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Weathering the Storm: Improving Communications About Extreme Weather and Climate

Published on Thursday, June 4, 2020

Weathering the Storm: Improving Communications About Extreme Weather and Climate

By: Christine Bassett,
Knauss Fellow,
National Weather Service


Given my experience thinking about past climate and oceans, it might seem peculiar for me, a geoscientist, to spend my Knauss Fellowship year in the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Office of Observations. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alabama, I analyze the chemistry of sea shells from ancient trash piles to tell a story of how climate in the Bering Sea has changed over the last 5,000 years. I also work with a team of archaeologists to understand how those changes impacted the availability of marine resources like seals and fish, shaping the ways in which maritime communities lived and continue to live in the Aleutian Island arc.


Climate is one of a myriad of factors that make humans, well, humans. Even the emergence of walking on two legs, a trait that distinguishes us from our primate relatives, is partially explained by a changing climate and environmental shifts. For hundreds of thousands of years, our physiological and cultural responses to climate have shaped us as a species. Climate plays a key role in determining whether we hunt for ice seals or harvest corn or build our homes from adobe or on stilts. However, the difference between climate and weather is a small but critical distinction. Climate is the average of weather over a period of decades or more. In other words, climate is akin to the characterization of all the different types of clothes in your wardrobe (i.e. more winter coats versus sundresses) but weather is what you wear on any single day. 


Here, a vessel sits in the Port of Dutch Harbor on a sunny day with low cloud cover. The Aleutian Islands, also known as the birthplace of the winds, is characterized by its rapidly changing weather.

As we are faced with the enormous challenge of adapting to a rapidly changing climate, we are ultimately tasked with preparing for increased weather variability and more intense and frequent extreme weather events. Our success will depend on our ability to 1) recognize (and measure) the critical role oceans play in driving climate and weather and 2) humanize this challenge by recognizing that weather affects both the very visible and less visible aspects of our everyday lives. Earth’s oceans play a key role in regulating global climate, absorbing as much as 90% of excess heat from solar radiation and transporting water and precipitation from the equator towards the poles. Moreover, climate and weather impact our society’s ability to function, from determining successful agricultural harvests to most recently delaying the historic NASA-SpaceX shuttle launch. It’s this human component of weather forecasting and planning that I love about my Knauss Fellowship position at the NWS.


Working for the Director of the Office of Observations, Tom Cuff, I see the enormous effort that the NWS is mobilizing to increase our observations of the oceans for improvements in weather and climate prediction and forecasting. I also support Mr. Cuff in his role as the chair of the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) Standing Committee for Marine Meteorological and Oceanographic Services (SC-MMO). This committee develops international standards for the effective communication of marine hazards and risks, such as maritime safety information (MSI), disaster risk reduction, climate services and environmental disaster response. This committee interfaces not just with marine meteorologists and oceanographers but also with the stakeholders that rely on their forecasts. As such, the SC-MMO requires expertise from both the physical and social scientist communities. 


At the NWS, integrating social science perspectives with physical science is not a novel concept. In late April of 2011, a tornado outbreak trekked across Mississippi and Alabama, killing more than 300 people. During this storm, the average lead time between a NWS tornado warning and its arrival was 20 minutes, surpassing the national average of 13 minutes. The substantial loss of life despite the additional warning time highlighted the importance of the NWS’s then newly minted Weather-Ready Nation initiative, which emphasizes the need to include research on topics such as communication practices, community risk and socioeconomic and cultural factors in the development of forecasting protocol. Weather-related tragedies such as the 2011 tornado outbreak are, of course, not exclusive to terrestrial environments. In October 2015, the SS El Faro sank after sailing near the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, killing its 33 member crew. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the primary contributing factor was the captain’s reliance on outdated weather information from a commercial application rather than the MSI broadcast through the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). The sinking of the El Faro and other vessels in avoidable hazardous marine conditions demonstrated the need for improved communication between marine meteorological forecasters and mariners who rely on forecasts.


Click for before and after images of an area in Tuscaloosa, AL where an EF4 tornado tore through during the 2011 tornado outbreak. I would arrive to Tuscaloosa three years later to begin my graduate studies -- I have since been a frequent and grateful user of NWS Weather Forecast Office products. (Photo credit: NOAA)


The marine meteorological community strives to provide accurate forecasts to the maritime community but a variety of factors, including the international nature of many marine hazards, complicates this effort. To that end, Mr. Cuff and my Knauss predecessor, Alison Agather, helped organize the inaugural WMO-International Maritime Organization Extreme Maritime Weather Symposium in October 2019, bringing together experts from the maritime community and marine meteorological services. The symposium’s goal, which serves as the foundation of my fellowship year, was to identify and address some of the key ways we can increase the safety of life and property at sea and along coastlines. 


A crabbing vessel prepares to leave port at the beginning of crabbing season in Dutch Harbor, AK.

My work at the NWS gives me the opportunity to bring my focus on past human-climate interactions into the present and future. Now, I  think about my interactions with the Aleutian Islands in a new way. On the island of Unalaska, the Port of Dutch Harbor is one of my dissertation sampling sites. It is also the busiest fishing port in the U.S., bringing in 763 million pounds of fish valued at $182 million in 2018. The crews of fishing and shipping vessels coming through Dutch Harbor sail into dangerous conditions in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, particularly in the winter months, and their lives often depend on good forecast-based decision making. As my fellowship progresses, I’m excited to work with the members of the SC-MMO to develop strategies and programs to help keep mariners safe at sea, particularly in a place that is close to my heart.



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