5 People I’d Like To See Again

February 1979 in Richmond. A group of us in the neighborhood built this little snow dog once the snow stopped falling

Earlier this year, I changed career paths, moving my family from southern Virginia to southeastern Pennsylvania. I suppose in quieter moments, it was inevitable to look back and see what has gotten me to this point in my life.

With the horror in Paris this month, I found myself thinking about the fragility of life and the people in our past who have affected who we’ve become in the present. While I have reconnected with several people from my youth via social media, there are people who, for whatever reason, I am no longer in touch with, but they remain as distinct threads in the tapestry of my earlier days.

In fact, when I stop to think about it, I realize that none of my current friendships began before 1980. This is mostly a consequence of moving from Southside Richmond to eastern Henrico County in February of that year. I was in 5th grade at the time.

Below are 5 people I’d like to see again. I met three of them before 1980. Alphabetically…

Maricel Barrett

In the year or so before the move, I became friends with Maricel. He was a guy that everyone seemed to like. He had a great laugh and was as fast as bullet on the playground. In the fall of 1979, we were on the same pee-wee football team. If memory serves, he was both a running back and a defensive back (I was merely a second-string defensive lineman).

I still remember one football game in which we played the Broad Rock Rams, who were considered to be the toughest team in the league. Late in the 4th quarter, with no score, our team managed to drive down to the Rams’ goal line, but we could not convert on 4th and goal. On the following series, our team stopped the Rams’ running back (or maybe it was their quarterback) behind his goal line. We won the game 2-0, and I remember our team congratulating Maricel as he returned to the sideline after the safety. I don’t remember if he actually made the tackle, but I know he was part of the defense.

My last day at that elementary school in Richmond, there was a going away party for me. I was picked up by my mother at the end of the day, but before leaving, I stayed in the classroom as successive groups of my classmates were dismissed to the buses. A few seconds after Maricel’s group had been dismissed, I ran outside to chase him down, and I gave him a hug before he got on the bus. I never saw him again. Given he is African-American, I now think about the symbolism of that moment, and how when we were younger, that it didn’t seem to matter.

Lisa Branch

While attending that elementary school in 4th and 5th grade, I was in the gifted program with a few other kids. There was one other student in an accelerated math program with me, Lisa Branch. At that time, I thought we were a couple of kids who were just a little different that the rest of our classmates. As a result, we got along quite well. So well in fact, that I remember a fair bit of good-natured teasing by some of the students that Lisa and I were a couple. She is the only other person I remember in that gifted program, and I remember her having more confidence than a lot of the other kids. I cannot help but wonder what path she took through adolescence and adulthood.

Russell Tilley

Immediately after our family moved in 1980, I found myself in a new elementary school, knowing no one. The first friend I made was Russell Tilley. He and I shared the same off-the-wall sense of humor, and in the closing months of 5th grade, he would often get disciplined for some of his silly, but harmless indiscretions. We remained good friends through middle school, and I distinctly remember the two of us coming up with a juvenile poem to describe our 7th grade teachers. I can still quote it (just not here).

I may never have laughed as much or as uncontrollably as when he and I hung out together. One event comes to mind: We were walking through the hall one morning in 7th grade, just trying to make each other laugh. And I don’t even remember how the subject got started, but he said, “You gotta be careful of that radioactive waste.” By coincidence, he began that sentence just as we walked by the closed door to the teachers’ lounge. And as he finished the sentence, our biology teacher opened the door and appeared. He and I paused, looked at each other, and laughed hysterically for what seemed like 10 minutes as we continued down the hallway.

In high school, our different academic paths caused us to drift apart, but I never forgot how much better I felt in a new environment because of his friendship. I last saw him in 1997 at a 10-year high school reunion. I hope he still has that sense of humor.

Frederik Wenzel

Frederik and I met as freshmen at Penn State in 1987. He was born in West Germany, with his family emigrating to Virginia Beach when he was young.  While he was more adventurous than me, we got along very well, sharing a love of Virginia, and commiserating about being in a place that was 300+ miles away from home.  We often carpooled back to Virginia and had great talks about Europe, Virginia, and of course… girls.

