Meteorologists – forecast your own future!

A Living on The Real World Blog Post by William Hooke

Aeschylus“Like some inferior doctor who’s become ill/You’re in despair and are unable to discover/By what medicine you yourself can be cured.” – Aeschylus[1], Prometheus Bound (5th century B.C.)

Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’…” – Luke 4:23 (NIV)

Physicians certainly don’t get a pass. They heal others, or claim to. The challenge that they heal themselves is almost as old as the profession itself (as the quotes above reveal).

In like manner, meteorologists are in the business of forecasting the weather. Isn’t it only fair to ask of meteorologists[2]: you who are so good at forecasting – can you predict your own future?

Yes, just as a weather itself changes, so is the field of meteorology itself in transition.

And just as any complete weather forecast addresses different elements: pressure, temperature, wind, cloudiness, precipitation amount and form, and so on, the future of meteorology itself is evolving in multi-faceted ways.

Here’s a notional list that attempts to capture seven trends that matter (the list itself is subject to change! I might rethink; and/or you might offer your better list):

  • The future of the need for meteorology. At present, society’s need for forecasts seems to be increasing, not diminishing; growing in complexity, not diminishing; and growing in urgency. Can meteorology continue to meet this need?
  • The future of the task of meteorology. Once meteorology focused on saving life and property; today, preserving business- and community continuity have been added to the mix. The task continues to expand, extending beyond forecasts of atmospheric parameters per se to impacts on weather-sensitive activities, ranging from the production of food and fiber to energy to transportation and water resource management. What’s immutable? What’s varying, and why?
  • The future of the tools of meteorology. New tools are coming on line: observing instruments of unprecedented diagnostic power; novel observing platforms such as drones and cube-sats; breakthroughs in computing capacity; the emergence of data analytics and cognitive computing; and the application of rigorous social science. Are these advances incremental, or transformational? Will they be adequate for the growing future task? What additional innovation is needed?
  • The future of the benefits of meteorology. The growing needs and new capabilities suggest that weather forecasts of the future will be far more valuable than they are today. But we struggle to measure that value and articulate it to others today; as costs mount, can we continue to afford such a limitation?
  • The future of meteorological institutions (that is, the “Weather Enterprise.”) All these changes are triggering upheaval in traditional relationships and collaborations across the public, private, and academic sectors, as well as internationally. Will the roles of the sectors shift in importance, and how? What can institutions do to maintain their relevance, to be agents of change rather than dinosaurs that history passes by?
  • The future of the profession of meteorology. Growing societal needs for more widely-available professional help at reduced cost are motivating innovative application of IT to all the professions, including but not limited to medicine, education, law, accounting, journalism, and more, transforming the very nature of these professions in the process. Meteorology will be no exception. What will it mean to be a meteorologist 10-20 years from now?
  • The uncertainty of these forecasts. Finally, predicting the future of meteorology, like predicting the weather itself, is fraught with uncertainty. The biggest uncertainties lie not in the technological end, but on the societal side. What will be the policies governing such work? How will those policies balance public good with private interest, both domestically and internationally? Will current trends to politicize science grow, or will they prove a passing phase? And particularly, what will be the effect of public education on society-wide engagement across these issues? What other uncertainties compete with these?

 

This latter set of issues raises further questions for meteorologists.

For example, consider the three questions that form the LOTRW masthead, with “meteorology” substituted for “world”:

What kind of meteorology is likely if we take no deliberate action?

What kind of meteorology do we want?

What kind of meteorology is possible if we act effectively?

Or, more broadly: to what extent will meteorologists shape our own destiny, and to what extent will it be shaped for us, by the larger society?

Unsurprisingly, these questions, and issues like them, rivet the attention of meteorologists worldwide. Increasingly, they’re part and parcel of every scientific and technical conference. They’re the subject of workshops, seminars, colloquia, and fora.

They are hallway talk in government agencies, businesses, and on university campuses. They’re the stuff of international negotiations and agreements. The conversations are expanding, entraining a widening range of organizations, disciplines, and publics.

But we serve a larger society, and that society’s diverse range of publics deserve a say in where and how the Weather Enterprise trends.

Where are those publics in the debates over meteorology’s future?

H. R 353, The Weather Research and Forecast Improvement Act of 2017 suggests that Congress is taking an interest; others are likely to soon follow.

In closing, perhaps we might all observe that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.[3] Go back to the question above: to what extent will we shape our own destiny, and to what extent will it be shaped for us, by the larger society?

One answer is clear: wait long enough, and others will shape our destiny for us. Seize the reins, and we might have (and even deserve!) more of a say.

And both we and the larger society might be better served.

In that spirit, future posts in this blog will drill down on these seven points[4].

___________________________

[1]Though his authorship is in dispute.

[2] The same question might be asked of geoscientists more broadly. The word meteorology is used here to encompass this much broader set of disciplines in the same way that it does when used in the name of the American Meteorological Society (which encompasses hydrology, climatology, oceanography, and space weather, among other disciplines), in order to bring some economy to the language.

[3] The origin of a family of quotes including this variant apparently goes back to 1963 and Dennis Gabor, a Nobel prize-winning physicist (holography), who said, “we cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.” The quote has proven widely popular since, as attested by attempts to attribute it to Abraham Lincoln, one of the gold standards for quotable wisdom.

[4]A few caveats. First, regular LOTRW readers will note that some of these seven topics have already been treated in earlier (numerous) posts. Second, working through all the topics will take some time, giving opportunity for Mother Nature and other events to intervene. Therefore, don’t expect the posts to be consecutive. And third, topics may not be taken up in the order laid out here.


Quote of the year:

“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.” Charles Darwin The Origins of Man, Chapter 6