WeatherZine WeatherZine Number 15, April 1999
"What's happening on the Societal Aspects of Weather WWW Site."


EditorialCrossing the Valley of Death

Guest EditorialWhat Does the National Hurricane Center Need from Social Scientists? By Jerry Jarrell, Director National Hurricane Center

Job Openings
(1) Job Opening at NCAR In the Societal Aspects Of Weather
(2) Two Positions Available in Weather Derivatives — Aquila Energy

Community NewsInternational Hurricane Center (IHC) Hurricane Rapid Research Initiative (HURRI) Grants Program

New Additions to the WWW Site Subscription & Posting Information


Crossing the Valley of Death

In the predictive earth sciences, weather forecasts are perhaps the one area where the scientific community is able to document a steady improvement in predictive capabilities, and related societal benefits, over many decades. And most scientists believe that with advances in science and technology, predictive capabilities can improve further still. Given the farmers, airlines, utilities, and others who depend upon weather forecasts, such improvements should be welcome, particularly if they are made in ways that enhance decision making. What stands in the way of achieving improvements in weather forecasts?

The most common answer is that the advancements in forecasts are constrained by limited resources — for research, for computers, for forecasters, for training and education, and so on. While more resources are necessary, they are not sufficient. More research, faster computers, more (and better trained) forecasters can demonstrably lead to better predictive capabilities, but even so the weather community has had a hard time making its case for being resource-constrained. And a close examination of the facts suggest that they do in fact have a difficult case to make. The issue was aptly summarized by a colleague who said, "As forecasters, the gap between what we know and what we communicate to the public has never been larger." But if this view is correct, and we are not fully making use of the knowledge and resources that we already have, what would the point be of adding more resources to the system, unless at the same time we improve the system itself?

Twenty years ago, the Administrator of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration wrote to the President of the National Academy of Sciences to ask that the Academy conduct a study to assess how advances in science and technology can best lead to improved forecasts for the nation. In its report, (Technological and Scientific Opportunities for Improved Weather and Hydrological Services in the Coming Decade, NAS 1980) the Academy concluded that there was a need for new observing systems, improved computer systems, and better communication systems. But the report also noted that "the rate of progress toward better services is not limited by technology" — and, by extension, not by resources. Instead, the constraint was an "inadequate mechanism for transferring weather and hydrological information and knowledge of applications to specific users." This sounds a lot like the gap described above.

It seems clear that — even twenty years after the Academy report — the weather community has yet to fully and systematically address the challenge of understanding the factors necessary and sufficient for advances in science and technology to lead to benefits to society. This challenge goes by many names, including "the path from research to operations," "technology infusion," and perhaps the most colorful, "crossing the valley of death." Whatever it is called, it has a lot to do with management and policy, and involves the full spectrum of activities of the weather community, including research, development, connecting with user needs, training and education, and operations. For many years, advances in weather science and technology had immediate and obvious applications. Today, advances in science and technology occur in a context where users are much more sophisticated and society is accustomed to using weather forecasts. Realizing the benefits of further scientific and technological advances is in many cases not straightforward. While far from optimal, perhaps the community once was able to let "technology infusion" occur spontaneously, but today, this process needs to be understood and managed.

This summer the National Academy of Sciences is again preparing to address the issue of the "path from research to operations." When it does so, it will be important not only to recognize the ground already plowed in this area, but to address systematically the entire set of conditions necessary to "cross the valley of death." Until this issue is understood and effectively managed, the weather community will be frustrated in achieving its objectives, because improvements in weather science and technology are hollow victories if they cannot be translated into useful products for society.

— Roger A. Pielke, Jr.

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Guest Editorial

What Does the National Hurricane Center Need from Social Scientists?

By Jerry Jarrell, Director National Hurricane Center

Value of Service

A. For a myriad of reasons, we need an estimate of the value of a hurricane forecast. Much of the reference is "arm-waving" and relates to the cost of preparing a mile of coastline for a hurricane, and therefore some of that could be saved by more targeted forecasts. This is negative in that we are expressing reduction of the waste caused by the current forecast. It would seem rational that if we are benefiting society, then we should be able to show positive effects from our forecast such as: prevention of some hurricane damage, prevention of casualties, and the avoidance of preparatory actions when watches and warnings are not posted in threatening situations. If the NHC is truly a bargain, then the positive value should far outweigh the negative value we today advertise. The truth of this statement can be demonstrated in the absurd limit that we could easily avoid the negative costs of over-preparing by simply never preparing. Note: As early as the 1800s, there were attempts to estimate the value of hurricane forecasts published in Monthly Weather Review.

