Reflections on Hurricane Florence…human nature…and the Ulysses pact.

Is it just me? Or are hurricane forecasts and the resulting media coverage of hurricanes improving? Some subjective impressions: Forecasts, and forecasters and broadcasters, are providing more advance notice – Florence has been on the public radar screen a long time. From the beginning, relative forecast emphasis on water (rainfall, storm surge, and inland flooding) and wind has been focused on impacts, and has been balanced. Forecasts have indicated, and the media have duly stressed, that depending on location, the inland-flooding event would be delayed, and then be many days, even weeks in duration. Messages from the National Hurricane Center, from broadcasters, and public officials have been clear, detailed – and subjectively, based on really limited sampling – consistent[1]. (Might note that half a world away, the same could be said of warnings for Typhoon Mangkhut. There the impacts have been wind-related as well; again, the high winds were anticipated.)

All that seems to have been reflected in local-, state-, and federal actions, and the resulting public response. Evacuations have been underway for days. Hundreds have had to be rescued from their homes after the rain and winds made landfall – but not many thousands. Of course it’s early-on in the event; the fullest impact of Florence – especially that following the flooding – has yet to be felt. But that’s the subjective impression for now.

We continue to struggle, however, as individuals and as society, with the larger challenge of managing weather risk. At the last minute, we scurry out of harm’s way, as best we can under the chaos that is constant companion to imminent threat. But we make poor choices with respect to where and how we build, where we locate and how we protect critical infrastructure, how we dispose of waste, and other long-term choices and decisions that compromise our resilience for years into the future. Evacuation by no means makes us whole.

Social scientists continue to improve understanding of the psychological and social causes at the root of this. The literature is extensive, but also scattered. Fortunately, The Ostrich Paradox, Why We Underprepare for Disasters, by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther of the Wharton School, provides a thoughtful and welcome synthesis. Just how welcome? Well it seems that Hurricane Florence triggered a spate of news coverage and commentary  built around the book. Last week’s USA Today article  — just one example of many – provides a nice distillation of the six unconscious biases that undercut our ability and willingness to prepare:

  • Myopia:We focus on the short term and have difficulty understanding long-term consequences, such as the 100-year flood.  
  • Amnesia: We forget the past. We buy a condo in complex built where a storm once blew away a shopping center.
  • Inertia:We do what we’re doing until something drastic happens, when it’s too late. See New Orleans and Katrina in 2005. 
  • Selectivity: We don’t look at all the information, or simplify to the point of inaccuracy. If we have an emergency checklist, we lose interest after covering a few items, without making sure they were the most important.
  • Herding: We make choices based on what the other person is doing. And so we both wind up treading water.
  • Optimism: This most American of traits leads us to underestimate risk, ignore worst-case scenarios and think bad things will only happen to others. It’s a great attitude for someone starting a business, not so much for someone living in a flood zone.

The fuller book expands on these and gives context.

Most of us, if we’re honest, recognize ourselves in some or all of these traits. The authors advise us to start here in the search for cures – doing what they call a behavior risk audit. As individuals and communities, our tendencies towards these thought patterns vary; we can assess our strengths and weaknesses in these respects, then formulate policies that address these biases and maybe sidestep them. In a video interview based on the book, Howard Kunreuther provides an example:

…Myopia is one of the biases that we have. We all have short-term horizons. We want to get immediate returns. If there are things that we can do for the long term, we often find they are very prohibitively expensive. Let’s take an example of having to make our house safer against a flood or hurricane. There’s a lot of cost to doing that. You could elevate your house, but that’s very costly. You could maybe flood-proof it. People will say, “What are the benefits that I’m going to get from that in the next period?” They’ll be very reluctant to put in the money because they say the benefits are going to be very short run. And they’re right. If you’re going to get a short-run benefit like a reduction in your insurance premium, you’ll say, “Well, I’m not going to get enough to pay for that expense.”

We would recommend that instead of thinking about just the long term with respect to this, there are two things that one can do. One is, you might give a person a loan to help them out and spread the cost over time. The other thing to deal with is the “it won’t happen to me.” Instead of saying, “It’s going to be a one in 100 chance of a flood occurring next year,” stretch the time and say, “Think about the fact that there might be a hurricane in the next 30 years, and that likelihood is greater than one in four, or one in five.” Then, people will think about the long term and maybe decide that they can take some action.

To read the six biases is to have a flash of recognition. By contrast, to ponder the suggested cures is more sobering than encouraging. Every day’s news accounts of disasters suggest we’re going another way. (We see the same challenge when it comes to the self-control we need to take command of our lives with respect to needed work-life balance, diet, rest, and exercise.)

Arguably, the greatest opportunities, the most likely to work real-world, would seem to lie in social measures – in policies – versus individual actions. This ought to be true for two reasons. First, to be personally resilient in a brittle but interconnected world is an oxymoron. That line of thought starts with going off the grid, then progresses to moving to Idaho or Montana, then … to ever more extreme and self-evidently bankrupt measures.

Better to put handcuffs on ourselves, metaphorically speaking, with respect to risk management. This might seem extreme, but we do this all the time in life to good effect: agreeing to drive on the right side of the road; instituting and obeying speed limits; settling on 110-120 volts 60-cycle AC electrical power; ISO 9000 standards; and more. We even do this in the hazards arena, most notably in aviation.

Similar ideas have been with us since antiquity, in the form of the so-called Ulysses pact. From Wikipedia: Ulysses pact or Ulysses contract is a freely made decision that is designed and intended to bind oneself in the future. The term is used in medicine, especially in reference to advance directives (also known as living wills), where there is some controversy over whether a decision made by a person in one state of health should be considered binding upon that person when he or she is in a markedly different, usually worse, state of health.

The term refers to the pact that Ulysses made with his men as they approached the Sirens. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men’s ears so that they could not hear, and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances, and to keep their swords upon him and to attack him if he should break free of his bonds.

Upon hearing the Sirens’ song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death.

Time to get our heads out of the sand.


[1] Coincidentally, Mike Smith sent me a link to his reflections on this subject just moments ago. Just one example of hundreds driving home the point that weather information infrastructure undergirds and enables a range of individual efforts.

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Partisan (?) science continued.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt[1]

LOTRW posts of September 4th, August 16th, and some of the posts in between have wrestled with the challenges that partisanship and a currently partisan world pose to science. It’s widely, almost universally held, especially among scientists, that science, and scientists when speaking as scientists, should be rigorously non-partisan. At the same time (and this is not generally discussed or admitted), science, in common with every other human endeavor, is inherently partisan, in its origins and its effects. It seems our only choice is to get better at partisanship (whatever that might mean).

