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Weather and Society Watch
Guest Editorial

The Future is Now! Making the Most Out of Current Activities and Planned Initiatives to Accelerate the Integration of Social Science Information into Weather Forecasts and Warnings
by Kenneth Carey* and H. Michael "Mike" Mogil**

Integration of Weather and Society: How Participants Each View the "Elephant in the Room"
Although it may be seen to be a new thing, meteorologists have been using social science in their efforts to forecast and warn the public of hazardous weather for years. One reason for this was that almost forty years ago, a public affairs officer in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Herb Lieb, was selected to head up a fledgling group in NOAA called the Disaster Preparedness Office. He hand-picked a group of people to work with him who would work to take social science information and capitalize on it as they told the weather story to local officials, the media and even National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists. The emphasis was on science, communication and "warning a call to action." In fact, individuals at many NWS regional headquarters, some governmental meteorologists and others were quick to become part of the effort. Not surprisingly, headlines started to appear in weather warning messages, action statements came into play and the NWS expanded its efforts to bring disparate groups to the table to enhance its warning program.

In the early 1970's, the NWS Southern Region also integrated the work of Dr. B. F. McLuckie (Delaware University) and required all of its meteorologists to complete a course entitled, "Warning A Call To Action." The course (see http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ssd/techmemo/sr215.htm), taken via workbook at local offices, focused on improving the effectiveness of weather warnings. Simply put, it was no longer sufficient to tell people a tornado was coming. Instead, NWS forecasters had to provide actionable messages to gain the safety response they were eliciting.lightning near Watkins, Colo

People such as Neil Frank and Allen Pearson (directors of the National Hurricane Center and the now Storm Prediction Center, respectively) were among the many proponents of this approach. In fact, Neil Frank would often don the hat of an unsuspecting individual to assess societal perspectives concerning the warning and preparedness system. He used these in his many public talks about hurricane safety.

Many NWS forecasters and TV meteorologists also developed similar repertoires for their local area that keyed on societal and social impacts involved in warnings. Some "discoveries" included how people reconfirmed a weather emergency (going outside to look, calling a friend or family member) and even where people lived. It was at this time that "mobile homes" were recognized as a unique safety hazard; so, too, was the rule to "outrun a tornado by driving at right angles to this path." The Wichita Falls tornado of April 10, 1979, demonstrated the folly of the latter rule.
The Disaster Preparedness Office also worked closely with organizations such as the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder (Dennis Mileti) (http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/resources/web/relief.html) and with people such Eve Gruntfest (currently at the University of Oklahoma Social Science Woven Into Meteorology Program). It also created movies, slide shows and literature that started to fold in the social science aspects linked with weather emergencies.

Then, later in the 1970's, while replying to Congressional correspondence, Mike Mogil (who was working at the NWS headquarters in Silver Spring) had an epiphany. Instead of simply replying to what was becoming a common request at the time, "Our community needs its own warning radar," Mogil decided to educate the congressional office and the local community on the integrated warnings approach that was evolving. Crafting a two-page reply that did not focus solely on overlapping radar coverage circles, he described the myriad of efforts underway to protect the community. At the time, these included, but were not limited to, a network of weather offices, Skywarn spotter training programs and spotter groups, satellite and radar observation systems, interactions with local officials and the media, NOAA Weather radio, awareness programs, safety literature and more. In fact, the staff member of the congressional office was quick to comment on how valuable the letter was in describing a complete NWS program.

The letter was not easy to craft because it involved talking with local and regional NWS officials, various program offices and others. But once it was developed, it easily became a framework for explaining the NWS' integrated warning system to others in Congress, the media and elsewhere.

The NWS wasn't alone in its efforts. TV meteorologists, a few social scientists and others laid the groundwork what would eventually become a march toward a fully multi-disciplinary approach to hazard mitigation. But, what was missing from these early efforts was a strong national support system. Efforts were more opportunistic and keyed on the efforts of a few individuals. It also involved transforming a mindset focused on meteorology or hydrology alone into one that recognized the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to the warning problem.

Recent Efforts/Successes to Connect the Weather and Climate Enterprise with Society
Our nation and our public, private and academic weather and climate enterprise have demonstrated numerous noteworthy efforts destined to link weather with its societal impacts. At the recent 35th National Weather Association (NWA) Annual Meeting held in Tucson, Ariz. (http://www.nwas.org/meetings/nwa2010/), societal impact research and public policymaker interaction with weather forecasters were among several showcased topics. In his presentation, "Leveraging Emerging Technologies to Better Address the Societal Impacts Focus of NWS Warnings," Michael Hudson, chief operations officer for NWS Central Region, highlighted the challenges of communicating information about severe weather and flooding threats using social media and other emerging technologies. He also provided a summary of instant messaging (e.g., NWSChat) and social media (e.g., Twitter Storm reports) in leveraging emerging technologies to enhance warning services nationwide. He keyed on how NWS efforts will enable more effective infusion of societal impacts in the communication of severe weather information.

Jennifer Lee, meteorologist, at the NOAA/NWS Huntsville, Ala. weather forecast office, presented an evaluation of the overall warning system based on two tornadic events near Huntsville. Her paper focused on decisions made by the NWS, the emergency management community, and other first responders during these two events, including the response to these decisions by the general public. While the decision support services provided by NWS Huntsville were important, the resulting action taken by the public was just as crucial. So, Lee further investigated these public actions along with other societal impacts pertaining to the two tornado events. Her findings included the need for improved situational awareness, better use of observing systems (e.g., Dual-Pol ARMOR radar located at the Huntsville International Airport), training for 911 operators on what exactly to ask a caller who has a storm report, and continued Integrated Warning Team (IWT) meetings to keep the lines of communication constantly open between the NWS, media, and emergency managers. If adopted, these actions will enhance future NWS decision support services, leading to improved public awareness and reaction to such life threatening weather events, not only in the Huntsville area, but nationwide.