In the 1988-89 academic year, we shared an apartment, which tested our friendship, but it persevered.  He went on to join the Penn State International Student Council and I moved into my meteorology coursework. We mutually decided sharing an apartment the next year wasn’t the best idea, nonetheless, I always valued his European view on the world.  I remember how excited he was when West Germany won the World Cup in 1990 and how emotional he was when Germany reunified later that year.

After the Berlin Wall fell, he briefly visited his home country, and when he returned, he gave me a small concrete rock. I was awestruck when he told me it was a piece of the Berlin Wall, and I still have it to this day. We communicated more sporadically with time as our paths diverged, and I haven’t seen him since the early ’90s.

Michael Widener

When I was living in South Richmond in the late ’70s, Michael and his family lived about 4 houses away. I remember playing on competing Manchester Optimist Little League teams in 1978.  There was a small area of woods adjacent to his backyard, and we would go exploring back there once in while, looking for caterpillars, like many other 8-year old boys would do. Mike was the last of 3 friends in that old neighborhood who all moved away before my family followed suit. Ironically, his family moved to the Roanoke Valley in 1979, a place that I would later call home from 1995-2003.

Who knows. Perhaps I will see them again. Life has a way of dealing the unexpected.

Posted in Reflective, Sociology

North and South, Book 2

To a mother, who brought him her two sons, loudly expressing her hatred of the North, Lee said, “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form but one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.”  – The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, Edward Lee Childe, 1875

* * *

Here I sit, a second time newcomer to Pennsylvania after spending the better part of the last two decades in my beloved Virginia. Once again, I am called to be an ambassador of my home state.

So, we have this Confederate Battle Flag issue again. I have seen it all, you know; I am on social media. I have friends in the Northeast, friends in the Southeast, friends who are conservative, friends who are liberal. Post any meme or story you want to thump your chest and show off your position if it makes you feel better about yourself. Blame historians, blame the media, blame whoever the hell you want. But know this: there is nothing you can say or comment that I have not heard. Nothing.

I have friends and family who like the flag, identify with it, and see nothing wrong with it. I have other friends who see it as a bitter reminder of our country’s Original Sin.

I loved to watch The Dukes of Hazzard as a pre-teen in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The flag on the roof of the General Lee didn’t seem to matter as much then. Watch all of the episodes. The Duke family was welcoming of everyone.

When I first went to Penn State in 1987, I missed Virginia terribly. Ask anyone who spent time around me. In the last few weeks of my freshman year, I went to the Army Navy store in State College in search of a Virginia State Flag. I could not find one. But I did find a Confederate Battle Flag, so I bought it. I put it up in my apartment the next couple of years. Southern pride. I thought nothing else about it.

Flags, like most symbols, are deeply personal. And that is what it meant to me. When I moved back to Virginia in 1994, it got packed away. At some point in the last 20 years, it became tattered, and I discarded it.

The meanings of symbols change. This is a certainty of life. When I was at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park several years ago, I spoke with a ranger.  He told me something I found wildly ironic: During the war, the Battle Flag was flown because it was considered less offensive than the Confederate States of America National Flag (below).


The meaning of the Battle Flag has evolved, which brings us to our current situation. Actually, one that has been bubbling for a century and a half. I cannot help but find the irony, given this past spring was the 150th anniversary of the Surrender at Appomattox.

Recall the swastika was not always a symbol of Nazism. They stole it, repurposed it, and promoted it into something sinister. It used to have much more positive connotations. No more. At least not in Western cultures.

Similarly, for me, the Battle Flag was stolen. Not that it was a benevolent symbol to begin with, but when I was younger, it seemed to be a harmless relic representing youth and rebellion. My demographic allowed me to think about it that way.

But white supremacists latched on to it. Made it a point to show it off. Screaming, intimidating, and terrorizing people as the flag was prominently displayed. Blathering on as if losing the Civil War were some travesty of history. Then there was the advent of television. Then the internet. Images of white supremacists with that flag over and over. And over and over. Ad nauseum. No more handsome pictures of the Duke Boys in the General Lee doing nice things for people. Those don’t make the news. Sorry. This is the 21st Century.