John Plodinec provided a cogent comment[2], reprinted here in its entirety, in order to serve as a springboard for a bit more expansion of these ideas:


When scientists become partisans they hurt Science not help it. Scientists have to recognize problems such as those you describe and try to provide a context for society at large to make decisions about how to solve them. Those policy decisions are value judgments based on the public’s perceptions about a problem; if we as scientists do not provide an accurate assessment of the context, bad policies will result. And that often means admitting that there’s a lot we don’t know. 

Partisans perceive problems and demand that society adopt their favored solutions, often ignoring potential unintended consequences. Partisans really don’t want the public to understand the context and especially not the uncertainties; why confuse the proles with facts? If the public sees scientists as partisans, they will lose respect for Science and scientists – we will be seen as just another kind of politician, one that speaks a strange language.

Couldn’t agree more with everything that John says here. Bottom line: it’s imperative that scientists stay away from partisanship! But when we attempt to do so, we run immediately into problems. Here are a few.

To start, science is a human thing. For the most part, how the universe works – its origins, its structure, the development of stars and galaxies of stars, their organization and evolution as driven and shaped by dynamical forces and underlying physical processes – has nothing to do with human beings. But the study of those workings – the observation and experiment, the formation and testing of hypotheses, the development of conceptual frames and the language used to describe it all, in both words and mathematics – is an inherently human construct.

What’s more, science is a societal thing. It’s not done by a single human being but by groups, communities. The participating individuals may be separated by great spans of time as well as space, but everyone is in constant communication, behaving as a group.

Because today’s societies are in significant respects national, science is a national thing as well. We can talk about science communities spanning nations, and at their best and in many respects they do[3], but the fact is that the bulk of science is supported by national-level funding. The rationale for the amounts and the allocation of that funding across fields is generally based on perceived national interests. And unsurprisingly, those budgets largely determine where (and how many) scientists congregate and choose to spend their time.

Substantial portions of science, especially applied science, are commercial. Not all funding comes directly from federal-level (or even state- or local) governments; science funding, including considerable applied-science funding, comes from business, with interests that are in large part self-serving and competitive.

Partisanship is in the DNA of societies, nations, and commerce and therefore in the DNA of science. Recent history drives home these points. Modern science and technology were birthed in the aftermath of World War II[4]. United States leaders and the public realized that S&T had contributed much to win the war (think radar, the atomic bomb, and penicillin, for starters), and that the link between S&T and national interests was too important to be left to chance. Going forward, the country would have to commit to substantial, sustained, and intentional support for S&T. Early, partisan battles centered on whether public/government support would be allocated broadly across the states or directed toward the “best” ideas and thinkers (at that time, coming from a few centers of excellence, generally located in the Northeast and along the Pacific coast)[5]. Other, equally partisan battles led to emphasis on basic research in the physical sciences to begin, belated additional emphasis on biological sciences decades later, and continuing ambivalence about social sciences today.

(Drilling down on this last bit), social sciences have been treated as quite distinct from the physical sciences. Choosing to study the factors contributing to community resilience? Or within that realm, the role of innovation in fostering community resilience versus the role of poverty, or equity, or education? Social science can readily be weaponized for use in partisan debate on these issues. But the same challenges confront the physical sciences. Go into cloud microphysics instead of climate change? You might think you’re avoiding the climate-change debate, but you quickly finding yourself looking at the role of particulates in cloud-drop and ice nucleation – the natural versus manmade origins of those particulates, and the effects on cloud reflectance and transmission of sunlight and precipitation patterns – the next thing you know you’re back in the human-influence-on-climate discussion. Something similar holds true in other areas of science. Take medical research. Are you working on infectious diseases, the scourge of the poor? Or diseases of the rich – like heart disease, stroke, obesity, etc.? Particle physicists look up from their labors to discover nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors, radiological medicine, and more threaded across the human endeavor and the subject of partisan debate. Cosmology, nanotechnology, chemistry – no field is immune.

Unsurprising then, that the instant we attempt to provide what John Plodinec refers to as “context for society at large,” (bringing it close to home, to, for example, going beyond forecasts of atmospheric parameters to providing Impact-based Decision Support Services) we enter an area where there are only “degrees of partisanship” – shades of grey. However broadly and fairly we might attempt to present such context, we’ll find we can’t present all options; we start making choices about what to include, what to leave out, how much supporting detail to provide, and the rest. Our readers and hearers bring to their perception of every word and phrase we write a host of different experiences, sensitivities, preconceived ideas and word associations none of which is known to us, and most of which is unique to each individual. They’re actively looking for touchpoints of affirmation and/or perceived threat or criticism, not just in the nuance of what’s expressed but also in what’s been omitted.

How, then, might scientists respond? There exist a variety of options (trying to follow John Plodinec’s advice here, to present a range of possibilities, rather than a single favorite).

Live in some form of denial. I suspect when we scientists attempt to portray ourselves or our work as apolitical, this is how we appear to political leaders, those in the commercial world, and even friends and family.

(Building off the word “denial”), see our partisanship as something we can never shake, but which we ought to attempt to keep in check. In this respect we can learn from addicts – and adopt some form of a twelve step program starting with the admission that we have a partisan problem.

Channel Theodore Roosevelt, embrace our partisan nature, and get on with it. Enter the partisan arena with enthusiasm and zeal, and do our best to articulate the benefits of science and innovation for humanity, and more broadly for all life itself.

Note that this latter course doesn’t mean bludgeoning a reluctant world into submission to scientific logic and thinking. Scientists are few in number; others seem far more comfortable and enjoy far better access to brute power, bullying, and the rest. For most of us, the bludgeon shouldn’t be the tool of choice.

Instead, what it might mean is subjecting partisanship to scientific study, understanding its origins and effects, helping our host society see the advantages and the downside to partisanship in human affairs, see alternatives to partisanship, and means for reducing – in short being as disciplined in our approach to this issue as we are to our own research and development.

One closing observation or conjecture – more a hope, really – that we will come to see partisanship as something different from diversity, and not an unavoidable consequence of differences in background or experience or perspective. Diversity in society, and in the thought of that society – diversity in the identification of problems and opportunities and our approach to those – is a strength, vital to our future. But if as individuals and society, we let that diversity drive us towards partisanship, we make our future more problematic.

A parting thought. I began to write this soon after John Plodinec’s comment arrived last week. I struggled to think through, write this; and am still unsatisfied by the result. Your comments are always welcome, but particularly on this subject.


[1] Embedded in and captive to the culture and language of Mr. Roosevelt’s time; hence the male-oriented wording. Today we acknowledge that the need for people in the arena is fundamentally inclusive – not limited to a single gender or sexual orientation or race.