B. What is the proper balance between funding for meteorological advances in tropical cyclone operations and research and for other aspects of tropical cyclone impacts (e.g., long-term mitigation through building codes, land management uses, education and training)?

C. How important is the National Weather Service (NWS)/National Hurricane Center (NHC) in the public's view? How important is research that leads to improvements at NHC? How can these perceptions be transformed into additional resources for tropical cyclone operations and research? (U.S. tropical cyclones claim about 10 times the number of lives lost in U.S. earthquakes, yet funding for tropical cyclones is about 1/10 that of earthquakes.)


A. Terminology

The words "watch" and "warning" may be poorly understood by the public, and they seem to have lost any relationship to the actual response time required in most locations. Scrapping or replacing any concept with which the public is familiar carries a risk. How could we replace the words and concepts with a series of terms escalating (or counting down) the threat over several days without accruing considerable risk of confusing the public?

B1. Evolving Baselines

Inland flooding has become the primary hurricane-related killer in the United States over the past thirty years, for perhaps 70 years. Virtually all inland flooding deaths are preventable, yet we don't seem to be containing them. What can we do to prevent hurricane-related inland flood deaths?

B2. While the concept of evacuation from the coastline has doubtlessly reduced the historic pre-eminence of storm surge flooding as the primary hurricane-related killer, the possibility of over-evacuation now looms as one of the principal ingredients in a "traffic scenario" hurricane catastrophe. How can we now selectively discourage evacuation without undoing the gains of the past 30 years?

C. Clarity

The heart of what NHC does is communication, yet we have never had a professional appraisal of the effectiveness of our communications. Such an appraisal might record all of our written and spoken communications for one or two landfalling events and then use something like a "focus group" to determine what was communicated, and interview us to see what were the primary points we were attempting to communicate.

D. Language

Spanish is the primary language of much of the coastal population, particularly in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and New York. Emergency communications should be in the primary language of the listener, otherwise misinterpretation is a good possibility. NHC advisories are exclusively in English, and automated translators have not been successful. With a time delay, the San Juan Weather Forecast Office now translates our "Public Advisory," but not our other products such as special disturbance statements, updates, discussions, or the "Forecast Advisory," and their translation adds a delay of up to one hour. Can software be tailored to do this translation, considering that a limited number of repetitive phrases are used?

E. Complexity

Are the strike probabilities helping or hindering the mission of conveying the risk to emergency managers and the public?

F. Consistency

Does the public get a consistent message from the media? From the NWS? In the whole?

G. Advisory Content

What other information should the NHC provide in its advisories (e.g., other variables, longer-range forecasts (of diminished accuracy), probabilistic vs. deterministic forecasts)? What is the Tropical Prediction Center (TPC)/NHC providing now that is unnecessary or should be changed (e.g., Is effectiveness and utility of warnings [often considered a sacred cow] so low as to indicate that some other means to motivate/enhance response should be used)?

H. Form and Medium

With an eye toward future technologies, in what way should NWS/NHC information be presented to maximize understanding and response by the (1) public, (2) emergency management, and (3) the media? Should information be provided textually, graphically (simple single image, in 3-D, in animation, other), audibly, or in some other way or combination of ways? How should the information be disseminated: NWS systems, Internet, a "NOAA Channel", etc.?

Forecast Credibility

A. The National Hurricane Center and its Emergency Management partners have the dilemma of having to get people to respond to a forecast even if it's wrong or, in many cases for people on the periphery, they must over-respond even if the forecast is right. How can we best articulate this to the public so as to elicit cooperation without building a backlog of resistance to future cooperation?

B. The over-warning dilemma continues to concern us. Earlier studies allegedly showed that the level of public response to a hurricane threat is not diminished in a given area by previous false alarms. This finding seems counter-intuitive, and, a new study might be needed to address this issue.

Documentation of Societal Views

A. A single, comprehensive documentation of relevant past studies about public perceptions of hurricane risk/issues as obtained by the numerous societal researchers is needed. This should provide both an overview for the public as a whole and also address regional anomalies.

B. Risk Perception

If track forecasts continue to improve, what do the public and emergency managers prefer that the NWS provide: Additional lead time or a smaller warning area?

C. Regarding the size of hurricane warnings for a given cyclone, what does society view to be the appropriate trade-off between overall monetary savings associated with reduction of warning size and the corresponding increase of risk to life and limb?


