Many words could have been applied to America’s four-year swearing-in ceremony for new presidents, observed once again tomorrow. Why this particular word? Hard to find any history peculiar to its choice here in the United States, but generically, we’re told it stems from the Latin augur, which refers to the rituals of ancient Roman priests seeking to interpret if it was the will of the gods for a public official to be deemed worthy to assume office. It also, in some applications, refers less to the process of determining what the omens might be saying, and more to waiting until the omens aligned favorably – picking a propitious time – before starting new ventures. The word augur can be used as a noun, to refer to the priests examining the omens. It can also be used as a verb: to divine or predict, as from omens; prognosticate.
Hmm. Substitute observations and data for omens – and that’s what meteorologists do. Perhaps meteorologists ought to be particularly interested in inauguration day, and perhaps their inauguration counsel ought to be particularly heeded by political leaders and their publics.
Dream on, Bill.
Okay, so you didn’t ask, but here’s a notional augury for the next four years. Please don’t take it as the final forecast! Instead, treat it as the opening statement in a map discussion. Contribute your own views or superior alternatives.
First, the forecast for tomorrow’s weather in DC, taken from the NWS website at the instant I’m writing this: Rain, mainly before 5pm. High near 48. Southeast wind 3 to 6 mph. Chance of precipitation is 90%. New precipitation amounts between a tenth and quarter of an inch possible. Of course, this forecast is subject to change and refinement. You should look for updates here, or maybe from The Capital Weather Gang.
More significantly, U.S. weather of the next four years will affect our fortunes as individuals and a nation. Because our level of understanding is only partial – as to how that weather will unfold over this time period, and which regions will be affected, in which order, and how given patterns of flood and drought and storm and calm translate into societal impacts – we’ll struggle to see what’s really happening to us. We’ll know we’re vexed by the vicissitudes of weather, especially the extremes, but we’ll be unable to measure fully the impact on our agriculture, our energy use, and our water resources, and thus on our economy. We’ll sense vaguely that our vulnerability to hazards continues, but find it difficult to learn from experience and bring those disaster losses down. We’ll see localized, episodic degradation to landscapes, habitat, biodiversity, and air and water quality generally, but be at something of a loss when it comes to stemming the tide. And we’ll see the integrated effects of all this: slow, somewhat variable, but generally steady atmospheric and oceanic warming; rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and more.
Completing this forecast? We’re told that requires statement of the uncertainty. When it comes to the weather per se, the uncertainty is minimal. The far larger uncertainty is our response as individuals and a nation. The weather is coming, but the impacts of that weather will reflect how we choose to do business. One option? We can whine about these impacts, and keep doing business as usual, and watch the bad outcomes continue to ratchet up over the next four years.
Or – we can rise to the challenge. We can invest more in anticipating what the weather will do next, hour to hour and season to season. That’s a job for meteorologists (and for the Congress and public who fund us). As for the remaining 330 million of us, we can build resilience into every human activity – where and how we choose to live; where and how we grow our food, develop energy resources, and use water. We can reduce the footprint of our day-to-day activities and thereby slow the pace of environmental degradation. Four years from now, we can be better off in these respects than we are today. There’s great incentive to do better, from the most mercenary, self-serving of reasons to the noblest, highest motivations.
But at this inauguration, Americans shouldn’t be focused just inwardly, domestically. There’s a four-year global outlook as well. And so far as the weather itself is concerned, the story is pretty much the same – only on a bigger screen. The food, energy and water issues will be in even starker relief, especially visible in poorer parts of the world. Extremes of weather and climate will displace populations and foment geopolitical instability. Environmental degradation, much of it exported to poorer parts of the world by the richer nations, will continue. (These conditions will be worldwide, but because we’re so profoundly interconnected, they will affect all of us here in the United States.)
For there’s uncertainty here as well – and again, the wild card is not the weather, but whether we make individual and national commitments to do better. Doing better in these respects is well within our means, requiring only fractions of a percent of U.S. and global GDP. What’s required, and accessible to us, is vision and will. In the process of doing better, in partnering with the rest of the world against a common set of threats and a corresponding set of opportunities, we can build prosperity for the world and tranquility for ourselves in the bargain.
By the way, the choice to do better, to do more, is an individual choice. We don’t have to ask anyone’s permission, or wait for some signal. We decide. We can encourage others to join us. In fact, this has been the hallmark of the U.S. meteorological community for more than 100 years. For virtually all of that period, the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting provides a yearly opportunity to huddle, take stock, and then springboard into another year of work advancing the observations, the science, and weather, water, and climate services. For the 4000 meteorologists who’ll be meeting in Seattle throughout this next week – it’ll be good to see you. Blessings and safe travels.
Okay! Let’s do this! The omens are good.