WeatherZine WeatherZine Number 6, October 1997
"What's happening on the Societal Aspects of Weather WWW Site."


EditorialCute and Fuzzy, Discrete and Destructive

Community NewsSpotlight on El Niño

New Additions to the WWW Site Subscription & Posting Information


Cute and Fuzzy, Discrete and Destructive

If we are to understand research on the societal aspects of weather, we have to understand "the cute and fuzzy problem." By "the cute and fuzzy problem" I am referring to the frequent complaint of colleagues who work in the area of endangered species that the general public (and policy makers) only care about saving species that are cute and fuzzy, like bears, wolves, ferrets, etc. Those species that fail the cute and fuzzy test (e.g., frogs, insects, or fish) fail to capture public sympathy and therefore support for their protection.

In the world of research on the societal aspects of weather, it seems we have an analogous problem. Ours is not "cute and fuzzy" but instead "discrete and destructive." We in the atmospheric sciences and natural hazards communities tend to focus our attention on those phenomena and impacts that are easily characterized (i.e., discrete) and visually powerful (i.e., destructive). The examples are familiar: hurricanes, tornados, floods, blizzards, etc.

Our attention to the discrete and destructive is appropriate given that these phenomena wreak havoc on society and, in many cases, our past responses have been less than successful. But, this attention can become problematical in two ways.

First, it is a problem when the attention focused on the discrete and destructive come at the expense of attention to phenomena that are perhaps less easily characterized or less visually powerful, yet nonetheless result in significant impacts to society. Examples include extreme heat and cold, fog, and even air quality. The examples go beyond extreme events to more typical weather: For instance, I was most surprised to learn that while many in the research community consider temperature forecasting to be a "solved" problem, many users of weather information in the private sector feel that enormous benefits could accrue with only modest improvements in temperature forecasts.

A second problem exists when we take phenomena that are not easily characterized or not visually powerful and try to force them into the "discrete and destructive" mold. It is a little like trying to make the cockroach seem "cute and fuzzy"! Perhaps the best recent example of this is the ongoing attention to the present El Niño. Many in the media, often encouraged by researchers, have painted the present El Niño as the "worst climate event" this century. Whether or not this is true is less important than the fact that policy responses to El Niño forecasts have much more in common with response to precipitation forecasts than hurricane forecasts (e.g., bring an umbrella but don't evacuate). So trying to make El Niño "discrete and destructive" could lead to confusion and hype that threaten both our ability to respond effectively and the credibility of the scientific community.

Just as with endangered species, we can expect that the public and policy makers will always focus on the "discrete and destructive." However, this need not sway us in the research community from focusing our efforts on problems and phenomena that are no less important but perhaps less "cute and fuzzy."

— Roger A. Pielke, Jr.

[ Contents ]

Community News

El Niño of 1997-98 Could Resemble the Destructive 1982-83 Event

If you'd like to learn more about El Niño's impacts on the United States, check out the new page we have added on El Niño. For more general information on El Niño, check out the ENSO Colloquium site

The following press release was issue by the U.S. Federal Emergency Managment Agency last month.

WASHINGTON September 5, 1997 — The strong warm-episode oceanic conditions known as the "El Niño" is forecast by the National Climate Prediction Center to cause wetter and cooler than normal conditions over the northern Rockies and portions of the Great Plains and drier than normal conditions in the mid-Atlantic states. The High Plains and portions of the Midwest, on the other hand, will see a warmer than usual winter this winter because of the event. These conditions are expected to continue through the winter months of 1997 and into the early months of spring 1998.

The peak impacts from the El Niño are most likely to occur during the winter months, beginning in November, when a stronger than normal North Pacific jet stream is predicted to develop bringing above-normal precipitation to the southwestern states. Other areas of concern are the coastal areas of southern California (during the 1982-1983 event, Los Angeles received almost triple than normal amounts of rainfall) and the Gulf States.

Forecasters base their predictions on past El Niño events and anomaly patterns, which have remained highly consistent from episode to episode, especially when forecasts for the winter can begin to be formulated in the summer. This year's El Niño is most comparable to and could be even stronger than the 1982-1983 event, which caused more than $8 billion in damages worldwide. Forecasters called the 1982-1983 El Niño the greatest El Niño of the century and the 1997-1998 event could reach the same destructive level.

Damages to the continental United States exceeded $2 billion from storms and storm-related floods from the 1982-1983 El Niño with almost $1.2 billion in flood damages to the Gulf States alone. The Mountain and Pacific States had $1 billion in damages and Hawaii had $230 million in damages due to a hurricane which is partially blamed on the El Niño. The death toll from all the storms exceeded 160 people.

[ Contents ]

New Additions to the WWW Site

Emergency Management

[ Contents ]

General Public

[ Contents ]

Tropical Cyclone

[ Contents ]

People & Organizations

[ Contents ]

[ map | home | feedback ]