Frustrating. Infuriating. Devastating.
That’s how it feels to see a crippling power grid failure and buckling infrastructure due to exactly the kind of extreme cold that has happened before and extreme heat that was predicted decades ago.
That’s how it feels when politics and misinformation are prolonging our return to a more normal life.
The frustration, infuriation and devastation are particularly acute for those who have dedicated their lives to advancing science and science communication. While there is great progress to be proud of, extreme weather and the pandemic have exposed fatal shortcomings in how science is communicated and interpreted when it matters most.
From vaccine education to weather warnings, scientists and communicators are too often failing to translate modern science into actions that save lives and limit human suffering. While there is always room to improve the underlying science, the culprit is often the “last mile” of communication between the messenger and end user.
“Our technology has advanced significantly in weather forecasting, but getting the information over the finish line is critical,” said Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia and former president of the American Meteorological Society. “If the person or organization did not properly receive or interpret the information, a good forecast quickly becomes a bad one.”
The sheer scope of these challenges can feel overwhelming and daunting with no end in sight. However, there are things scientists, communicators and organizations can do starting today to improve science communication, make public warning messages more effective, increase resilience to extreme weather fueled by climate change and battle misinformation. Here are four recommendations:
1. Prepare people for the heat of the moment, during the calm before the storm
Weather forecasters often express frustration that many people still don’t know the difference between a watch and a warning. But what is second nature to one who eats, sleeps and breathes their particular area of scientific expertise may barely register with much of the public at large. So while regularly explaining the difference between a watch and warning may seem repetitive to the forecaster, it might be a valuable refresher for their audience. (For the record, a watch means the potential for severe weather to develop, while a warning means that severe weather is imminent or already occurring.)
Scientists and communicators would do well to remind themselves ahead of every new weather or environmental threat that much of their audience may not remember the terminology or jargon from previous threats. Furthermore, they should use the proverbial calm before the storm to prepare people for the worst (even while hoping for the best).
For example, in the case of potential flooding, that could mean encouraging people to check their flood risk and make sure their mobile device is set up to receive warnings, explaining the difference between a flash flood warning and flash flood emergency, and discussing what actions people should take if they encounter a flooded road or live in a basement apartment. In many communities, that information should be provided in both English and Spanish, with special attention to accurate translation for local dialects.
Such action-oriented information is just as important, if not more so, as the amount of rain expected or the science behind the storm. “Sometimes you get so hung up on getting the forecast right that you’re conveying all the meteorology,” wrote Space City Weather meteorologist and managing editor Matt Lanza in a recent article. “But that’s not what always helps people in their exact situations.”
2. Weather forecasting isn’t a DIY project — get professional help
The National Weather Service provides forecast advice to core partners, such as emergency managers, through its Impact-Based Decision Support Services (IDSS). This includes both remote and on-site support during impactful weather events to help partners better understand the forecast and take appropriate actions. By all accounts, IDSS is an important and effective program but also one that cannot realistically reach the millions of businesses, agencies and municipalities sensitive to extreme weather.
Too many organizations continue to take a do-it-yourself approach to monitoring weather forecasts and making weather-related decisions, often leaving the interpretation of forecasts to staff members who don’t fully understand forecast confidence and the probability of different scenarios occurring. For example, only after New York City was criticized for its response to severe flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida did it recently announce it would hire a private weather company to augment briefings it receives from the National Weather Service.
The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events should be a wake-up call to mayors, county executives, governors, government agency leaders and corporate executives. These leaders must ask themselves why, if they wouldn’t trust anyone but a lawyer to manage their legal risk, or anyone but a cybersecurity specialist to manage their cyber risk, they would trust someone who isn’t a meteorologist to manage their weather and climate risk.
Given the consensus that weather extremes will only get worse, any organization significantly impacted by weather should invest in the expertise and technology necessary to enable proactive weather-related decisions. This could include hiring a full-time meteorologist, contracting with a private weather service, or implementing a weather decision support tool to scale up monitoring across large areas or many locations.
3. All weather is local. That’s where we should collaborate on clear and consistent messaging.
Confusing and inconsistent messaging on masks and vaccines has hurt the pandemic response from the beginning. One example is emphasizing the importance of vaccines in protecting oneself, but underemphasizing the deadly risk the unvaccinated pose to others, thus allowing vaccines to be framed as a personal choice rather than a public health obligation.
“Actually, there is a spillover effect from the unvaccinated that leads to breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, not to mention the impact on kids too young to get the vaccine and the immunocompromised,” said Leana Wen, Washington Post contributing columnist and public health professor at George Washington University. “The message from the start should have been that vaccines work best when everyone gets them.”
Inconsistent messaging has long plagued weather forecasting as well, especially as the Internet, social media and mobile devices have dramatically increased the number of sources of weather information. Different forecasts and styles of presentation can confuse or mislead people and reduce the effectiveness of forecasts and warnings.
A recent paper by weather and social science researchers Castle Williams and Gina Eosco found there is much work to be done in understanding when, where and under which circumstances consistent weather messaging matters, and even in defining message consistency in the context of weather. This is an important line of research that should eventually drive changes in operational forecasts and warnings.
Meanwhile, given the urgency of more frequent extreme weather, forecasters and decision-makers should come together at the local level to cooperate on consistent messages that compel proper preparation for and response to severe threats. That doesn’t necessarily mean every forecast provider needs to use the exact same words and color codes. But it could mean forecasters in a given metropolitan area agreeing on one or two key messages to communicate ahead of a major storm or other hazard. Organizations such as the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association could convene such collaborations.
4. Misinformation is a massive problem. Scientists and communicators should combat it from inside the classroom.
The pandemic and 2020 election have exposed in a stunning way just how much of the population is vulnerable to misinformation. Meanwhile, climate misinformation has persisted for decades and continues to proliferate on the Internet and social media, even as the influence of climate change is now plainly seen in more frequent and intense extreme weather events.
There are numerous efforts underway to combat misinformation, such as the United Nations’ Covid-19 Communications Response Initiative and Google’s recently announced crackdown on false climate change advertising. To win the war against misinformation in the long run, though, we must educate the next generation of information consumers.
“Online misinformation might seem like an incurable virus, but social media companies, policymakers and nonprofits are beginning to address the problem more directly,” wrote freelance journalist Amy Yee in a New York Times opinion piece last year. “What still needs more attention, however, is more and earlier education.”
Many schools have incorporated media literacy into their curriculum, but hearing directly from a practitioner connects those lessons to real life. Scientists and communicators who have young children or are otherwise connected with teachers or schools should volunteer to visit classrooms to talk about misinformation, what it is, how to spot it, and why it’s so dangerous. Moreover, they should be actively encouraged to do so by their employers.
Only through a broad and supported engagement effort can we prepare the next generation for the infodemics — too much false information in the public sphere — of the present and future.
Dan Stillman is a co-founder and lead meteorologist for the Capital Weather Gang, and director of marketing for space and government at Tomorrow.io.