I love sweet tea and barbecue with cole slaw like most everyone else born in the South. My great-great grandfather, George Bland Sublett, fought for the CSA. So don’t lecture me about Heritage Not Hate, how I’m not Southern, or that I’m betraying my ancestors. Southern is not a heritage. Do some work and go back more than five or six generations. My heritage is from the north of France.

I have friends whose heritage is from Africa. The Battle Flag is deeply hurtful to them. Choosing not to display it is not political correctness, it is out of respect for my friends.

Having said that, if you want to fly the flag on your private property, go wild. You want it on your pickup truck? Rock on. No one should force you to take it down. But it has absolutely no business being displayed prominently at a government facility or on public property… federal, state, or local. Museums of course, being an obvious exception.

For a long time, I have worried about what people thought of me. In fact, in my last line of work, it was part of keeping my job. Perhaps this post has angered you or disappointed you. I have a thought about that.

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Posted in Reflective, Sociology

The Change

Candid moment during snowfall coverage in 2010.

Candid moment during snowfall coverage in 2010.

During the summer of 1995, my fiancée (now wife) and I were driving home to Washington, DC after attending a friend’s wedding in Boston.  She was testing and evaluating weather sensors for NOAA at Dulles Airport, and I was writing computer code at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  On a drive that long, there are lots of opportunities to talk about the future. We were both 25 years old, scheduled to get married in only a few months.

I told her I wanted to give television meteorology a try, as I had tinkered with it during graduate school. I told her that I didn’t want to be 40 years old, looking back, and wondering what if. A few months later, I landed my first job in television in Roanoke. Eight years afterwards, I moved on to Lynchburg.  It has been a very rewarding journey, teaching me much about weather and communications.

But after nearly 20 years, it is time for a change. I have accepted a position with Climate Central in Princeton, New Jersey.  Climate Central is a science, journalism, and media non-profit organization.  I will be working on their Climate Matters project with fellow Penn Stater and broadcast meteorology alum, Bernadette Woods Placky.

The opportunity is tremendous, and the professional challenge is an exciting one.

Certainly, there will be things I miss. Most of all will be Virginia itself. It is my home. I was born and raised here, and I have always taken a sense of pride knowing I have walked in some of the same spaces as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. Ask any of the people I went to Penn State with, and they will tell you stories about my stubborn Virginia pride.

Like the old Robbin Thompson and Steven Bassett song, Sweet Virginia Breeze, no matter where I was in Virginia, I was home. Richmond, Roanoke, Leesburg, Fairfax, Lynchburg, Virginia Beach, the Northern Neck, Charlottesville, Williamsburg, and Blacksburg all carry great memories. Roots go deep here. My paternal grandparents met in Campbell County, my maternal grandparents in Halifax County.

I think about the wonderful places I have visited: Monticello, the State Capitol, William and Mary, George Washington’s Birthplace, Luray Caverns, Natural Bridge, Smith Mountain Lake, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Tri-State Peak, the Roanoke Star, the Washington and Old Dominion Trail. So many more.

But most importantly, this change will allow me to spend evenings with my family. I have missed too much already. I want to coach Little League before my son grows out of it. I want to see my daughter in her theatre productions before she graduates high school.

And I also look forward to more evenings sharing a glass of wine with my ever-so-patient wife.  Her tolerance of me and my career has been boundless over the last 20 years.  This change gets us closer to her extended family and gives her the opportunity to spend more time with her best friend: her sister.

No one does this alone.  I have met tremendous people over these last two decades who have helped shape my work.  I am deeply grateful to Randy Smith, the General Manager who hired me twice, once in Roanoke in 1995, and again in Lynchburg in 2003.  I was also fortunate enough to have Bill Foy as a News Director at both stations during that time. Bill trusted me enough to make big decisions on weather coverage, which is something that has became increasingly rare in the industry. And of course, Chuck Bell, who put in a good word for me to get all of this started in 1995.

