When we refer to climate change as a crisis, let us not lose sight of the real problems it creates – namely, severe weather. Climate change does not kill people and damage property, the manifestations of it do. The impacts from flooding, wildfire, and extreme heat events have been increasing, and the key to saving lives during them is accurate, high precision weather information. When combined with decision support insights and recommendations, the resulting weather intelligence can help businesses, our military, and the public survive and thrive as the climate changes.
Take the excessive and rapid flooding in the Gulf and Northeast regions recently associated with Hurricane Ida. The general public was shocked by the images of water gushing into New York City subway stations and entire New Jersey neighborhoods under water. Incredibly, more people died in New England than on the Gulf Coast, despite National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts for rainfall being spot on. Why is that?
There are two answers to that question. First, the psychological impact of a hurricane or tornado warning compared is much greater than the less-ominous flood warning. This has motivated the NWS to increase investment in social science research to improve communication and delivery services. By better understanding how the public receives weather information, NWS has shaped its messaging to achieve the greatest impact. Examples include using terms like extremely dangerous, catastrophic, and un-survivable in their forecast products.
The other reason for accurate forecasts being unheeded may be more important. Our digital device-dependent society has created an expectation for hyper local, ultra-precise everything. From the app my kids use to know the arrival of their school bus to the minute, package delivery from Amazon, to the status of an online order at Starbucks, we have become accustomed to knowing exactly what we want to know when we want to know it, as well as receiving exactly what we want to receive exactly when we want it. Thus, general flood warnings, even if provided via mobile phone at the county level do not always cause people to evade the threat. NWS has tried to remedy this device alert desensitization, but Ida’s death toll indicates more is clearly needed.
Enter weather intelligence. The same technology that we rely on every minute of every day is now being used to deliver hyperlocal weather information tailored to an individual’s need, preference, itinerary, and risk. “Afternoon showers” might be sufficiently specific for a drive to the grocery school, but keeping the public safe as extreme weather continues to increase requires more tailored, actionable, and accurate information. Might not a message like “Expect life-threatening high water at 9th and Bay Avenue between 1:40-3:15 PM – evacuate immediately” be more effective? The good news is that the federal government and industry have begun collaborating to deliver just this kind of service. Public private partnerships involving satellite data, aircraft data, supercomputers, modeling, artificial intelligence, and science and technology are improving the quality, timeliness, accessibility, and impact of NOAA/NWS data and decision support. There remains room for improvement, but the rapid expansion of weather and climate services in the private sector is highly encouraging.
When I served in the Navy, we followed the saying “Never waste a crisis.” In other words, we responded to every challenge by learning from it so we could perform better the next time another occurred. Today’s climate crisis is also an opportunity. By mainstreaming high-tech, big data solutions for weather intelligence, we can beat the odds of our increased climate exposure and keep more citizens safe from events like Ida. With the Biden Administration proposing $500 million for NOAA to improve wildfire and flood forecasting and $3.46 billion to FEMA for hazard mitigation, both to reduce the effects of climate change, both agencies would do well to invest more of that funding in weather intelligence than not.