[2] Mr. Plodinec publishes more extensively and substantively elsewhere; here’s a sample, his most recent post at, entitled, Innovation, implementation, and community resilience. He’s one of the most authoritative and thoughtful voices out there on this and related topics.

[3] This itself is a human value judgment, not universally held, and therefore a partisan idea.

[4] A fuller, and more authoritative description of all this is available in Beyond Sputnik: U.S. Science Policy in the 20th Century, by Homer Neal, Tobin Smith, and Jennifer McCormick (2008).

[5] Fact is, of course, the conundrum predates World War II, going back to the nation’s origins, as documented in E. Hunter Dupree’s book, Science and the Federal Government: a history of policies and activities.

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New from Impact-based Decision Support (IDSS): The “food desert” is also hot.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” – Genesis 2:15-17 (NIV)

A recent LOTRW post suggested that scientists face a dilemma. On the one hand, scientists should be non-partisan; else they (we) will be unable to sustain science. Instead its progress will be intermittent, fluctuating wildly with each change in political winds as science falls in and out of favor. This will slow, even compromise innovation. On the other hand, unless scientists learn to be (more effectively) partisan, science can’t and won’t be maintained long term. That’s because science has to demonstrate continuing societal benefit to justify society’s substantial investment in science in the face of competing needs. But societal benefit is necessarily textured, improving the lot and prospects of some more than others – and in today’s world, that’s political.

A specific recent finding from meteorology illustrates this larger problem.

It turns out that the so-called “food desert” is also hot.

A brief review of food deserts:

A food desert is an area, especially one with low-income residents, that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In contrast, an area with supermarkets or vegetable shops is termed a food oasis. The term food desert considers the type and quality of food available to the population, in addition to the number, nature, and size of food stores that are accessible. Food deserts are characterized by a lack of supermarkets which decreases residents’ access to fruits, vegetables and other whole foods. In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 23.5% of Americans live in a food desert, meaning that they live more than one mile from a supermarket in urban or suburban areas, and more than 10 miles from a supermarket in rural areas. Food deserts lack whole food providers who supply fresh protein sources (such as poultry, fish and meats) along with whole food such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and instead provide processed and sugar- and fat-laden foods in convenience stores. Processed, sugar- and fat-laden foods are known contributors to the United States’ obesity epidemic. Convenience store prices are less affordable to regular consumers around the area.

And here’s the new result: The Washington Post reported over the weekend that (these same) poor city neighborhoods are also much hotter than wealthy ones. An excerpt:

As Washington sweats through yet another wave of oppressively hot days, heat has become one more way to measure inequality in a city already defined by it. Like educational attainment, wealth accumulation and life expectancy, where you live is a deciding factor. Your location in the city not only dictates how hot it is, but also the likelihood that the heat itself will be dangerous: The poor, who often cannot afford air conditioning and are more likely to have medical conditions that are exacerbated by heat, have fewer ways to escape it.

“Some people have a much hotter day than others,” said Jeremy S. Hoffman, a climate and earth scientist working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to map the heat in Baltimore and Washington. If the results, expected to be finished sometime this month, bolster earlier research in Washington, and echo studies in other heavily populated urban areas, it will show that wealthier neighborhoods, which often have a lot of trees, yards and parks, will be cooler than poorer neighborhoods, which often don’t.

The studies come at a time when cities like Washington are beginning to grapple with the prospect of an increasingly hot future, the result of climate change and the unforeseen consequences of urban development. In the same way sprawl has left some cities vulnerable to crippling floods, it has also created vast, industrialized “heat islands” — urban places without much vegetation, but blocks of impervious surfaces such as asphalt and concrete that absorb heat all day, then release it slowly into the night, causing nighttime temperatures to spike as well.

This effect is stronger in Washington than in just about any other city, according to a 2014 report by Climate Central, which found that the city is the country’s sixth most intense urban heat island. Summer is nearly 5 degrees warmer in Washington than in the surrounding area, and relatively warmer still during the night, when the temperature is on average 7.1 degrees higher.

But wide variances in temperatures also apply within the city’s boundaries.

“Land cover can be so different and the amount of concrete varies so greatly, that it can be 65 someplace [in the city] and 75 in another place,” said Yesim Sayin Taylor, executive director of the D.C. Policy Center. “Wards 2 and 3 have lots of trees and parks, and there, the heat has a way of escaping. . . . But there are other parts of the city that are equally [residential], but because they don’t have the tree coverage, they experience higher heat.”

The urban heat island has long been a thing, but new observing platforms and sensors combined with data analytics now allow scientists to prise out this heat-island effect at neighborhood scales.

(Okay, Bill, but surely the “original sin” quote at the head of this post is a bit over the top?) A natural question. So, let’s ask ourselves, given that meteorologists understand this heat island effect – and now don’t simply understand that it exists even down at neighborhood scales, but are able to measure the effects at that level – what are the options for Impact-Based Decision Support (IDSS)?

It’s not hard to imagine a spectrum of options:

  • At one end, meteorologists might simply measure and predict atmospheric conditions down to the neighborhood scale.
  • An additional intermediate (IDSS-type) step might involve working with emergency managers and using other data, say Census data, to estimate the resulting heat stress people will be experiencing and the variations and impacts at the neighborhood level. It’s then up to emergency managers to get that word out to that scale.
  • (Oversimplifying a bit) a further, Weather-Ready-Nation-like step might include seasonal efforts reminding those individuals and communities at risk of the importance of hydration during heat waves, and the need to pay attention to heat-wave forecasts and warnings during the warm season.
  • In a future world featuring an internet of things (IoT), emergency managers might know who has air-conditioning, whose air-conditioning is broken-down, whose air-conditioning is working, whose air-conditioning has been turned off, possibly to forestall an unaffordable spike in the electrical bill, who is especially vulnerability by virtue of age, disability, pre-existing health conditions, ethnicity, etc. (Such high-resolution and admittedly intrusive information could have saved a lot of lives in the Chicago heat wave of 1995.)
  • None of these measures address the poverty at the root of the problem; all allow the vulnerability of the affected populations to continue indefinitely. So at the far end of the spectrum of actions are those that focus on providing minimum education, employment, health care, shelter, etc., to the poorest at greater risk, reducing the footprint of food deserts and their close cousins the heat islands. Of course at this extreme there are honest differences about the efficacy of the different policy options.

Meteorologists, as individuals and as a community, get to decide where on this spectrum they/we can and should participate.