In his presentation, "Estimating Potential Severe Weather Societal Impacts using Probabilistic Forecasts Issued by the NWS Storm Prediction Center (SPC)", SPC Director Russell Schneider, examined SPC severe weather forecasts from 2000 to present and the potential for estimating likely societal impacts when combined with high resolution population data derived from the 2000 U. S. census. One facet of the study was to examine the combination of severe hazard probability and population density as an integral measure of the likely societal impact on a given day. In addition, Russell contended that identification of key population density thresholds for more populated urban, urban and rural areas will allow additional quantification of the potential threat.

Specifically, the potential for catastrophic impacts due to a tornado in a population-rich urban area can be estimated through the combination of information on the threshold areal coverage and the forecast probability for tornadoes and strong tornadoes. Damage, injury and fatality data for historic severe weather events can be used to examine the statistical effectiveness of the societal impact estimates. His conclusion is that these efforts can be used to quantify the likelihood of major societal effects and can and should be used to translate SPC meteorological forecasts into parallel impact-based products.Although not a real-time operational product, the Northeast Snowfall Index Scale (NESIS) developed by Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/snow-and-ice/nesis.php) integrates a similar approach to the impact of a major snowfall on northeast U.S. metropolitan areas.

Taking the Next Steps – Leveraging Recent Recommendations/Best Practices
The stage is almost set for harvesting the interest, passion, and importance of integrating social science and weather, thanks to several organizations that are developing plans in this area. Social science and societal impacts are woven completely through the draft of the new NWS Strategic Plan, and the NWS Science and Technology Roadmap, a look ahead to 2025. NOAA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) Social Science Working Group authored a 2009 report, "Integrating Social Science into NOAA Planning, Evaluation and Decision Making: A Review of Implementation to Date and Recommendations for Improving Effectiveness". In the SAB report (see http://www.sab.noaa.gov/Reports/2009/SAB_SSWG_Report_FINALtoNOAA_041609.pdf) one can find a number of practical steps for strengthening social science impacts involving weather forecasting and warnings. These include: (1) conduct a social science needs assessment; (2) develop and implement a strategic plan to strengthen and integrate social sciences; (3) develop a system to identify and track social science full time equivalents; and (4) ensure progress toward meeting social science capacity targets by instituting performance metrics based on increasing NOAA's value to society. To improve the integration of social sciences, the SAB recommended that a suite of structural actions be taken: (1) create an Office of Societal Impacts external to line offices and have that office report directly to upper levels of NOAA leadership; (2) establish a standing Social Sciences Working Group of the SAB; (3) build social sciences into NOAA's Cooperative Institutes and Joint Institutes; and use special-purpose internal committees of NOAA social scientists only as a short term measure. The SAB further indicated that, "The social sciences are essential for quantifying and improving the monetary, human and scientific value of NOAA products and services."

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has plans to create a strategy to support the social sciences over the next decade. Myron Gutmann, assistant director for NSF's Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, told those gathered for the a recent annual meeting of the American Sociological Association that this is an "unparalleled time" in terms of interest across the sciences in working with social scientists on some of the top issues of the day. While the NSF is best known for its support of work in the physical and computational sciences, it has long been a significant player in the social sciences, too, with close ties to academia. The agency funds tens of millions of dollars of research a year and supports everything from basic research by senior scholars to dissertation fellowships.

Where Do We Go from Here?
It is becoming quite clear that now is the time for our weather and climate enterprise to take advantage of these and other integrative efforts. So, it make sense that the community interested in the integration of weather and social science (e.g., NWS, NCAR, researchers, WAS*IS alumni) consider doing the following:

  • Create a searchable database containing examples of events, activities, publications, links and historical efforts demonstrating weather and social science integration
  • Develop an implementation plan to meet the strategic goals set out by key stakeholders, such NSF, NOAA, NWS, the media and emergency managers
  • Hold webinar/Go-to Meetings™ with various groups of stakeholders to exchange ideas, foster collegiality/sharing, interaction, and hands-on activities
  • Hold regional meetings highlighting that focus on regional, geographical or topical subjects most relevant to that area
  • Continue to focus on these integrated efforts at various meetings, e.g., AMS Annual Meetings, NWA Annual Meetings, AMS and NWA Broadcaster Conferences
  • Define "capacity" issues. Identify the roles and responsibilities for each of the organizational/agency partners, and what kinds of support they could offer
  • Promote pursuit and support for interdisciplinary projects linking weather and the social sciences to other sciences, to include assisting with proposals for NSF grants and funding for environmental research
  • Share information about efforts like WAS*IS in various publications, including the AMS Bulletin, NWA Digest, Weatherwise magazine, FEMA publications and other journals

*Kenneth Carey (kcarey@noblis.org) is a senior principal systems engineer for the Noblis Center for Sustainability.

**H. Michael "Mike" Mogil is a certified consulting meteorologist, certified broadcast meteorologist and founder of How the Weatherworks.


References

McLuckie, B.F., 1974: Warning-A Call to Action: Warning and Disaster Response- A Sociological Background. NWS Southern Region Headquarters, 85 pp.


Photo credit:

Photo 1: Lightning near Watkins, Colo. (Photo by Blake Beyea)




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