Weather has figured in the news as we close out 2015 and enter 2016. For example, writing in the Washington Post, Darryl Fears and Angela Fritz note that:
“From the top of the world to near the bottom, freakish and unprecedented weather has sent temperatures soaring across the Arctic, whipped the United Kingdom with hurricane-force winds and spawned massive flooding in South America.
The same storm that slammed the southern United States with deadly tornadoes and swamped the Midwest, causing even greater loss of life, continued on to the Arctic. Subtropical air pulled there is now sitting over Iceland, and at what should be a deeply sub-zero North Pole, temperatures on Wednesday appeared to reach the melting point — more than 50 degrees above normal. That was warmer than Chicago…
…Thousands of miles south, in the center of Latin America, downpours fueled by the Pacific Ocean’s giant El Niño pattern have drenched regions of Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay…
…Up and down the U.S. East Coast, this month will close as the hottest December on record. In much of the Northeast into Canada, temperatures on Christmas rose into the 70s — tricking bushes and trees into bloom in many locations…
…Almost two dozen levees along the Mississippi River are considered at risk, and forecasts are calling for record or near-record crests of the river and tributaries that feed it. Nearly 450 river gauges have hit flood stage since Monday…
…Although river levels will begin to drop over the weekend, the floodwaters will continue to move downstream on the Mississippi through mid-January…”
The journalists go on to discuss conditions in Europe. They could have expanded their story to cover weather impacts in Asia, where the El Nino has contributed to record-breaking haze and air pollution, and more.
Such individual events capture our attention, but only briefly. They will be superseded by others as the year 2016 plays out. However, behind and towering over these episodes and those that lie ahead are several weather meta-stories, which will endure, not just for the year, but for decades to come. You might have your own additional or better list; here are four candidate examples.
Mr. Fears and Ms. Fritz are justified in labeling this present weather “freakish,” but in the larger scheme of things, the world’s weather is and always has been so. No two days’ weather are ever the same, and the Earth system is continually and forever accomplishing much of its business through extremes. For millennia, in fact for millions of years, we’ve had correspondingly unusual weather. What’s new is that we’re only now able to observe and fully comprehend weather manifested in remote regions of the world as well as weather’s global connectedness. For this we owe thanks to global satellite coverage and a host of other surface-based observing technologies of unprecedented diagnostic power. We’re like the blind person who’s suddenly gained sight. We’re undergoing the greatest flowering of awareness and understanding since the mid-1800’s, when the telegraph (the Victorian Internet) first allowed us to piece together a picture of weather patterns and their movement. Everything is going to look exotic for the next century or so. We should enjoy this time; it’ll be a sad day when and if the novelty wears off, when we lose our capacity for wonder about the Earth system – its nature and workings, its raw power and majesty, its enchanting beauty.
Weather will continue to amaze for decades.
Here’s a 21st-century irony. We’re increasingly vulnerable to weather even as our personal exposure to heat and cold, sun and rain is in decline. Most of us are in the virtual workplace of information technology which itself is embedded in the virtual climate of the heated/air-conditioned office. Even so, we’ve been forced to acknowledge our increasing sensitivity and changing vulnerability to weather, and especially extremes and even lesser departures from so-called “normals.” The big challenge here is the emerging mismatch between (1) the time-horizon of our strategies and investments for producing food, maintaining water and energy supplies, transporting people and goods, and a weather-sensitive economy; and (2) the time-horizon on which we can anticipate the threats weather and climate, and their associated effects on water, pose to those plans and ventures. We’re in essence flying blind. We’re placing bets at the poker table without looking at our own hand or those of the other players.
This is a recent development. In human experience prior to the past ten thousand years, we were nomads and hunter-gatherers. We could respond as needed to seasonal and weather shifts and their consequences for the availability of food and water. Our interdependent, increasingly urbanized world is now totally reliant on a complex critical infrastructure that is not a single system but an interwoven system of systems, whose performance under weather and climate variability is only poorly understood.
The global investments aggregate to many trillions of dollars, and they presuppose the infrastructure will remain useful and serviceable for many decades. Weather of unanticipated severity and climate change and variability are already exposing shortcomings in the original vision. For example, investments in the infrastructure needed to extract and distribute fossil fuels look suspect in light of the need to limit global warming. Dependence of agricultural yields on irrigation and pesticides looks unsustainable as unintended consequences of these practices emerge and their associated energy demands grow. The return on investment in coastal infrastructure is threatened by the prospect of sea-level rise.