But one option is foreclosed: ignorance.  None of us gets to say we were unaware of the fuller dimensions of the problem. Immediately, with that knowledge, any innocence we might wish to claim dies. And that loss of innocence is a killer. It weighs on us, brings us down.

Wearing our meteorological caps we might choose to be complacent about what use is made of our forecasts of atmospheric conditions. We might say that it’s up to emergency managers and city officials from other departments to take the next step. It’s up to educators, and health officials, and corporate leaders – and ultimately, the poorest themselves – to work their way out of the continuing vulnerability.

But as we’ve been reminded in media headlines on subjects ranging from #MeToo to the Catholic Church to the physical risks and moral dilemmas of football, to national and local politics, complacency is one step from complicity, which in turn is one step from culpability.  We all have to live, in every circumstance of life, including this one, with the reality that I could have done more.

This reality might at first inspection seem drear, but it actually contains three kernels of good news – not just good news, but amazingly good news.

The first is that meteorology and the work of meteorologists matter. One really horrible bill of goods the world invites us to buy is that work is just something we do to support us financially – that it steals time away from our real lives, which only exist outside of work. We encouraged to subscribe to the notion that we can love and be loved, experience joy, and meaning only at closing time. We live for the weekends and for that elusive goal called retirement. But the fact is that life’s meaning, and love and larger purpose and challenge and significance are threaded throughout the fabric of work – all work.

The second is that all 320 million of us here in the United States, and all seven billion of us globally – are in this together. We share any guilt and any burden, and we’ll all be needed to make things right. No one is a spectator; no one shoulders the problem alone.

The third is that there’s something to the Judeo-Christian idea that God has a backup plan for those of us (that’s all of us) afflicted with the knowledge of good and evil, and the accompanying loss of innocence.


The food desert is also hot. Science and technology have revealed this, and science and technology can help fix it.

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Meteorologists celebrate Labor Day – and serve the world.

“Without labor, nothing prospers.”– Sophocles

“Nothing will work unless you do.”– Maya Angelou

A day off is a good thing.

With ten such holidays here in the United States we might envy nations who offer more. Cambodia leads the world with 28. Sri Lanka is not far behind with 25. India and Kazakhstan each hold 21. But a closer look at the countries on this list reminds us there may be no need for jealousy; Cambodia and India have a six-day workweek; Sri Lankans work a half-day on Saturdays. Maybe that second day of weekend 52 weeks of the year is a better deal.

Most nations co-mingle civic holidays with the religious – in some cases multiple religions.

Truth is, in today’s world a day off is intrinsically such a good thing – so important to rest and recovery and family relationships – that we often struggle to remember, respect, and observe a given holiday’s origins and deeper meaning. We may have a nominal 40-hour workweek, but for many knowledge workers those hours expand and extend into evenings and weekends. We may agree on very little in our country these days, but most of us feel we’re overworked. (Studies and comment on this abound.) So we gratefully accept what’s offered – a day to rest and recreate – and perhaps reflect less than we should on the help indigenous people provided the first European settlers as they struggled to survive on the American continent; or the risks colonials took when declaring their independence from Europe; or the soldiers who gave (and continue to give) their lives that we might maintain and enjoy that freedom; or the unique and endearing contributions of several key individuals, including Dr. Martin Luther King, presidents Washington and Lincoln (and their 40-some peers); the arrival of the Son of God in human form…

…or the struggles of laborers to enjoy basic human rights commensurate with their contributions to society – fair pay, reasonable hours, job security and more.

Some form of a “labor day” is observed in most countries. Here in the United States, Labor Day came about from the rise of the labor movement – including the birth of unions as a means for workers to exert political influence.

Turns out that meteorologists are right in there with everybody else. Our community features at least one union – the National Weather Service Employees Organization. If you’re not familiar with them you might consider taking a few minutes today to visit their website and explore a bit; it’ll give you the flavor of the organization and the concerns of its members. A few minutes spent this way will get you in touch with the meaning of the day.

Some closing reflections. First, meteorology and its impacts form a background to all this. Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration. Christmas and New Year’s coincide with the shortest days of the year. Memorial Day and Labor Day provide bookends to what is called “the cultural summer.”

And second, meteorology provides essential services even over the holidays. Today meteorologists are vigilantly ensuring public safety in the face of weather hazards (including, for example, keeping an eagle eye on Tropical Storm Gordon), providing the support needed for aviation (including all those holiday flights) and other forms of transportation, supporting the operations of the energy sector, and much more.

Labor Day – and meteorologists are at work – in the military, across civil government agencies, and throughout the private sector.

Good job, everyone!

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To protect ecosystem services, front-load investment in environmental intelligence.

Meteorologists aren’t alone in making forecasts. Ecologists make them too. One such recent forecast suggests that without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation, with accompanying disruption of ecosystem services and impacts on biodiversity.

Disruption of ecosystem services? Just what are ecosystem services, and how concerned should we be? Some LOTRW readers may be all too familiar with these notions, but here’s a bit of background for the rest of us, lifted from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, by way of Wikipedia (with some minor edits):

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report 2005 defines ecosystem services as benefits people obtain from ecosystems and distinguishes four categories of ecosystem services, where the so-called supporting services are regarded as the basis for the services of the other three categories.

Supporting services: These include services such as nutrient recycling, primary production and soil formation. These services make it possible for the ecosystems to provide services such as food supply, flood regulation, and water purification.

Provisioning services: food (including seafood and game), crops, wild foods, and spices;raw materials (including lumber, skins, fuel wood, organic matter, fodder, and fertilizer); genetic resources (including crop improvement genes, and health care);

water; biogenic minerals; medicinal resources (including pharmaceuticals, chemical models, and test and assay organisms); energy (hydropower, biomass fuels); ornamental resources (including fashion, handicraft, jewelry, pets, worship, decoration and souvenirs like furs, feathers, ivory, orchids, butterflies, aquarium fish, shells, etc.).

Regulating services: pollination; carbon sequestration and climate regulation; waste decomposition and detoxification; purification of water and air; pest and disease control.

Cultural services: cultural (including use of nature as motif in books, film, painting, folklore, national symbols, architect, advertising, etc.); spiritual and historical (including use of nature for religious or heritage value or natural); recreational experiences (including ecotourism, outdoor sports, and recreation); science and education (including use of natural systems for school excursions, and scientific discovery); therapeutic (including ecotherapy, social forestry and animal assisted therapy)

All this calls to mind another ecological forecast (maybe more of a nowcast) that appeared in the journal Global Environmental Change four years ago: Changes in the global value of ecosystem services, by Robert Costanza and a handful of co-authors. Here’s a link-to-a-link, offering these highlights and an abstract:

  • Global loss of ecosystem services due to land use change is $US 4.3–20.2 trillion/yr.
  • Ecoservices contribute more than twice as much to human well-being as global GDP.
  • Estimates in monetary units are useful to show the relative magnitude of ecoservices.
  • Valuation of ecosystem services is not the same as commodification or privatization.
  • Ecosystem services are best considered public goods requiring new institutions.