So many others to thank for sharing their knowledge over the years: Tim Callahan, Dennis Carter, Danner Evans, Justin Feldkamp, Matt Ferguson, Donna Harris, Bruce Kirk, Pattie Martin, Len Stevens, Emmett Strode, and Lyndsay Tapases. From the older days: Julie Bragg, John Carlin, Justin Ditmore, Barbara Gibbs, Karen McNew, Jamie Muro, Lee Ann Necessary, Ted Oberg, Amit Patel, Greg Roberts, Samara Sodos, and Rebecca Stewart.  And still a few more that I was able to work with twice: Angela Hatcher, Frances Scott, Jamey Singleton, and David Tate.

And I would also like to thank Robin Reed at WDBJ.  He sat on the AMS Board of Broadcast Meteorology shortly after I started my career, and I reached out to him to find out about serving on the Board. In 2006, I was invited to serve, and after a couple of years, my peers asked me to serve as Board Chair in 2009.  I met wonderful people through the AMS Broadcast Board, and it sowed the seeds for my new opportunity at Climate Central.

Thank you sincerely for allowing me into your homes to inform you about the weather and for allowing me into your schools to teach your children about the weather.

See you in cyberspace!





Posted in Reflective | Tagged , , , ,

The Fifth Annual Global Warming Blog: Throwing Stones

Earlier this year, I attended a dinner at a local restaurant to celebrate a good friend’s 40th birthday.

My friend and I go to the same church, so there were several people I knew well at the event, but as is often the case, there were a few people who I knew only tangentially.

At the end, I needed to get back to the office quickly. As my wife and I were walking toward the exit, one of those tangential individuals stopped me.

“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you, what do you think about global warming?”

Hurriedly, I replied, “Well, it’s real. It’s probably not as bad as what some people have made it out to be, but it’s very real.”

A smirk came over his face, “You know the planet has been warming since the last ice age.”

A myriad of inappropriate and anti-social responses raced into my head. But in that split second, I had to remember that I have a very public position as a media meteorologist, that I was in a restaurant filled with both strangers and people from my church, that I was with my wife, and that I have two children to support.

I paused. Then I tried to explain briefly the Milankovich forcings (procession of equinoxes, planetary axial tilt, eccentricity of orbit).  All while I am trying tactfully to leave the restuarant with with my wife.

He gave me a blank stare, I managed to excuse myself, and I escaped to the parking lot with my wife. She could tell I was upset.

In the general public sphere, this question is now equivalent to asking about politics.  This person did not have any true interest in rationally discussing the subject. He just wanted to show off and provoke me. He almost succeeded.

Even so, my very patient wife had to listen to me vent frustrations as we continued to the car.

Hiding Behind The Bunkers

As a result, I rarely bring this subject up. I’m not the only one.  Two trusted meteorology colleagues, one in Alabama, and one in Texas, don’t want to talk about it anymore either. Too much drama, too much shouting, too much name calling, too much chest thumping.

And those two disagree with my position on this issue.

So there is no doubt, I am with the mainstream scientific consensus as seen with the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Society of London, and the United States National Academies.

I try my best to understand where my colleagues are coming from on this issue, be respectful, and move on. Of course I wish they would change their minds, but I’m not going to be able to do it.  Besides, they already catch hell on social media for their position.

Similarly, when I point out the mainstream position, I catch hell, too.

Peaking Over The Sides

But given my professional position, I suspect I have some responsibility to discuss it… at least occasionally. To be sure, no one tells me what to think, and no one tells me what to post.

There is a lot of strong evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) out there, but one key observation convinced me: Observed warming in the last century in the Arctic is much greater than in the middle latitudes or the tropics.

Some background. While surface temperature is governed by several things, incoming solar energy and terrestrial infrared are the two dominant energy inputs.  Terrestrial infrared in the atmosphere comes from many gases that are active in infrared part of the spectrum. Water vapor and carbon dioxide are the biggest players there. Infrared active gases have a more popular name: greenhouse gases.

It follows that in the Arctic, where there is so little solar to begin with, the infrared part of that temperature equation is more important.  The input from greenhouse gases yields a bigger warming result because there is less solar input.  This is precisely what has been observed.

