Status of the Weather Enterprise? It’s Adulting!

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became [an adult], I put the ways of childhood behind me.” –1 Corinthians 13:11 (NIV)

Even Millennials might be forgiven for not seeing it coming – the use of “adult” as a verb[1].

But by whatever label, the Weather Enterprise is adulting – growing up, coming of age, moving from a kind of professional or institutional adolescence to adulthood, a new level of maturity.

This is happening in six major respects.

Adult name. Kids grow up fending off unwelcome nicknames. As adults, with sighs of relief, they shed childhood’s “Minnow”[2] for their given names of Bob or Robert. Analogously, yesterday’s label of weather guy or weather gal has segued into today’s station meteorologist.

In the same way, the term Weather Enterprise[3] is a new mantle for the former community of practice. What happened to the Weather Bureau? Local weather on the evening news? To varying-degrees, these terms are so-yesterday. Today new weather information isn’t just available at a few set times of day, on selected media. It’s available up-to-the-minute on myriad platforms and apps. Society’s need for weather information is provided by the Weather Enterprise – a diffuse but pervasive collection of public agencies, private firms, universities and individuals. They don’t just provide details on the weather – the wind, temperature, etc. In aggregate they observe, predict, communicate and provide decision support information (more on this in a moment) related to weather and associated environmental phenomena – and advance the science along the way.

Adult demands. Time was, not so long ago, when the larger society’s expectations of the Weather Enterprise were limited – rather like the demands made of a precocious adolescent in college. Parents hope for good grades – any accomplishments past that are a pleasant surprise, a bonus.

That has its analog in meteorology. A foot of snow? Back in the day, if that’s what happened, and the weather forecast had called for a-chance-of-snow versus a sunny day, that product was considered better than nothing. But in today’s zero-margin society, the needs are more pointed. Grocery retailers, the airlines, schools, utilities, insurers, emergency managers, government agencies at every level need to know not just that snow is coming – they want to know how many inches are on the way. The need to know it’ll be snow and not ice or rain. They want to know storm onset, duration, location and extent, and more – as accurately as practicable but with remaining uncertainties clearly expressed. In short, they want forecasts couched in terms of impacts: forecasts that are actionable. And they want these on all time scales, ranging from minutes at local scales to years (obviously transitioning to climate outlooks here) for long-term decisions and investments relating to energy policy, water resource management, land use, critical infrastructure, and more.

Adult tools. The adolescent Weather Enterprise had limited tools (think high-school or university lab equipment), which only hinted at the power soon to be available to field. Traditional instrument shelters have now been replaced by automated surface stations. Weather balloons used to require manual launch; that too is being automated today. The weather radars using World-War II technology have been replaced by more modern systems unambiguously detecting tornadoes, hail, and other high-impact weather features. Satellites that once provided only crude, occasional images now offer continuous coverage and unprecedented diagnostic power. And that’s only the observational end. Computing power now demonstrates dazzling capabilities that extend deterministic forecasts out several days further than had ever been dreamed possible (an important step helping maintain an uninterruptible society that increasingly needs greater lead times). Ever more computing power is also being applied to forecast dissemination – data analytics to tease out sector-by-sector weather impacts, or to craft messaging according the best social science, etc.

Adult relationships. When university students graduate, they learn that the relations with professors they’d once considered so onerous have been replaced by a greater challenge: dealing with even more-demanding bosses and institutions populating the adult workplace. Likewise, the laid-back, casual relationships between meteorologists and the rest of society are rapidly being replaced are far more formal structure. The loose cooperation spanning the public-, private-, and academic sectors daily grows more formalized and contractual in nature, with specific expectations and operating within a well-defined framework. Business used to depend on the federal government for observations and numerical weather prediction. Today’s companies want to supply such things.

That’s within the Weather Enterprise. But – and this is an essential point to grasp – the Weather Enterprise doesn’t exist solely to manage how members engage one another. The entire Enterprise exists to serve a number of larger external publics – the Public, with a capital “P,” but also many other smaller publics such as weather-sensitive sectors of the economy. The Weather Enterprise is not a closed system.

And what’s in and outside that system is being redefined. In the past, the Weather Enterprise has largely been confined to the providers of weather information. Increasingly, meteorological professionals are being found at the user side of the interface – embedded within agribusiness, the energy and transportation sectors, and more. The term will almost certainly extend to that arm of the community going forward.

This growth requires that money changes hands among all players in increasing amounts. Estimates put the current amount as some $10-$20B a year – about 0.1% of U.S. GDP. But the Enterprise may be on track to grow tenfold over the next ten years. This is partly aspiration, but probably reflects a true need – what will be required for a desired level of public safety, for an uninterruptible economy, and for national security.

Committing such large dollar sums calls for trust – perhaps the most basic asset in adult relationships. But precisely for this reason, trust is also fragile, and in short supply currently at both ends of the forecast spectrum – global climate outlooks at the one end, and the forecasts triggering evacuation decisions at the small-scale end. Society also has the right to expect that the Weather Enterprise will be focused primarily on service, and that it will avoid temptations to feather its own nest.

Adult identity. All of this change is redefining what it means to be a meteorologist. In the past, meteorological curricula provided two pathways – a purely disciplinary track and a broadcast meteorology option. Today, courses are being added to cover the social science of developing meteorological forecasts and communicating weather risk. Other courses address applications; increasingly these overlap with and look more like MBA’s. The meteorologist’s relationship with tools of the trade, especially computing – not just the numerical weather prediction but the applications of data analytics and cognitive computing – are evolving rapidly.

Continuous change. As recently as fifty years ago, adulting could be considered an event – a relatively brief transition with a defined beginning, middle, and end. In the year 2017, that initial transition is instead a portal into a lifetime marked by continuous change. The Weather Enterprise is not fixed or stable in any respect. Relationships among the several sectors are being continuously reworked. Disruptive science and technology are constantly stirring up the mix. Societal interests and needs are in flux. All these changes interact with one another; they’re simultaneous, not sequential.

The implications of all this? Profound.The stakes for humanity and the planet are high. This confluence of circumstances cries out for accompanying think-tank analysis and a range of national and international conversations to ensure that the Weather Enterprise and the world growing more dependent on it smoothly navigate our the journey into our joint future.

Time to put aside the ways of childhood.

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[1] To“adult” is to behave like an adult, specifically to do the things—often mundane—that an adult is expected to do. How new is this? Well, let’s just say my laptop keeps trying to change adulting to adulating when my back is turned.

[2] A real example. Don’t ask.

[3] An aside, but an important one: this same adulting process is underway in communities with different labels and scopes: the weather, water, and climate enterprise; Earth observations, science, and services, and so on. Everything said here can be generalized to those communities as well. But all these descriptions are cumbersome, and special actions are underway with the Weather Enterprise at the moment; thus the limited focus here.

 

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