In 1997, the global value of ecosystem services was estimated to average $33 trillion/yr in 1995 $US ($46 trillion/yr in 2007 $US). In this paper, we provide an updated estimate based on updated unit ecosystem service values and land use change estimates between 1997 and 2011. We also address some of the critiques of the 1997 paper. Using the same methods as in the 1997 paper but with updated data, the estimate for the total global ecosystem services in 2011 is $125 trillion/yr (assuming updated unit values and changes to biome areas) and $145 trillion/yr (assuming only unit values changed), both in 2007 $US. From this we estimated the loss of eco-services from 1997 to 2011 due to land use change at $4.3–20.2 trillion/yr, depending on which unit values are used. Global estimates expressed in monetary accounting units, such as this, are useful to highlight the magnitude of eco-services, but have no specific decision-making context. However, the underlying data and models can be applied at multiple scales to assess changes resulting from various scenarios and policies. We emphasize that valuation of eco-services (in whatever units) is not the same as commodification or privatization. Many eco-services are best considered public goods or common pool resources, so conventional markets are often not the best institutional frameworks to manage them. However, these services must be (and are being) valued, and we need new, common asset institutions to better take these values into account.

Mr. Costanza has been thinking about these matters for quite a while; his work is groundbreaking, and unsurprisingly has attracted critics; you can find a few links to some of that here. But to bystanders, the criticism is reminiscent of the line often attributed to Gandhi: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.[1]

Assuming the annual losses in the value of ecosystem services to be at the high end suggests they’ll be reduced to something like 50% of their current value in only five or so years; even if annual losses are at the low end, the ecosystem services would fall to something like half their current value in, say, thirty years. Given how long it seems to take seven billion people to reach agreement on the problems they face, even this more optimistic estimate is hardly occasion for cheer.

This brings us back to environmental intelligence and its pivotal role in human affairs. NOAA and its forecast services (especially those provided by the NWS) provide a useful (and heartening example), in two respects. First is the focus on so-called Impact-based Decision Support. Recognition that weather, water, and climate impacts on ecosystems – and humankind’s role in shaping these – matter, and matter rather urgently, is an essential starting point. An interesting aspect of the IDSS framework is that it constrains direct NOAA forecast services largely to public-sector customers, a constraint that matters in the context of the public-private sector collaboration fundamental to IDSS. But providing IDSS to those concerned with the management of ecosystems and ecosystem services greatly expands the customer range to numerous public agencies and NGO’s and in the process calls for some reexamination and perhaps rebalancing of public-private collaboration.

The second, companion idea is the aspirational goal of a Weather-Ready Nation, which is largely about building community-level readiness with respect to weather hazards and extremes. Ecologists are telling us that decadal-time-frame weather and climate impacts on ecosystems are existential, but we don’t respond well to such long-term problems. We work best on situations and challenges that are daily and local.

Weather is one such challenge. Raising awareness about daily weather impacts, and building day-to-day readiness, engenders receptivity to the longer-term problems we face, moves our society in the right direction.

Right direction? Sure enough, but at far too slow a pace. Protection and maintenance of ecosystem services will demand attention from all of us – all seven billion. But environmental intelligence is difference between effective action and wasted effort. We can’t work fast enough to build our store of understanding about how the Earth and its ecosystems function as a whole and in part; and our ability to predict how it’s trending locally and globally, in the short-term and over decades. Such investment is the essential foundation for placing wise bets.

Global investments in environmental intelligence infrastructure should be front-end loaded.


[1]To bystanders, the wide error bars Mr. Costanza provides to his statements and estimates inspire a measure of trust; and his work certainly fits within the category of useful “views” lauded by Darwin in his quote appearing on the LOTRW masthead.

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The Impact-based Decision Support System (IDSS) that will someday matter most? It may be ecological.

Many LOTRW readers are familiar with IDSS; others may not be. Here’s some background from the NWS website:

Timely and relevant forecasts, watches and warnings are major strengths of the National Weather Service. The agency’s ability to respond quickly to natural disasters with public statements relevant for the protection of life and livelihoods and the advancement of the Nation’s economy is unparalleled. However, new and evolving needs in society call for the NWS to shift to the impact-based decision support services approach.

IDSS are forecast advice and interpretative services the NWS provides to help core partners, such as emergency personnel and public safety officials, make decisions when weather, water and climate impacts the lives and livelihoods of the American people. This support may be needed in response to a particular event or routinely to support high-value decision making.  NWS staff across the U.S. work hand-in-hand with partners at local, state and national levels to ensure these decision-makers have the most accurate, reliable and trustworthy weather, water and climate information. The NWS accomplishes this task not only through a commitment to science and technology, but by building trust through deep relationships with key decision-makers across the nation.  Deep relationships are developed with those core partners which NWS has a legal mandate to support or whose actions involve national security concerns; who have a high degree of authority for public safety; and who have the capability to amplify NWS messaging to other NWS partners.

For the most part, public awareness of all this centers on familiar weather hazards and extremes: tornadoes, hurricanes, winter storms, etc. But the National Weather Service products and services also contribute to ecological forecasts. One visible example that has figured prominently in the news of recent days and weeks? Harmful algal blooms (HAB’s), such as those that are ravaging the Florida coasts, killing aquatic life, compromising public health and costing the tourism industry tens of millions of dollars.

Ecological impacts of weather and climate look to be an increasingly larger part of the IDSS story. Consider this multi-authored paper in he most recent edition (print date August 31) of the AAAS journal Science: Past and future global transformation of terrestrial ecosystems under climate change. Here’s the abstract:

Impacts of global climate change on terrestrial ecosystems are imperfectly constrained by ecosystem models and direct observations. Pervasive ecosystem transformations occurred in response to warming and associated climatic changes during the last glacial-to-interglacial transition, which was comparable in magnitude to warming projected for the next century under high-emission scenarios. We reviewed 594 published paleoecological records to examine compositional and structural changes in terrestrial vegetation since the last glacial period and to project the magnitudes of ecosystem transformations under alternative future emission scenarios. Our results indicate that terrestrial ecosystems are highly sensitive to temperature change and suggest that, without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation, with accompanying disruption of ecosystem services and impacts on biodiversity.