The Arctic warming has already started to melt the permafrost there. In fact, the permafrost is melting so quickly, that new engineering structures, called thermosiphons, have been put in place to keep the temperature of the ground low enough to prevent older structural foundations from failing as the ground thaws.

Additionally, when observed at the decadal time scale, the multi-annual ice in the Arctic Ocean and the glacial ice on the Arctic land areas continues to melt away.

The Antarctic ice?  The seasonal sea ice is up, yes.  But the amount of multi-annual, continental ice continues to trend downward.  Melting continental ice (e.g. glacier) causes sea level rise; seasonal sea ice does not.

And come on, those attempting to equate the two poles ought to know better.  The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land. The Antarctic is a massive continent surrounded by water. The Antarctic is much colder to begin with, leading to a stronger circumpolar vortex than the Arctic, making it harder for warm air to penetrate poleward.

Plus, there are geopolitical and strategic issues that go with more open water in the Arctic Ocean. Those issues are notably absent at the South Pole.

The First Order

Having said that, my motivation is to concentrate on the most direct effects of AGW. Call them first order effects. Sea level rise is the most obvious.  Coastal communities will have to make adjustments. Perhaps not right now, but certainly in the coming decades. Norfolk is already starting to see the genesis of this.

The occurrence of high-imapct (i.e. extreme) weather is a second order effect, one that needs a little more help to demonstrate causality. There is reasonably good evidence that damaging weather events will become more frequent in the coming decades. However, it is important to remember that this is also a function of increased global population and the expansion of housing and infrastructure.


Attribution, or the attempt to link AGW to a specific weather event, is still a thorny issue. As the folks at NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) have described in a Major League Baseball analogy, no single event can be attributed directly to AGW, just like no single home run in the ’90s could be attributed to steroid use.  But there is new work being done in that arena.

I spoke with Heidi Cullen at Climate Central about it earlier this year.  She and her colleagues are working on a project with the University of Oxford in an attempt to determine immediately if a specific weather event was influenced by AGW.

Whether their results reveal statistical or physical relationships is still in question. And to be sure, their work will be highly scrutinized, but it is important to make the effort.

Digging In

When I think of my colleagues who are skeptical of the mainstream position, I also wonder if their distaste for the way the subject is covered factors into their decision.  Mike Smith, a veteran severe weather meteorologist, posted somewhat sarcastically in May: Global Warming: Is There Anything It Can’t Do?

Regrettably, his next statement deteriorates into a snide political remark, but his point is an important one.  Too many stories are now showing up that are taking the solid data and extrapolating it toward unsupportable conclusions. While I understand the need to illustrate the risks involved with a warming planet, such extrapolations are counterproductive.

* * *

Whether or not any of the emerging science can change minds remains to be seen. More than ever, I am convinced that the deep and unyielding culture and identity of individuals will be difficult obstacles to overcome on this issue. But mine is not a new thought.

Max Planck, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, famously stated, “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

A recent study by The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School is telling:


The graph is one of many from Dan Kahan’s entries at Yale. Thanks to Chris Mooney for directing me to his work.

So, no. I don’t blame some meteorologists for walking away from it. Especially those of us on the airwaves.  The last thing we want to do is alienate an audience.

The Gore Problem

While there has probably always been some difference of opinion on this issue along political lines, I cannot help but believe Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, worsened the polarization.

Because he was a highly visible Democratic politician, fair or not, his movie created an opportunity to further division.

Consider a PBS Frontline episode which aired just before the 2012 elections.  The episode highlighted the reasons for the change in public opinion on AGW.

In one sit down interview, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute states, “From my perspective, Al Gore was the perfect proponent and leader of the global warming alarmists, because he’s very politically divisive and controversal.”

James Taylor, a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute added, “I think Al Gore was probably the best thing that could happen to global warming skeptics.”

These were sit down interviews, not sound bites grabbed while these individuals were trying to escape into a moving car. You can find the above quotes about 7:20 into the program.

