The answer, my friend, is Blowin’ in the wind.

Weather forecasting is inherently difficult; in the past, meteorologists used to be chastised (often gleefully so), when their forecasts went awry,[1] for their failure to “look out the window.”

Back in the day, the critics referred to the literal window’s literal view – which might reveal blowing snow, or wind or hail, or their opposite, a bright sunny sky – in contradiction to the forecast du jour. But today, meteorologists are expected to know what’s happening outside a metaphorical window. They asked not just to predict the atmosphere’s physical state, but its impact on society – on the evening commute, on the safety of flood-prone areas, on the integrity of built structures, on an agricultural crop, and more.

To provide their impact-based decision support in light of these broader, yet place-based needs – to make so-called actionable forecasts – meteorologists have discovered the need for additional input, this time not from physical scientists and technologists, but from social sciences. In particular, the current preoccupation extends beyond more detailed observations and enhanced numerical modeling to the science of (mass) risk communication.

So far, so good. But these days, there’s an extra level/degree of difficulty. To look out that virtual window is to see “stormy weather” – a world in tumult, a world in a season of challenge, dysfunction and conflict. Challenge? Endemic poverty and social injustice. Raging pandemics. Climate change. Dysfunction? Polarized governments, not just in the United States, but across the world. Governments that have forgotten or choose to ignore their legitimacy and purpose, as captured by the Declaration of Independence: to secure (unalienable) rights…instituted and deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Conflict? Mass shootings. Terrorism. Racism. War. Weather and climate forecasts are daily consulted for their possible bearing on any or all of conduct and outcomes of this social storm as well as for their more quotidian, “fair weather” purpose.

These challenges span the whole of human aspiration and the world’s agenda. What’s more, they share a common feature; they are wicked problems. That is, they offer little in the way of real solutions. Instead, they demand continuing coping strategies from a variety of sources. All, to one degree or another, are shaped by influenced by our generous, dangerous, fragile planet. We will never see the back of these issues. This combines to frustrate meteorologists, who know their services are of greatest value when providing incremental advice to, tweaking the actions of, otherwise equitable, functional societies. Equity and justice and the stability they can bring are nowhere to be found.

A society verging on chaos and riven by perceived and real injustice requires of meteorologists a deeper level of risk comm, one that touches on core values at individual and societal levels. To be salient and effective in meeting the needs of such a world requires help from the humanities and even the spiritual disciplines.

Where to look for such insights? Well, poetry is one field that comes to mind. Fact is, many nations, states, and other entities have established the institution of the poet laureate – a poet retained by the state to commemorate special occasions (or issues or circumstances their society faces, as seen through the lens of the artist).

Today’s meteorological community has no such formally-acknowledged position, but should it establish one, perhaps it would help to have a few criteria in mind when selecting an incumbent. For example, we might prefer a poet who used meteorological metaphor. To use the vernacular of the oenologist, that would the poetry’s“terroir.” All else being equal, we might favor a poet and poetry that had “notes of prediction“ – and it would be best if those predictions verified, held true, for substantial periods of time (just as wine of a good vintage improves with age). Finally, the poetry – just like the meteorological forecasts – needs to be useful, appealing to diverse audiences.

Speaking of notes, perhaps poetry set to music would be best. After all, if the poetry is to be relevant and real to today’s daunting times, it will necessarily hold both lament and warning. In the same breath, however, it can’t just foster despair; it should also embolden and encourage. Music has this magic.

Some may feel that these multiple requirements have left us with a null set. But here’s an existence theorem – a name demonstrating that the set contains at least one member:

Bob Dylan.

As proof of a sort, consider this song, whose origins go back to the spring and summer of 1962: Blowin’ in the wind.

In the title and throughout the text, brimming with weather metaphor. Offering both lament and warning. In many ways, as fresh on its 60th anniversay as it was at its genesis. And continuing to invite, even demand, wide, diverse interpretation. Whatever your background or personal preferences, you’ll find a resonant thought or two in the lyrics:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
And how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

As an exercise, if your schedule today permits, you might try reading through these verses a time or two. Then access the song either here or through your favorite app, and give it a listen. Or two or three. In background? Better than nothing. But for the fuller experience, perhaps pause what you’re doing. Take time to savor Mr. Dylan offers here. Listen, along with him, to the blowing wind. Ponder its answer.

See if it doesn’t help you put your present task, whatever you’re about, in perspective. See if it doesn’t make you a bit more strategic (and therefore more effective) in your efforts to make the world a bit safer in the face of weather hazards and a bit more adept at seizing weather’s benefits. Maybe, just maybe, this exercise may even make you a bit more hopeful throughout the rest of the day. (For extra credit, identify and put forth your own candidate for meteorology’s poet laureate, along with a sample of their oeuvre.)


[1]a much rarer circumstance these days than when I entered the field more than half a century ago

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