Yesterday’s Washington Post coverage summarized the implications this way:

After the end of the last ice age — as sea levels rose, glaciers receded and global average temperatures soared as much as seven degrees Celsius — the Earth’s ecosystems were utterly transformed.

Forests grew up out of what was once barren, ice-covered ground. Dark, cool stands of pine were replaced by thickets of hickory and oak. Woodlands gave way to scrub, and savanna turned to desert. The more temperatures increased in a particular landscape, the more dramatic the ecological shifts.

It’s about to happen again, researchers are reporting Thursday in the journal Science. A sweeping survey of global fossil and temperature records from the past 20,000 years suggests that Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems are at risk of another, even faster transformation unless aggressive action is taken against climate change.

“Even as someone who has spent more than 40 years thinking about vegetation change looking into the past … it is really hard for me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of change we’re talking about,” said ecologist Stephen Jackson, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center and the lead author of the new study.

“It is concerning to me to think about how much change and how rapidly the change is likely to happen, and how little capacity we have to predict the exact course,” he said, “which creates very large challenges for all of us out there who are trying to manage wildfire, fish, water, soil, endangered species — all those different ways in which natural ecosystems affect us.”

This is consistent with a point often made by my AMS ecologist-climatologist colleague (full disclosure: also my boss), Paul Higgins: economists aren’t worried about climate change; in their view, all natural goods have their substitutes, available for slight differences in price. By contrast, ecologists are quite concerned; they fully realize the intricacies of numbers and timing that govern the rise and collapse of species and ecosystems. Physical scientists fall somewhere in between.

Not an exact quote, but we all get Paul’s thought. It’s not hard to imagine – in fact, it’s any many ways appealing to imagine (especially for economists) – a future world where renewable energy is so plentiful that seawater can readily be desalinated and piped where needed. In this energy-rich world, poverty may be greatly reduced. Land use and building codes may be wiser. The world’s food will be plentiful – not be grown or raised so much as synthesized from in-vitro animals-cell culture instead of from slaughtered animals, and/or(3-D) printed (yes, printed food is already a thing). With the food-water-energy nexus so radically transformed, weather, water, and climate impacts might be most obvious in their effects on landscapes, plant and animal life, and the connections among these.

Such a shift in the nature of environmental impacts in no way reduces the need for IDSS. It raises the stakes at the same time it poses unprecedented challenges for both science and policy.

More in a future post.

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The American Soul (and yours and mine): Closer to King-of-the-Hill? Or the Herndon Climb? And where do meteorologists fit in?

Okay, okay. So it’s a long title.

Today’s LOTRW post is the product of insomnia (writing started around 2 am). A lot of Americans are tossing and turning instead of sleeping well these days. This week’s death of Senator-and-American-naval-hero John McCain has occasioned a near-universal sense of loss and soul-searching.

Sometimes soul-searching can use a bit of a frame. Here’s one.

Wikipedia has this to say about King-of-the-Hill. a children’s game, the object of which is to stay on top of a large hill or pile (or any other designated area) as the “King of the Hill”. Other players attempt to knock the current King off the pile and take their place, thus becoming the new King of the Hill.

The way the “king” can be removed from the hill depends largely [largely? Only largely?] on the rules determined by the players before the game starts. Ordinarily pushing is the most common way of removing the king from the hill, but there are significantly rougher variations where punching or kicking is allowed. As such, the game is often banned from schools.


Contrast that with the Herndon climb. We learn from the May 21, 2018 Washington Post:

Several hundred young warriors stormed a 21-foot-high obelisk at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis on Monday, slipping and sliding as they formed a human pyramid around a monument covered in 50 pounds of vegetable shortening.

The annual tradition marks the end of their hellacious “plebe” year at the academy, the country’s premier training ground for Navy and Marine Corps officers. But that year is only over once the freshmen, known as plebes, manage to replace a “dixie cup” cap perched at the monument’s tip with an upperclassman’s hat

…The Herndon Climb is the ultimate test of the teamwork and perseverance taught during the plebes’ first year.

(The full article provides a lot more detail about this event.)

Teamwork? Perseverance? (versus king-of-the-hill and everyone for himself/herself?) A lot to like about this Navy culture and tradition.

But it does raise a question. Just who was Herndon?

Commander William Lewis Herndon (25 October 1813 – 12 September 1857) was one of the United States Navy’s outstanding explorers and seamen. In 1851 he led a United States expedition to the Valley of the Amazon, and prepared a report published in 1854 and distributed widely as Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon.

He was noted especially for ensuring the rescue of 152 women and children when commanding the commercial mail steamer Central America in September 1857. During a three-day hurricane off the coast of North Carolina, the ship lost power. Herndon arranged for getting some women and children safely off the ship to another vessel. With no way to save the ship, Herndon chose to stay with more than 400 passengers and crew who drowned as the ship sank off Cape Hatteras on September 12. It was the largest loss of life in a commercial ship disaster in United States history.

A small-world side note: Two years later his daughter Ellen Lewis Herndon married Chester A. Arthur, the future U.S. President.

Hmm. What a guy. No wonder he has his own monument. And the narrative is easy to connect with the life and values of John McCain on several levels. But (bringing it home)…

What about meteorologists? Where do we fit in?

For most of us, there’s an easy answer. We’re all about teamwork. And perseverance. And a cause greater than ourselves: saving lives and property. Some of this public-good spirit has been captured by Michael Lewis (justifiably well-known for The Big Short and other works), in a new audiobook entitled The Coming Storm. He sees a few heroes – folks well-known to our community. But he also sees some troubling signs, hints that our science and services might be trending a bit more to the in-it-for-ourselves model. A two-hour listen if you have the time – and if you seek more cause for soul-searching.

Sleep well.

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Meteorology and the resilience movement

In the LOTRW fine print you can find an invitation to submit guest posts. Over the eight years only a handful of folks have taken me up on this offer – but the results have been satisfying. For example, the Harold Brooks post of May 30, 2013 – Get as low as you can and put as many walls as you can between you and the tornado – has been far and away the most-read of all the LOTRW posts, attracting some 20,000 views over a two-day period.

It’s therefore a pleasure and a privilege to offer this guest post from Bill Read.

In the way life works, the people who need no introduction are the most deserving of one, so a bit on Bill: He currently works as a consultant with Texas A&M Galveston and others on applied problems in meteorology. But most of us, and most of the public, know him from his years at NWS, which included a variety of assignments but culminated in four and a half years as Director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami.

Readers may not know this: Earlier on, Bill served five years as an officer in the US Navy where he flew with the Navy Hurricane Hunters out of Jacksonville, FL, was a forecaster in Keflavik, Iceland and was Officer in Charge of the Navy Weather Detachment at Kingsville, TX. This week we’re honoring another Navy officer nationwide, so it’s especially appropriate, Bill, to thank you and others for your service to the country.

