The butterfly effect … and this week’s AMS Washington Forum

Google the phrase “butterfly effect,” and you’ll learn this term describes sensitivity to initial conditions in chaotic systems. A little pointy-headed? A tiny bit abstract? Not at all. One familiar and important example: Earth’s weather. We owe the phrase and much of our understanding of chaos theory to the meteorologist Ed Lorenz. He noted back in the 1960’s that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might lead to dramatic changes in weather a few weeks out. Those tornadoes that have pounded us over the past month? We can probably trace that back to a flock of misbehaving butterflies.

Or maybe to that Sendai earthquake that inundated so much Japanese land, changing its evaporation and making air downstream just that much more moist. Or perhaps the ongoing conflict in Libya. Or deforestation in Indonesia. Or some slight peculiarity of weather patterns in Europe dating back to February or March. Or the precise timing of the calving of a glacier off Greenland. Get the idea? All these events, and many, many more, matter.

Maybe it was something you did! If you went away by car one February weekend, or failed to do so, that shaped particulars of April’s weather. Should you be given credit? Or blame? Or a bit of both?

Aren’t you glad we don’t know! If we did, litigation would be only a step away.

Weather isn’t the only chaotic system, is it? These days, maybe you’d describe international politics, or even U.S. politics as chaotic. You might note that each and every day, all seven billion of us are engaging each other in conversations, and meetings, and a variety of transactions – some planned, and some chance. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that each of these encounters, however small, sets into motion ripple effects that have the potential to change the world.

Here’s my candidate for one such meeting – the American Meteorological Society’s Washington Forum, which will run Tuesday through Thursday of this week. It’s a small meeting, as such things go – perhaps one hundred people will take part.

But you and I should care about what is said and done. The participants? They’re changing the world’s future prospects. And what they say and do at the Forum? That will shape just how those changes play out.

Some background. The AMS Washington Forum is the first such meeting by this title, but the AMS has been holding similar meetings each spring for a series of years. The forum brings together folks and institutions in the business of dealing with the real world as a resource, a victim, and a threat. Participants come from government (both executive branch and the Congress), from the private sector (companies that build weather satellites and other equipment, companies that provide weather science and services, companies that use those services), and from research universities. Why the diversity? Because the challenge of figuring out what the Earth will do next (forecasting storms, ocean circulations, plume dispersal, river flows), and what this portends for agribusiness, for energy, for water resource management, and much more, can’t be confined to any one small segment of society. It’s threaded throughout. For the world’s peoples to cope effectively with weather opportunities and threats, the public-, private-, and academic sectors have to collaborate purposefully and to good effect.

So, what topics will the Forum address? Let’s start with Tuesday’s sessions.

The forum opens with some introductory remarks – from this year’s AMS President, Jon Malay, from the AMS Commissioner for the Weather and Climate Enterprise, Len Pietrafesa, and from Melinda Marquis, who led the formulation of the Forum agenda. It’s tempting to dismiss this bit, isn’t it? To use terms like “boilerplate,” or “formality” or “ritual” to describe what will happen. But in fact, these brief remarks will set a tone for the three days. Public- and private sectors are collaborating well in this arena in 2011. That current goodwill and cooperative spirit? Hard-won. So this is a chance to celebrate progress of the past few years and set sights on doing even better in the future.

The first formal session focuses on the Congress. And we know they really matter, don’t we? Just hark back to the budget agreement finalized earlier in the month. The 800-pound butterfly flapped its wings then, to be sure. Generally speaking the appropriations looked manageable – but there were exceptions. The limits Congress placed on climate work, both research and service? Trying to stop EPA steps toward declaring carbon dioxide a pollutant? Forbidding NOAA to establish its climate service? The shortfall in the operational weather satellite budgets? Those small initial effects are causing problems for our community already, and will grow over time, compromising future weather and climate services for years to come.

The second topic of Tuesday morning is the National Climate Assessment. The Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates a report to the president every four years, assessing the consequences of climate change for the United States as we see them. Would you like an analogy? Here’s one. As a hurricane nears landfall, meteorologists, emergency managers, business leaders, school superintendents, hospital administrators, mayors, just about everyone from every walk of life keeps a lookout, watching for any change in timing, path, or intensity, and calculating the likely effects on the population. Think of these four-yearly discussions as the nation’s preparation for oncoming climate change. As it approaches, we’re constantly refining our plans for managing the consequences for forestry, agriculture, sources of energy and patterns of use, marine resources, water resource management, and much more.

In the early afternoon? A panel of federal executives. They’ll give counterpart perspectives to those offered by Congressional staffers in the morning, offering more detail about the Congressional budget policy decisions will play out in practice across the affected agencies. What work will continue unabated, or perhaps accelerate? What work will be halted? We’ll know better tomorrow afternoon.

The day closes with a discussion of the FAA’s NextGen Program and the NWS 4-D Weather Data Cube. Jargon! But in plain English, we can see why it’s important. Air travel is constantly increasing, but no new airports are being built, and the air space is constantly getting more congested. In response to these trends, weather is becoming an increasing factor – threatening safety, and delaying air traffic. (Lambert-St. Louis International Airport is the latest case in point). The FAA’s NextGen program seeks to cope with this general problem of squeezing more planes into the same airspace, and integrating the impacts of weather into the decision mix. The National Weather Service’s contribution is the creation of a data base on the atmospheric conditions prevailing at every point in that airspace.

This NWS contribution would be important even if aviation were the only customer, but the utility of the “data cube” doesn’t end there. With very minor modification or extension, the same data set also serves the needs of other sectors – agriculture, energy, surface transportation, public health, and all the rest. It’s one investment with many benefits. As the world moves to distributed computing power and multiple uses for common data sets, the data cube promises to grow in value.

More tomorrow on Wednesday’s Forum sessions. In the meantime, the butterfly is lifting off…

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