The rise of polarized cable news and echo chamber blogs only reinforce the division and put us in our current situation.

Certainly, you will find those on the political left who blame every single bad weather event on AGW.  They are not helping either.

But unless the planet unexpectedly undergoes a sustained cooling trend over the next 20 years, the climate wars will not go away.

Ashes, ashes, all fall down.


Just this week, the United States and China appear to have agreed on a carbon emissions reduction agreement. Initially, that sounds like a very big deal. It will be interesting to see what develops.

Posted in Climate Change, Sociology | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change – Book Review

The Climate Wars go on. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, to express a strong opinion on the subject of Anthropogenic Global Warming (a.k.a. AGW or colloquially, climate change) immediately invites scorn, no matter what opinion is presented.

Among the academics in this fray is Roger Pielke, Jr. He has been on the faculty at the University of Colorado since 2001, is a Professor in the Environmental Studies Program, and is Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.  As I mentioned when I reviewed his book, The Climate Fix, a few years ago, he is one of the few atmospheric science academics who has also worked in the catacombs of Washington policy making.

The central theme of his short book is to provide evidence that the increasing cost of weather disasters is a poor metric for detecting climate change. His book is successful.

Pielke writes in a way that is welcoming to the non-scientist, immediately expressing his motivations for writing it. The politicization of this subject is wildly out of control, and the media’s handling of the subject certainly does not help.

He describes the heat he has taken from those most vocal in the climate change community. Whether or not that is deserved is a function of each individual’s view of the subject. Like many heated subjects in the public sphere, climate change has devolved into chest-thumping misrepresentations of other people’s views.  So to be clear, Pielke answers the most basic questions:

Is climate change real?  Yes.

Does climate change have human causes, notably from the emission of greenhouse gases? Yes.

Does human-caused climate change pose risks, perhaps significant ones, for life on earth? Yes.

Does a price on carbon make sense? Yes.

Does current science suggest that episodes of extreme heat and intense rainfall may be increasing in some areas as a consequence? Yes.

Perception is everything. Graphic imagery of weather disasters that repeatedly shows up in media reports, whether from television or the internet, always gives us pause.  It is human nature to want to blame damaging weather on something.  Decades ago, it simply was labeled an Act of God.  Now, there is a drive to blame humanity. Paradoxically, the latter is probably true. Not because humanity has necessarily changed the weather, but because of how much (and how poorly) we have built in the weather’s way.

The most dramatic of these events are hurricanes and tornadoes.  Pielke convincingly demonstrates the rising cost of damage from these weather events is due to population growth and the infrastructure development that follows.

In an act of good faith, Pielke gives credit to the work of the IPCC. He does not fall lazily into IPCC bashing. Instead, he repeatedly cites their reports to further support his individual work.

Personally, I was happy to see him opine on why this subject has become so politicized. Much of that discussion reinforces the Iron Law of Climate Policy as mentioned in The Climate Fix.

Intriguing is his discussion of those who are not convinced about AGW.  I was curious to read his section, But What About Deniers?

That section took a more philosophical turn, describing how those who argue for immediate action on climate change are going about it the wrong way.  He acknowledges “there are enough data and interpretations to offer support to most any political agenda,” and continues about the “pathological obsession of many climate campaigners with the climate skeptics.

But he also states that “the battle over public opinion on climate change has long been won, and not by the skeptics.

Perhaps that is my biggest disagreement with Pielke. As fond as I am of his work, I am not at the point which I can nod my head in agreement with his conclusion in that section:

“Climate skeptics are not all powerful and may not even be much relevant to efforts to decarbonize the global economy. They are not the reason that we haven’t solved the climate change problem, but they are an easy explanation for more than twenty years of failed campaigning.”

Of course they are not all powerful, but they unquestionably have influence, at least here in the United States. I also agree that they are not the sole reason for the failed climate campaigning, but I see them as a perplexing piece of a disorganized jigsaw puzzle. Admittedly, that is a tough statement to make, because many skeptics (or climate agnostics, or whatever you would call those who do not believe humans are playing any role in warming the planet) are friends and colleagues.