In this post, Bill speaks to community resilience, but in the particular context of an upcoming FLASH conference. By way of full disclosure, he wants you to know and understand his history and present connection with that organization. He became involved with FLASH during the roll out of the Turn Around Don’t Drown campaign in Texas in 2004-05. As NHC Director he partnered with them in annual efforts to get the word out on hurricane preparedness. Since retiring from NHC in 2012, he has served in a voluntary role as a FLASH Leadership Partners. For several years now, the annual theme of FLASH has focused on resilience to disasters.

Bill Read, in his own words:


Fellow meteorologists, the resilience movement needs your participation!  I know just the conference where you will be welcome. More about the conference at the end of this post.

Per Merriam-Webster Dictionary resilience is defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. “

The use of the term resilience or more often resiliency has increased in the world of disaster reduction research and to some extent has become a replacement for the term mitigation.  Editing the dictionary definition a bit to weather and water related disasters results in something like “the ability to recover from a weather or water disaster and/or to better prepare for future events in order to reduce losses.”

We have made amazing strides particularly with respect to reduction of loss of life since the founding of the AMS.  While loss of life from weather related events still occasionally reaches unacceptably high numbers (Katrina, 2005, Maria, 2017), the pathway to reducing loss of life is rather clear.

However, economic loss from weather related events both in direct damage and in loss of economic capability continues to rise due to a combination of increased population, increased wealth and proportionally higher growth in higher risk areas (coastal – hurricanes, western – urban wildfire interface).  To a large extent, these economic losses are impervious to advances in our warning and forecast science.   You can’t just move a house or petrochemical plant out of a storm surge zone when the warning is issued.  This is where resilience comes in.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was a wake up call for Florida.  Building codes were weaker and evidently not enforced.  In the aftermath of Andrew a cadre of individuals from multiple disciplines led by Leslie Chapman Henderson formed an organization aimed at mitigating the effects of the inevitable winds of a hurricane in Florida.  In time, the nation’s strongest code for wind was enacted in Florida. In a few years this organization expanded its effort nationwide and from hurricane wind resilience to multi hazard, taking the name Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH).

FLASH Mission Statement: To promote life safety, property protection and resiliency by empowering the community with knowledge and resources for strengthening homes and safeguarding families from natural and man-made disasters.

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

See the connection to AMS?

FLASH core values include “Forging strategic partnerships with like-minded individuals and organizations that share a commitment to the disaster safety movement.”   One of the most effective practices of FLASH is through the sponsorship of ongoing outreach initiatives to encourage citizens to build, buy and use buildings that are constructed or retrofitted with disaster safety in mind.

In order to make a difference in reducing the property and economic loss due to weather related disasters, it is imperative that we meteorologists forge partnerships with the many practitioners from multiple professions that work to make us more resilient. We bring to the table knowledge of the science behind recurring natural disasters that can help frame the extent of actions needed to succeed in resilience.  A better understanding on the part of meteorologists to the challenges of land use and building codes will help us in important community awareness and hazard preparedness.

In 2017 three extreme hurricane disasters, Harvey, Irma, and Maria and extreme wildfires in the western USA brought to light the continued lack of resilience caused by poor land use decisions and weak building practices.

This year the FLASH Annual Natural Disaster Resilience Conference will be held November 7-9 in Clearwater Beach Florida with the overarching theme of lessons learned (or not) from the 2017 disasters.  I would encourage any of our members with an interest in this aspect of providing societal benefit to attend the meeting.  Details on registration, hotel and agenda can be found here.


Thanks again for this post, Bill.

A closing comment: Bill hails from Houston. Coincidentally, we’re at the one-year mark since Hurricane Harvey’s calamitous impact on the area. The Washington Post ran a story in yesterday’s print edition on the recovery. You can find an on-line version, accompanied by a brief video and photographs, here. Please take the time to read it, let the reality of it all sink in. It makes a great companion to Bill’s thoughtful piece.

Houston’s experience is a sobering reminder that “recovery” from a disaster is something of an oxymoron. Survivors never really recover; never are made whole. They instead move into a new, often diminished, normal. When you and I read these narratives, we build an awareness of the threat. We all realize that something similar could happen to us – will happen to us if we live long enough. (After all, we live on a planet that does its business through extreme events.)

But awareness is at most only a beginning. All too often, that awareness fails to translate into preparation, and effective preventive measures. Bill and the FLASH folks are urging us to take those vital additional steps.

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Could “science” have morphed into a word that divides us?

The previous LOTRW post dealt with the struggles of scientists – of every stripe – to go beyond the boundaries of their discipline and apply their science to societal benefit. Wherever we turn, we see societal needs. We know our most recent research advances could make the world a better place. But how to accomplish this transition? A critical challenge!

Part of the problem is that our scientific training, by and large, is silent on how to put science to practical use. The observations, the equations, the modeling, the statistical analysis, offer no guidance. But the problem goes deeper. It hurts to say this, but the start, the very beginning, of the problem may be that we scientists self-identify as such. Today, especially here in America, the words “science” and “scientists” are no longer words of inclusion, but rather labels that divide. Our scientist-tribe’s brand has been tarnished.

A vignette suggests a possible origin – a time, and an event – for this.

Perhaps five or ten years ago (don’t remember the exact date), the Committee for Economic Development was rolling out the latest in their continuing series of studies on STEM education at a luncheon. Then-Congressman Rush Holt was the featured speaker. Can’t quote him verbatim but what he said on that occasion was that Sputnik, though widely credited with spurring American science,  had proved in fact to be a disaster for science education in the United States. He said this 1957 Cold-War Russian accomplishment triggered a lot of American soul-searching about the state of science education in public schools. Sure enough, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and other initiatives soon strengthened science education (all well and good), but – targeted primarily a small minority who were judged to have aptitude or enthusiasm for scientific work. This had the unintended consequence of creating an elite (at least as scientists see it). At the same time it engendered today’s generally held idea that it is okay for the vast majority of Americans to not be well versed in science, or even interested in it. This was not the case, Congressman Holt said, for other disciplines – say, being unable to read and write.


We see this every day. Someone who doesn’t know us well asks us what we think about climate change, and we start out innocently enough with some statement like “well, the science says…” If we’re sensitive, open to the cues provided by facial expressions or body language, we’ll notice that a fraction – maybe a large fraction – of our hearers shut down at that point, or get defensive. The curious may be interested in what we have to say next, but those who’d just seconds earlier had been wanting to share some thought or insight of their own have become hesitant, tentative. They may decide to clam up, or to brace themselves for some critique. They feel exactly how I feel if/when a football player comes up to me and says, however playfully, let’s arm wrestle.