A. Three insurance companies (Northwest Mutual, State Farm, and USAA) are cooperating on a "disaster resistant" housing project. Their attractive design will withstand all but the worst hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornados. This may be the ultimate avenue for the long-term control of escalating disaster costs. How can public demand for such housing be stimulated?


A. It appears that several of these items are going to require money for further public education. What kind of educational materials should be developed?

We at the WeatherZine welcome your comments on this contribution. Are there answers to Jerry Jarrell's queries out there? If not, how can we best obtain them? Email to

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Job Openings

(1) Job Opening at NCAR In the Societal Aspects Of Weather

PLEASE NOTE: This is a new, full-time term position. Applications for this position will be accepted until 5:00 p.m. on Friday, May 14, 1999.
NCAR — Environmental and Societal Impacts Group (ESIG)
Starting Salary Range $2,699-$3,373/month

DUTIES INCLUDE: Conducts data analysis, manipulation, and presentation, investigation research, basic statistical and policy analyses, and other research support activities in support of ESIG research related to the societal aspects of weather. Preparation and editing of materials for publication (e.g., WWW, internal reports, publications, etc.) Acts as Associate Editor of the Societal Aspects of Weather WWW site and the WeatherZine newsletter, which requires collection and collation of materials, and possibly preparation in HTML. Preparation of research updates, production of bibliographies, basic hardware and software support, as required.

Education and Experience:

Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:

DESIRED (but not required):

(2) Two Positions Available in Weather Derivatives

Aquila Energy in Kansas City is one of the largest players in the weather derivatives market. Weather derivatives are traded options contingent on weather. We might sell a contract that would pay out $10,000 for every cooling degree day (CDD) in Miami above a specified threshold for cumulative CDDs. We price these options to using statistical models of climatological variability. Both statistical and dynamical forecasting techniques are employed. The weather group at Aquila has a substantial portfolio of weather contracts (both bought and sold). This market is growing rapidly. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, one of the largest commodity exchanges in the world, will begin trading weather as a listed commodity this fall. Skills and interests in time series analysis, climatology, multivariate statistics, phenomenology of El Nino, and/or stochastic processes would all be useful in this field.

We are looking for a summer intern for this summer. Grad student in atmospheric science, geography, engineering or math could apply. Tremendous learning experience. You will sit on the trading floor at Aquila and learn the ins and outs of trading weather risk.

We are looking for a person with good statistical skills — particularly in time series analysis and multivariate statistics. This person will be responsible for examining correlations between weather variability in a number of different locations and simulating the subsequent risks in a weather 'portfolio.' For a highly motivated person with an interest in the business of weather risk management, weather insurance, etc., this is a great opportunity. We have a top-notch team here at Aquila. This is not a new position — there is sophisticated proprietary software in place. The job requires strong analytical skills and the ability to improve the methods and software used in analyzing weather risk. In the longer term, there is the opportunity to develop one-off weather derivative products. Interest in using strong academic skills in a business environment is very important. Very good communication skills are critical. You will have the opportunity to work with highly-skilled personnel: there are at least 12 Ph.D.'s in hard sciences at Aquila.

We have interest in applicants at both the masters and doctorate level.

Please Contact and send resume

Geoff Considine
Aquila Energy

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Community News

International Hurricane Center (IHC) Hurricane Rapid Research Initiative (HURRI) Grants Program

Deadline: Proposals must be received by May 15, 1999.

Purpose: The IHC at Florida International University announces its Hurricane Rapid Research Initiative (HURRI). The HURRI program is designed to facilitate field research in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane or severe storm.

Description: The purpose of these pre-approved grants is to provide transportation, per diem, and miscellaneous supplies for post-hurricane field work. It is assumed that the initial data collected on a HURRI grant will then be used to strengthen a proposal for a major research grant from an agency such as the National Science Foundation. While not required, it is hoped that the future project will involve the International Hurricane Center.

Eligibility: Proposals may come from any discipline or field, including but not limited to the natural and physical sciences, social sciences, health sciences, and engineering. The grants can be used to support doctoral research if the proposal is written and supervised by a faculty member.

Funding Amount: The IHC will pre-award several grants of up to $4,000 each to researchers from SUS universities to cover direct expenses (excluding salary, wages and stipends) to carry out post-impact hurricane research of relevance in Florida.

International Hurricane Center
Florida International University
PHONE: (305)348-1607 FAX: (305)348-1605

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New Additions to the WWW Site


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Emergency Management

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Tropical Cyclone

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