Maybe it’s because Pielke lives in Boulder, Colorado and I live in Lynchburg, Virginia. Social customs are a bit different in those cities, you know.

Having said that, and with all the chaff floating around this subject, Pielke’s work is better than most at approaching it with a clear head. Climate change is real. There are certain risks we are undertaking. More financial losses are to be expected. But to only use dollar amounts as a metric to measure climate change is fundamentally incorrect. That signal has not shown up in the dataset… yet.


For more on information on the book, visit the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.

Posted in Climate Change, Sociology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Social Media and Disasters – Guest Post

Below is a guest post from Tanya Ferraro. She is a Medical Reserve Corps Coordinator for two emergency-based units that cover southwestern and central Virginia, and she has been working in the emergency management field since 2007.

The original post can be found at her blog; she brings up fascinating points about how the general public has begun to react to disasters in the social media age.  For those involved in Weather and Society Integrated Studies (WAS*IS), it may give some insight into the split-second decision making processes involved when individuals are faced with a mortal threat with little time to prepare.

Of particular interest was the paragraph about fear… and the public’s disconnect with crises. We often hear about the public’s desire to confirm a tornado visually before seeking shelter after a Tornado Warning is issued.

Similarly, I wonder if this paralysis and/or denial leads to the occasional parties we hear about at the oceanfront only a few hours before a landfalling hurricane, or the apparent desire to walk (or drive!) into rushing flood waters.  Onward…

* * * * *

The Perversion of Social Media

The article shares the point of view of Lt. Anthony Williams (the off-duty responder) who attempted to assist in the incident as he pulled on-scene to a burning car where reportedly two people died, burned beyond recognition.  He recalled onlookers pointing their phones at the scene in his peripheral vision and called it “the perversion of social media” that they would be more interested in capturing video footage instead of helping the victims.  That phrase caught my attention and left me wondering…is that where social media has now led the public in emergency situations?

BipHkL_CcAApVR4 Post plane-crash selfie…

Upon further investigation, I found that even being a part of disaster situations isn’t enough to distract from the need to immediately share those experiences on social media.  You can search for  “selfie after plane crash” or “selfie after stabbed” and there are, in fact, results that turn up by the plenty.  Another video seen today made light of a teenager with his dad who saw a semi-truck stuck on some rail road tracks.  As a train approached, they began recording the unfolding incident and the video was soon uploaded to YouTube and shared across the web.  And the teenager literally stood in the middle of the debris saying, “is this real life??”

So what is encouraging the public to make these choices during disaster situations?  I would argue it’s actually a list on influences that should be considerably eye-opening for my fellow emergency management focused friends, especially in their planning and response strategies.

The public isn’t empowered enough to act during disaster.  

We spend a lot of our time telling people what they can’t touch, where there can’t go, what can’t do, what they can’t say, or generally protecting whatever “territory” we feel is ours that it’s no wonder community members look a a crisis unfolding and feel helpless to do anything.  For the lay community member, what is outside of their daily job function is outside of their “basement” level thinking – the kind of thinking that happens naturally and automatically in response to a stressful situation. (I should note that concept is learned from a 2011 meta-leadership seminar I attended!)  For the officer in the story above, jumping into response mode was the obvious choice.  For the other bystanders, they’re so often made to feel that the only thing they can and should be allowed to do is wait patiently.  Is this all encompassing, of course not.  Is it pretty common?  Well, the story above is one of many examples.

The public experiences fear, and fear can be paralyzing.

One of my favorite books related to emergency management was Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable.  It’s a great read, not too complicated and very eye opening about the reactions people have to disasters.  Plane going down?  Everyone shares a laugh. Building burning down?  Let’s wait and see what’s REALLY going to happen.  Fear paralyzes people, removes their normal thought process and makes excuses against what they’re experiencing to put it in a more digestable format.  When you’re afraid, the ability to make rational decisions is quickly diminished, and that lack of recognition and decision making is paralyzing.  What do you do when you don’t know what to do?  Which leads me to my next thought…

The public has a disconnect with crises. 