Our reputation precedes us. The larger society may be fascinated by science (a sign of mental health!) but find scientists off-putting. That’s because in our science world, progress is made through continual criticism of claims. It’s as if we misheard Descartes to say I critique; therefore I am.

So our hearers have to gauge: does my credential in this area match those of this scientist? If they don’t, he/she will not listen to what I have to say on this subject. I haven’t “paid my dues” – done the lit review or taken the observations, or developed and run the models.

This sense of discipline is captured by definitions. Here’s a sample:


– a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws:

– the mathematical sciences.

– systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

– any of the branches of natural or physical science.

Systematic. Mathematical. Experimentation. Each of these words characterizing science is a barrier separating true scientists from others. This threesome isn’t in your background? Then, in the presence of a scientist, talking about science, safer to keep your mouth shut. Maybe, just maybe, venture a question. But even that poses a risk. We worry: if the question isn’t properly constructed, I might be diminished in this scientist’s eyes. (By the way, even scientists, maybe especially scientists, also experience this. When I’m with a particle-physicist, or biochemist, or sociologist, I’m cautious, self-protective.)

If this is the nature of individual transactions, especial our initial ones, little wonder that societal uptake of science is less than ideal.

Two closing points. First: you may think this concern too harsh, or even unwarranted – especially if you yourself are a scientist. Fair enough. But as we engage others, it’s not what we think about ourselves and how we come across, but the way they actually view us that matters most. I confess, my own thinking here is both rudimentary and emotional; your own view, knowledge – especially any of your social science – would be most welcome.

Second, you might reasonably ask: okay, Bill, what’s your suggestion, or your better idea?

It turns out I have one. More focus on the labels such as real, reality, realistic.

These are inclusive words. We all feel we’re realistic, and that our thinking is reality based. We’re comfortable with those ideas. Very few of us consciously or consistently think of ourselves as delusional.

Compare the definitions:


 – true; not merely ostensible, nominal, or apparent

– existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary, ideal, or fictitious

– being an actual thing; having objective existence; not imaginary


– the state or quality of being real.

– resemblance to what is real.

– a real thing or fact.

Whatever our walk of life, whatever our journey, we readily and comfortably see ourselves in the reality-based camp.

We began with a vignette – let’s close with one. When considering the title for this blog – and later the book by the same name – I found myself at a time when the words climate change and climate science were degrading into partisan labels. I wanted some way to discuss those and related topics without that baggage. Part of that was moving to the word real.

We’re living (inclusively!) on the real world.

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The struggle to realize societal benefit from S&T.

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

At one time or another, just about every member of the American Meteorological Society comes across this mission statement, with its emphasis on both the advance of S&T and the harnessing of those advances for societal good. Other science- and professional societies aspire to the same dual ends. The American Physical Society seeks the advancement of physics and the benefit of humanity. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) is dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. The Geological Society of America seeks to advance geoscience research and discovery, service to society…

You see the pattern.

The reality for many (probably most?) members of these scientific communities is that as individuals we put rather more effort into the advance of our science and technology than into their application.

This is understandable. That’s where the majority of us have been trained; that’s what we’re best equipped to do. And truth be told, for most of the history of these societies (a century or some cases a bit more), the biggest limitation to societal benefit has been the rudimentary state of our respective fields. That training has taught us a very important lesson: it’s hard to make progress in any effort in an undisciplined, haphazard, happy-go-lucky way. So we fall back on what we know. We recognize that usually the best use of the next hour of our time is spent advancing our discipline, and we blaze that trail.

The resultant progress across the sciences and the engineering disciplines over the past century has been nothing short of phenomenal. And huge societal benefit is everywhere to be seen: increases in food production. Health care that can reduce mortality in childbirth and extend good years at the other end. Wealth and material well-being.

For some. Many, to be sure, but only for some. Societal uptake has been patchy – occurring effectively here and there, but leaving the lives of millions, perhaps even a billion or so, relatively untouched, unimproved. One example, close to home: here in the geosciences, hazards warnings (ranging from a few minutes’ notice of a tornado to unfolding risks of climate change), though significantly better than those of just a few years ago, too-often go unheeded.

In recent years, this has prompted meteorologists and other geo-scientists to take an additional step. Case in point? In an effort to be as disciplined in risk messaging, in communicating weather impacts as we are in risk detection, meteorologists have courted social scientists and brought them into our ranks as best we could. A decade ago, we established a “new” AMS journal, Weather, Climate and Society. We’re no longer content to operate on the basis of vague subjective impressions of the impact and value of our work. In the April 2018 issue of the journal (pictured), for example, articles look quantitatively at the impacts of changing climate on backcountry recreation, tease out data-based demographics of Romanian vulnerability to lightning strikes, the outlook for tornado damage in Florida, the effect of Midwest winter weather on Midwest aviation, and much more.

Social science integrated with meteorology? Definitely an improvement! But we’re not there yet. It’s early days, so there is reason for optimism; it’ll take a while to get the collaboration fully up and running, let alone see the impacts. However, it’s difficult to escape the nagging feeling that societal uptake is still too slow. Not measured relative to the past; we’re definitely doing better. But looking ahead? We are not making progress at the rate that the rapidly evolving, more complex, fast-paced, problematic world of the future will need.

In part that’s because social scientists, though social, are also scientists. Read their professional society mission statements and you’ll find they’re the same as those of other societies. Here’s one from the American Anthropological Association: to advance anthropology… (and) the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems. The American Political Science Association focuses on promoting scholarly research… and preparing citizens to be effective citizens and political participants. Their scientists are facing the same difficulties translating progress in understanding into widespread societal benefit as do their counterparts in the physical sciences.

But we face a more fundamental problem – our numbers. AMS membership lies between ten and fifteen thousand. Only two people out of every million worldwide are members. But even adding in every other scientific and engineering association of every stripe, scientists and engineers nationally and worldwide add up to only a tiny handful of humanity. By contrast, societal benefit can only be achieved through changes in the everyday decisions and actions of the 320 million people here in the United States, or the seven billion worldwide. That, as much as any cultural barrier, limits societal uptake of science and technology.

Speed of societal uptake varies; compare, for example, the uptake of cellular phones relative to the improvement in people’s diet in response to medical findings on nutrition. Both the successes and the struggles have much to teach us.

Making a difference requires fresh approaches. More soon – but don’t wait for me. Surely you have your own good ideas.

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