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