This year’s American Meteorological Society (AMS) Annual Meeting theme is communication – and it’s a winner.
Talk about hitting a nerve! Preregistration for the meeting topped 3000, and the final numbers will substantially exceed that figure. Every day features special sessions on aspects of the subject. The meeting is just getting underway, and already the conversations are animated, lively, energized, whether it’s a clutch of some of the 450 undergraduates here for the Student Conference, or a huddle of heads of meteorological services from nations all over the world, or weathercasters chatting up Seattle families who’ve come to Weatherfest. Congratulations to Peggy LeMone, this past year’s AMS president, for recognizing the magic in this topic.
Why the enthusiasm? The answer is simple and fundamental. You and I – everyone – hungers to be understood.
Our weather community is no exception. [That’s weather writ large: we also comprise space weather, hydrology, oceanography, and many other branches of Earth science, as well as related technology and engineering.]
Take our warnings. Do you know how hard it is to develop the observing networks (the satellites, radars, and surface instruments), the data communication, the data assimilation schemes, and the models need to forecast the weather? To see a tornado coming in the next half hour? A flash flood in two hours’ time? A winter storm when it’s five days out? Hurricane landfall 120 hours in advance? Then we put out the warnings, and sometimes it seems like the folks in harm’s way ignore them while the people who should feel safe decide to panic. Where did we go wrong?
Or look at global warming. We go through all the trouble to run through the different possible economic and emissions scenarios, get the sums right in the radiative transfer equation, sort out the uncertainties posed by the role of clouds, and all those other processes. We see a real and growing problem for the world. But miscreants steal a few e-mails, take some casual remarks out of context and manufacture a conspiracy theory out of whole cloth, and run away with the climate story. What’s up with that?
Then there’s all that uncertainty. We try to honestly distinguish between what we know and what we don’t, and display the full range of possibilities, only to hear users say in exasperation, “I don’t want all those fancy-schmancy probabilities. Just tell me whether it’s going to rain. Just show me that rain-snow boundary. Just give me tomorrow’s high temperature. Let me know when the volcanic ash clears out and it’s safe to fly. Tell me how high I have to stack the sandbags to protect my town from the overflowing river.” Really!
Oh, and as populations grow more diverse, and as we grow more aware of that diversity, we start to realize, “oh, I can’t just give out one warning. There’s got to be one for each of the languages in my region (in Los Angeles, this is the order of one hundred). And, by the way, the elderly interpret my weather communications different from the younger generation, and the women hear something different from the men. And if I don’t put out the warning on television there’s one group’ll miss it, but for another group I need to get the message out on smartphones, and maybe I ought to use Twitter.”
But the need we feel to tell our story isn’t confined to warnings, is it? Many scientists at this meeting can’t wait share the insights of their latest research. They want others to see their work for the true breakthrough it is. At stake is priority for the discovery, academic tenure, the fate of that big proposal. Exhibitors know what makes their products and services unique, but they have to communicate this to potential customers before anyone will buy. Department chairs are hoping to lure that superstar researcher to their university rather than see him or her go somewhere else. They’re recruiting students. And the undergraduates hope to communicate a great first impression on the different graduate schools here.
Then we realize: the improvements and refinements we’re introducing daily in our meteorological sciences and services are just a tiny fraction of sweeping changes that are raging across society. We’re not going to improve our communications once and for all; we’re on a treadmill of continuing innovation. We’re trying to learn how to communicate even as the rules of communication are themselves changing, being turned upside down. We have to be as disciplined in our approach to communication as we are to our science.
Stop! Our heads are spinning.
Unless…unless we partner up. So this year a couple of dozen communication experts have been generous enough to come to our Annual Meeting, using their expertise to leaven our usual program. Even just 24 hours in, the results have been dramatic. Just preparing for the topic has driven heads of weather services from countries around the world to write down and report on their respective in-country experiences, with events as varied as the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruptions, floods in Mexico and China, and tornadoes in the United States. Similarly, the communications folks have been sharing what they’ve been learning about how the brain’s wiring diagram shapes our response to risk. We have a lot to learn by comparing notes.
We have five more days to go here in Seattle, but it doesn’t have to end there. Hopefully we’ll learn enough from each other to craft a social science research agenda that will enable us to produce warnings that prompt people to act for their own safety, climate change messaging that will bring national consensus on effective coping strategies, and representations of uncertainty that will foster understanding, not confusion.
But one final thought… If we hunger to be understood, so does everyone else. In particular, so does that one particular individual in front of you right now. He/she needs to unburden a bundle of hopes and aspirations, share opportunities, teach, warn, ask for help. You can see it in those eyes! So don’t jump in with your own message just yet! There’s still plenty of time for you to listen!
Look them in the eye. Smile. Say, “talk to me!”