We’re not empowering them, and without knowledge or training there is fear.  And where there is fear and inexperience there is a disconnect from what a crisis really is: a bad situation that can happen to anyone, anytime that is completely dependent on who will step up to handle it.  The 24-7 news-like exposure folks have to disaster in our culture so often puts them in a realm of automatic disconnect to the reality of it that when it’s in front of them, it automatically turns into almost a movie-like experience.  As long as nothing happens to someone, they will believe that nothing will happen to them.  And when it happens to others, it’s a very unfortunate, very impersonal scene that they haven’t been given a role to play in.

The public processes information in a very unprecedented way.  

There was a point in my life that if I didn’t know what to do, I’d open my phone and click on Twitter.  Or I’d sit down to do a task at my computer and type “Faceb…” before I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.  Am I proud of this fact?  No way!  “Recovering” is a more accurate description.  The point is, social media is a decision A LOT of people make when we’re in the basic, “basement” way of thinking.  Nowadays, events haven’t been experienced until they’ve been shared.  They’re not processed unless they’re discussed.  We use social media to document information, to show we’re the first to know it, to receive empathy, to alert that we’re okay, to share the unbelievable.  We use social media to experience that which simply “can’t be happening to me” during the times we “can’t do anything about it” because it isn’t real life until we can go through our notes with those we connect with.

Yes, I realize I’m speaking in absolutes, recognizing this is a thought for a general population and not all-encompassing.  But you get the idea.  It is a terrible tragedy that anyone should lose their life needlessly in disaster.  It’s even worse when there are things that can be done that aren’t done, whether for ones self (evacuating, preparing, sheltering…) or for others.

So what are you going to change about your message and your interactions with your community to humanize the emergency management field, empower your citizens and foster a whole community response to keep these things from happening any more?

Tweet #BiggerThanMyself or mention me @tjlasagna if you have some suggestions.  If this is a topic you’d like to see researched further, please also let me know.

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Farmers’ Almanacs – For Entertainment Purposes Only

First of all… which one? There are two, and they are different.

But really, it doesn’t matter if it’s The Old Farmer’s Almanac or just The Farmers’ Almanac.  That’s like choosing between palm readers.

As a general rule, I have no reason to believe any farmers’ almanac. Weather forecasting involves certain physical relationships: thermodynamics, conservation of mass, wave motion, ocean circulations, and other things I would probably never mention on television. Heaven knows we are not perfect, but I think on the large-scale, we do a pretty good job.

Show me the data

How do the farmers’ almanacs do it? They don’t tell.

So why should I trust them? They allude to solar cycles, moon phases, tides. One of them even claims their secret weather forecasting formula is locked away in a box in New Hampshire (for some reason, this makes me hungry for fried chicken).

I’ll show my data to anyone who wants to see it.  But most people don’t really want to see it.  They just want to know if it’s going to rain or not.  Is it going to be warm or cold?  Is it going to snow?  How much?

The general public has very little interest in why.  So, if they don’t know (or care), will they be able to tell the difference between someone who tools through the data on a daily basis and a faceless organization generating publicity to sell books?

On a deeper level, it says something about the level of science illiteracy in the country. But I digress.  My friend, Dan Satterfield can run with that one.

To be fair, one almanac mentions that they use climatological records, and they hold firm to the belief that certain weather patterns are repeated over the long-term. I can respect that… it’s called analog forecasting. So I would imagine some of their methodology is perfectly valid, but I cannot verify it, so I cannot trust it.

Amazingly, one of them boasts 80% accuracy. If it were that good, they would all be rich from trading weather-based commodities.  They would have investment banks and energy companies beating down their doors for their data.

And if they are right once in a while?  Well, even a stopped clock is correct two times a day.

How soon we forget. Consider one of the forecasts for summer 2014. Oppressive heat was all the rage. Unless you are on the West Coast, that forecast, as my friend Jason Samenow points out at the Capital Weather Gang, was laughably wrong.

I’m certainly no better. But I don’t pretend to be. This type of forecasting is only in its infancy. Let the buyer beware.

This blog was modified from an original post on wset.com, with an update for 2014.

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