WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

At the intersection of weather and societal impacts

Posted August 10, 2009 12:18 p.m. EDT
Updated August 10, 2009 12:43 p.m. EDT

If you lived in Raleigh in January of 2005, you no doubt remember the "Gridlock" day, where less than an inch of snow brought the Triangle to its knees.  Half-hour commutes became 6-hour-long ordeals, and some kids wound up spending the night at their schools because their buses couldn't pick them up and take them home.

Weather forecasters — TV and National Weather Service alike — took a beating for that event, but upon further analysis, the timing and final quantity of the snowfall was actually reasonably well-forecast.  Plus, even here in Raleigh, such a small snow event rarely causes more than a minor inconvenience.  So, why then, does such a minor weather event (all of that snow would have melted down to a measly 0.04" of liquid) that was actually reasonably well-forecast cause such chaos?  For another example, Hurricane Katrina was extremely well-forecast, and still, almost 2,000 people died, many of whom because they didn't evacuate.  Why?

These are very good questions, and they are questions that we meteorologists can't answer on our own.  We need to connect with social scientists — communicators, psychologists, sociologists, and so on — to help us understand how people get weather information, how they interpret it, and how that information influences (or doesn't influence!) their decision-making.

That's the point of the Weather and Society – Integrated Studies workshop I'm attending this week.  Each summer, the Societal Impacts Program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research brings in a couple dozen meteorologists and social scientists to discuss how we can all work better together. 

Today is the third full day of the workshop.  Through the first two days, we've gotten to know the other participants; learned to communicate across disciplines (some words mean different things to different people!); discussed partnerships between universities, the National Weather Service, TV stations like WRAL, and others; and learned about how the various disciplines represented here see the world.  Today's sessions are about doing social science research.  We'll also introduce the group to concepts like vulnerability and resilience, and we'll talk about the role various cultures play in how people receive, interpret, and act on weather forecasts.

One of the side benefits of the workshop is that it's held in Boulder, CO.  It's about 30 miles northwest of Denver, and it banks right up against the Rocky Mountains.  Yesterday, we took a group hike up through the Flatirons, a small line of mountains near downtown Boulder.  We hiked two-and-a-half miles and climbed about 1,400 feet.  Not a bad Sunday morning workout!  (And let's not forget -- the views are GORGEOUS!)  The hike itself is a great way for us to get to know each other and build relationships that will help us all get stuff done in the future.

In any event, we're back to work today.  I and a number of other participants are tweeting as we go.  If you're interested, you can search Twitter for updates from the workshop

Do you have any questions for the group?