We’ve also newly reduced our room for error and uncertainty. Even as recently as 200 years ago, most societies were rural and agricultural, and compensated for weather vulnerability by building generous margins into the system and relying on muddle-through strategies that would never be optimal for any given weather scenario but would always be adequate. Not so today. In developed societies, this is because margin has come to be associated with waste. Examples of deliberate decisions to reduce margin are seen in electricity, where deregulation and use of regional power grids has allowed a reduction in “excess” generating capacity; in agriculture, where schedules for crop planting and harvest are worked out between farmers and buyers months in advance, and food is delivered to supermarkets only hours before consumers buy it; and in fragile transportation systems where carrying capacity can plummet in inclement weather. In the undeveloped world, zero-margin is imposed by the richer nations – for example, encouraging farmers to grow cash crops for foreign consumption (coffee, soybeans, palm oil, even flowers…) versus food for domestic, in-country use.
We’re going to be flying blind in all these respects for some time. Unforeseen societal sensitivity to weather and climate will be a growing news story for the remainder of this century.
Recent years have seen the emergence of questions such as… “Okay, your weather forecasts have improved. But how much do such improvements actually contribute to reduced property loss or improved business continuity in the face of severe weather? Given that the public often lacks options for self-protection in the face of danger, or fail to understand or respond to your warnings, how many lives do you actually save?”
Assessing the value of weather, water, and climate forecasts and outlooks will continue to be problematic, but one aspect of this narrative is beginning to change, and change favorably. The options for action in the face of changes in weather on all time and space scales are growing in number and effectiveness.
We have information technology to thank. It’s not just that IT has vastly advanced our ability to translate our observations of what the Earth system is doing now to what it is about to do next. Today’s IT allows us to provide that information to those in harm’s way or those who stand to benefit from favorable windows of opportunity in time for them to act. That possibility has engendered a lot of creative rejiggering of every sector of society to take fullest advantage of the information. The transportation sector has long been moving in this direction. Airlines now cancel and reschedule flights based on weather forecasts, rather than allowing their fleets to be snowbound. Ocean routing has long guided ship operations. Truckers use information on road weather to schedule the deliveries and develop workarounds. Other sectors are following this lead. Electricity consumers ranging from homeowners to industrial concerns are allowing utilities to vary their electricity use to offset bumps in demand. Utilities in turn use weather information to assess the availability of wind and solar power on the grid. Retailers use weather forecasts to increase sales of everything from snowplows to umbrellas while keeping inventories low. The military uses weather, water, and climate information to assess threats ranging from Somali pirates, to terrorists, to instability created by displaced populations. In many of these applications, we are seeing growing means for computer to talk to computer directly, eliminating the middleman (or woman).
Much more creativity is coming. Each advance in weather forecasting triggers tipping points where new real-time responses to weather become economically viable. And so-called Big Data – the increasing ability for cloud-based IT architectures to integrate multiple, diverse high-volume, high velocity data streams to provide impact-based decision support – will add unprecedented value to tomorrow’s weather, climate, and water information.
Growing Earth-system awareness, recognition of vulnerabilities, and realization of new options will attract the attention of journalists. Increasingly the press and the public will demand the right to life in the face of hazards (as represented by warnings and options for action) not limited to the richest in society but extending to the poorest and most disadvantaged. People worldwide will want homes that are the safest place to be during hazardous weather, not points of embarkation for evacuation. They’ll want jobs to return to after hazards have come and gone. They’ll come to expect continuity of critical services in the face of hazards, including electricity and water, but extending to transportation and schools, health care, and more. They’ll insist that natural hazards not trigger environmental disasters.
As the press and the public realize the possibilities, they’ll demand performance, from both political and business leaders and in turn from the meteorologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, and others – whether government or private forecasters, whether scientists or broadcast meteorologists. Take the disgruntlement over the past several years about the performance of U.S. weather predictions relative to those coming from Europe; the frustration over so-called “missed” forecasts of heavy snow, when the weather patterns in question were accurately depicted but perhaps displaced by a few miles, etc. That’s just a foretaste of what’s coming.
And the legal profession may not be far behind. Likely the tempo and complexity of litigation will pick up markedly over the first half of the 21st century.
Weather-, water-, and climate. Awareness, sensitivity/vulnerability, new options, and demands for accountability.