of the
Workshop on the Social and Economic Impacts of Weather

2-4 April 1997
Boulder, CO


U.S. Weather Research Program
American Meteorological Society
Electric Power Research Institute
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
White House Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction
Environmental and Societal Impacts Group (NCAR)

Invited Participants


Significant potential exists for society to benefit in tangible ways from improvements in the specificity, reliability, verification, and usefulness of weather forecasts on time scales of minutes to days. Weather is important to society from the standpoint of responding to extreme events and also from the standpoint of improving decision making in the face of the more typical day-to-day vagaries of weather.

Why should society care about weather?

Extreme Event Impacts in The United States

Event Annual Mean
Loss of
Life (period)
Annual Mean
Current $
Loss (period)
Recent extreme
event, $ loss,
deaths (date)
floods 96 ('86-'95) $2.4B ('84-'93) $20B ('93)
156 ('76)
hurricanes 20 ('86-'95) $6.2B ('89-'95) $30B ('92)
256 ('69)
winter storms 47 ('88-'95) >$1B (est.) $6B ('93)
200+ ('93)
tornadoes 44 ('85-'95) $2.9B ('91-'94) $3.8B ('93)
94 ('85)
extreme heat 384 ('79-'92) ? >$15B ('80)
522 ('95)
extreme cold 770 ('68-'85) ? >$30B ('76-'77)
lightning 175 ('40-'81) >$1B (est.) ?
hail - $2.3B (est.) $650M ('90)
Annual Averages >1500 >$15.8B

Extreme weather
The table summarizes data presented at the meeting on the direct impacts of recent extreme events in the United States as measured by loss of life and current dollar losses. There was general agreement among participants that the relatively poor quality of available data on impacts limits conclusive findings.

Several points stand out. First, it may come as a surprise that the largest loss of life in recent years has been associated with extreme temperatures. Second, among the first four phenomena listed in the box, floods result in the most deaths, followed by winter storms and tornadoes, and finally hurricanes. Lightning has perennially been associated with a large loss of life.

In terms of the economic losses associated with extreme weather, a conservative estimate of national losses is on the order of $300 million per week. The number is conservative because it neglects the effects of inflation, covers only the direct impacts of extreme events, and leaves out the costs associated with extreme temperatures, which are certainly significant. The actual total economic impacts associated with extreme weather events is likely to be several times that estimated here.

Trend data can mislead. Workshop participants pointed out that underlying the data on extreme event impacts are sub-trends in climate patterns and changes in society. For instance, hurricane damages have risen almost exponentially in recent decades during a period of decreased hurricane activity. The reason for the increase in damages is the enormous coastal growth, placing more people and their property in vulnerable locations. As a consequence of societal change, historical impacts data is likely to underestimate today's vulnerability to weather.

In recognition of our relatively poor understanding of trends in impacts and the underlying vulnerability to those impacts, participants at the Workshop put together a qualitative summary of trends in impacts, event frequency and intensity, and causes for the trends. This figure is shown in Table 2.

The figure shows that impacts associated with all extreme events, on a roughly 20-year time scale, are perceived as increasing in terms of both deaths and dollars (with the single exception of tornado-related deaths). Additionally, the figure shows that participants perceived that the increase in impacts was largely due to societal factors with respect to each phenomenon, expect for perhaps floods. Participants identified a need to better understand the interrelationship of climatological and societal factors which underlie the trends in impacts.

Economic efficiency and competitiveness
Participants felt strongly that the cumulative impacts of more typical day-to-day weather were significant, and probably much larger than the attention-getting extreme events. Day-to-day weather associated with temperature, precipitation, winds, etc. has the potential to disrupt decision making, thereby adding to the "cost of doing business." The impacts of weather on the day-to-day costs of business are thus a matter of economic efficiency and competitiveness.

Present at the meeting were experts from the following industries: oil and gas, electric power, surface transportation, agriculture, aviation, and insurance. They related numerous examples of the effects of weather that decision makers face in their day-to-day operations and the potential value of improved weather information and information use. Examples of impacts and their potential reduction include:

Oil and gas exploration:

Vegetable processing:


Rail transportation:

Electric power:


Participants observed that while extreme events capture the attention of the public and policy makers, it is in the area of improved decision making in the face of routinely disruptive weather where the greatest economic savings to the nation can accrue. This is because typical decision making is more amenable to study and optimization as compared to the highly infrequent and uncertain environment that characterizes extreme events. With many trials, significant value can accrue.

How can we better understand the use/value of weather information to society?

The answer to this question is needed in at least three areas: (1) in the research prioritization process, (2) in order to inform policy makers and the public of the value of weather information, and (3) to contribute to more effective decision making utilizing weather information.

Available Tools
Social scientists utilize a range of methodologies to research the use and value of information to decision makers. Examples include:

Participants at the Workshop concluded that tools such as these are available to better understand the value to society of improved forecasts and to contribute to improved use of weather information by decision makers. The tools have been well developed, and thus do not need additional refinement to be applied in the context of weather and society.

Value to Society is a Function of Information Quality AND Information Use

It has long been recognized that information acquires value through influencing the behavior of decision makers. A perfect forecasts is of no value if it is unavailable to or unusable by a decision maker. Consequently, attention must be focused on the use and value of weather information in parallel to ongoing efforts to improve the quality of the information. Participants at the Workshop noted that, typically, greater attention is paid to improving the quality of information than it is to improving the use of information. As a result, decision makers do not use existing information products to their full potential. This theme was reinforced by the representatives of the "user community" at the Workshop who felt strongly that existing weather information is not as well used as it could be.

Meeting Recommendations

  1. Establish an ongoing user-based group to advise the USWRP (and others) on needed research and feedback information on research value.

  2. Focus a complementary research effort, parallel to research focused on improving weather information, in the area of the use and value to society of weather information. Two areas are particularly important:

    1. Conduct a comprehensive assessment of the use and value of weather information in a particular community (population <100,000) in order to systematically identify opportunities for and constraints on improved use of information by various decision makers. Work with similar initiatives under way by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Insurance Institute for Property Loss Reduction, and Center for Disease Control. Such an assessment could ultimately lead to the development of "tool kits" for decision makers to help guide use of weather information. Such "tool kits" would be tested as prototypes prior to operational use.

    2. Support focused evaluations of the use and value of weather information in various decision contexts, in particular public and private sectors in order to establish an understanding of "what works" and "what is needed." Such evaluations could be sponsored through a modest grants program.

Breakout group chairs -

Trends, Chris Adams
Users, Nick Keener
Methodology, Ken Heideman

Societal Aspects of Weather

Workshop's Main Page

Table of Contents