(This is the first in a series of essays from leading researchers in the weather community on the importance of proposed congressional legislation in improving weather forecasts and their communication.)
It takes a lot of teamwork to help make the United States a “Weather Ready Nation.” Leading our team are meteorologists who are amazing professionals. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service employs some of the finest meteorologists and hydrologists in our nation — and perhaps the world. They are an agency of MacGyver-like folks, so dedicated to the mission of the agency that they tackle any and all obstacles that arise and hinder their ability to do their work with gusto, inventiveness and duct tape, if necessary.
The course of education to become a meteorologist is demanding, challenging and humbling. It includes serious study in physics and math, technology and software, geography and other coursework about Earth and its physical systems. It is a tough course of study and not everyone who begins it completes it.
But even the ones who earn their degrees do not have in-depth training and education in the social and behavioral sciences or in the humanities and arts.
Why does this matter? Because the mission of the Weather Service is in large part to save lives. Human lives. And that mission requires that all of the glorious and exciting science behind the forecasting of weather and natural hazards be communicated at the right time, in the right way, to the right people, who are properly prepared to hear and act on the information in a way to keep themselves and others safe. In short, the Weather Service needs social and behavior science to help the agency realize its core mission.
It also matters that meteorologists are not experts in human behavior because humans are complicated in ways that makes helping people so they can help themselves a noble aim, but one that is very difficult to achieve. If we want to keep people from drowning in floods, or being injured by powerful winds, or freezing to death in vehicles stuck on highways closed by snow and ice, then we need ways to bring the fruits of science to people in ways those people can understand and through mechanisms they use and trust.
Sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Senate bill S. 1573 — Weather Alerts for a Ready Nation Act of 2015 — provides support for the Weather Service in carrying out its vital mission.
Importantly, Section 3 of the bill calls for specific attention to the communication of warnings and watches in ways that are beneficial to the public served by these messages. And equally important, it calls for the NOAA administrator to directly and systematically use the expertise of other professionals, including academics in the social and behavioral sciences, in conducting an assessment of the current and ongoing system of issuing watches and warnings.
The mission of the Weather Service requires the expertise of professionals from across a variety of disciplines and fields.
You might wonder why it is so challenging to reach the right people with the right message — when the aim is to save lives. One reason is that people are complicated, and the efforts to better understand how and why people behave the ways they do are only partially successful so far.
But as for the messages getting to people? Well, consider that according to TechCrunch.com, “Strategy Analytics has published its latest figures for advertising … an overall pot that it estimates at nearly $187 billion” in January 2015. $187 BILLION. And that is for the paid messages. Just imagine adding in our personal messaging to that volume. The digital world has brought us an increasing messaging din. And of course, the rise in communication technologies, such as smartphones, tablets and apps also complicates the picture — and the problem.
Sen. Thune’s bill both brings attention to the critical role of the Weather Service and to an equally critical aspect of weather forecasting — the communication of the information at the right time, clearly and effectively.
This is no small task. Communication is complex. And in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Thune’s bill is a needed call for “more hands on deck” to get the job done. The result will be a better-prepared and safer nation that will be “Weather Ready.”
Susan Jasko is a professor in the department of communications at the California University of Pennsylvania. She serves on the executive committee for the American Meteorological Society and is a past president of the New York State Communications Society and founding president of the New Jersey Communications Society.