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Weather and Society Watch
From the Director

WSW Special Issue: Socio-Economic Research to Build a Weather Ready Nation

Introductory Remarks by Jeffrey K. Lazo*

Last year the United States experienced perhaps one of the worst years on record with respect to weather impacts on society. 2011 was also unusual compared to some other years in that these events were widespread in terms of type, location, and societal impacts and not largely focused on a single landmark event such as a Katrina. Depending on who is doing the counting, the country experienced 12 disasters exceeding a billion dollars in damage each, with something near 1,000 weather-related fatalities. The count of billion dollar events in 2011 includes a blizzard, a wildfire, a drought, a hurricane, two floods, and six tornadoes (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/reports/billionz.html).

In addition to significant numbers of fatalities and injuries, the societal impacts include burnt timber, houses and other buildings, and crop losses from the Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona wildfires; fallen trees and power lines, flooded areas, and socio-economics losses from business closures from Hurricane Irene; evacuations, breached levees, damaged buildings and crop losses from the Upper Midwest and Mississippi River flooding; direct losses to crops, livestock and timber, and indirect losses to related businesses and communities from the Southern Plains / Southwest drought and heatwave; the diverse social and economic impacts in Chicago from the Groundhog Day Blizzard; and the extensive wind and hail damage to buildings, vehicles, and infrastructure from the six tornado outbreaks (April 4-5, April 8-11, April 14-16, April 25-30, May 22-27, June 18-22) across at least 22 states (AL, AR, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MN, MO, MS, NC, NE, OH, OK, PA, SC, TN, TX, VA, and WI). In addition are the socio-economic costs of response to all of these events, as well as the social/psychological and ecological/ecosystem impacts that don't normally get counted as "economic" impacts.

I would wager that most if not all of these events were reasonably well forecasted and warned for. I would also wager that feasible near-term improvements in forecast skill for most of these events would not have significantly reduced the social or economic impacts and would not have appreciably saved lives or reduced injuries.

I would further wager that a much greater return on investment-measured in terms of lives saved and damage avoided-could come from research, applications, and operations to improve the communication, understanding and response to forecast and warning information than could come from research to improve forecast skill, false alarm rates, or even lead time.

But what is that type of research? Who does it? How is it done? What questions are asked, and how are they answered? How are they translated into actions or processes that will ultimately reduce the socio-economic impacts of wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods, and tornadoes?

This issue of Weather and Society Watch is full of articles of research and activities embodying the effort to improve the communication, understanding, and response to forecast and warning information.

Drobot and Chapman discuss (not so distant?) future intelligent transportation systems of which the Vehicle Data Translator (VDT) program is a part. Their work combines meteorology (weather observations and forecasting), technology (in-vehicle sensors and real-time communication and warning systems), and applied user-needs assessment (a survey of what information travelers find most interesting for inclusion in future vehicle information systems). Among other things, this work illustrates how solutions to real world problems require innovative partnerships between and support from multiple stakeholders such as the AMS, NCAR, and the Federal Highway Administration (as well as private sector support from the automotive industry). Given the high number of weather related accidents, such work may well do more to reduce weather related injuries and fatalities than much more high profile efforts within the meteorological community focused on "improving the forecast."

In their thoroughly referenced article, Klockow and Peppler present an excellent overview of how a variety of existing theories and approaches can help us better understand the decision making of individuals threated by a tornado hazard (approaches likely applicable to any weather hazard communication). Based on extensive field work and interviews with survivors of the Alabama and Mississippi tornadoes last Spring, the authors discuss place based understanding as part of an approach to understand survivor's behaviors - blending among other approaches concepts from geography, anthropology, and risk psychology. Klockow and Peppler point out that ex post judgments of other people's decision making is often based on external perspectives and preconceptions and not necessarily on a valid understanding of the decision process or ecological conditions of the decision maker. They briefly discuss a range of theoretical approaches and prior studies that can help develop a better understanding of these behaviors beyond simply thinking that "those stupid people in the public sure think some crazy things." It is hard for me to emphasize how important it is for the weather community to support and embrace the approach advocated by Klockow and Peppler of building upon the diverse and solid foundation of existing knowledge from the social sciences about decision making, communication, and risk response behavior.

Casteel and Downing provide an interesting discussion on communication of severe weather with mobile communication methods. They explain and identify some of the potential and limitations of mobile warning methods, especially with respect to the Commercial Mobile Alert System currently coming online. Their discussion of the potential advantage of pushing messages to non-smart phones raises interesting questions about the efficacy of mobile methods to reach vulnerable populations. Many of the issues and questions, explicit or implicit, in their article beg for some good empirical research.

League, Philips, and Bass present results from their Tornado Warning and Technology Survey of emergency managers (EMs). Recognizing the critical link EMs play in the warning and response system, these Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) researchers are using well-formed research methods to inform the development and application of new radar technologies. This effort is one of the few projects anywhere underway to integrate a social science-based understanding of end-user needs into a meteorological research and development program.

Nichols and Hoekstra represent one of the only extant other projects attempting to assess, understand, and integrate end-user needs as a primarily meteorological program ensues (Warn-on-Forecast). Their focus on educational institutions (K-12 and universities) connects with key stakeholders to assess their information sources, needs, and decision making processes. Such work can not only inform the meteorological research and development but ultimately helps connect with user communities as the program proceeds, perhaps to make them better prepared as new informational tools are developed.

Losego, Galluppi, and Montz also investigate the information needs of emergency managers - more broadly defined using an EM support function taxonomy. Their work also extends to school administrators. Using case studies, in-depth interviews, and surveys, they are assessing information needs and decision making with an eye to developing decision support tools. Their work seems to nicely complement Nichols and Hoekstra's on educational institutions, as well as League et al.'s with EMs.

Riley's article is another example of the application of qualitative methods to assess information needs, this time with respect to climate. She interviewed a number of decision-makers on current and potential impacts of climate change and their associated decision making with a goal of assessing their information needs. This discussion ties closely with weather issues as climate is experienced as weather, and perceptions of climate change must be assessed in the environment of weather variability. Many of the results and research needs she identifies are equally applicable in the weather context.

And finally (leaving the "hardcore" operational meteorologists to last but not least), Goldsmith, Codero and Metz discuss efforts to provide more usable information during an ice storm in south Texas in February 2011. Embodying the objective of serving the users, the Corpus Christi and Brownsville offices used a range of technologies and practices to get the information out on a rare winter storm in an area normally ill-prepared for such an event. Using webinars, emails, social media, YouTube and other channels (in additional to traditional ALL-CAPS), these efforts represent a paradigm shift to decision support.

One of the most significant messages I got from the recent Weather Ready Nation Workshop and Symposium in Norman, Okla., last December was that to meet the goals of a Weather Ready Nation, social science research (and this includes all the social sciences) is critical. (See http://www.joss.ucar.edu/events/2011/weather_ready/information.html ). The articles in this issue give a flavor of the type of research that is being and can be undertaken - yet it is still very limited, and we have a long way to go to help meet the goals of the workshop (and the broader community) "to improve the nation's resiliency against severe weather, especially tornadoes, to protect lives and property."

* Jeffrey K. Lazo (lazo@ucar.edu) is director of the Societal Impacts Program (SIP) at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.


Image Credit

Ice on trees and snapped branches were a common sight in Corpus Christi, Texas, on the morning of February 4, 2011.
(Photo courtesy NWS Corpus Christi)



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