WAS*IS Weather and Society Workshop: Preparing the US for a new paradigm in hazardous weather forecasting

I’ve been attending the Advanced Weather and Society Integrated Studies WAS*IS Workshop: Beyond Storm Warnings: A collaboration between stakeholders, the National Weather Service (NWS), and the Hazardous Weather Testbed (HWT).

The workshop has focused on the National Weather Center’s HWT and the role the social sciences and key stakeholders (Emergency Management, public leadership, and the public). Much of the workshop has focused on probabilistic forecasting, a developing technology that will provide more concise hazardous weather forecasting. Emergency management and the public have grown used to a certain paradigm when receiving reports of hazardous weather. The NWS needs to insure roll-out of a new system will not cause errors in public communications, particularly since the issues involve life and death. The workshop audience is primarily NWS personnel and a small mix of social scientists (Sociology, Communication, Anthropology).

Day 1: Lots of background information about HWT, WAS*IS, Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), and Probabilistic Forecasting. We also broke into groups to look at the new probabilistic forecasting model from different societal impact foci.

In a nutshell, what does this all mean from a non-meteorological perspective and education? The most interesting thing if the aspect of dealing with uncertainty in forecasting. Most of us expect some sense of certainty from the weather reports and meteorologist we see on television. Perhaps this comes from this information coming from “officials.” Interestingly, the current forecasting models have even more uncertainty that the new system they hope to roll out. But the new system focuses on probability and this may just be beyond the understanding on most of the general public, not to mention emergency management. The most promising use of this system is reporting that is specific to user’s geographic location. Emerging technologies, specifically information and communication technologies combined with GPS, promise better use of the system. For example, your iPhone will be able directly report to you reporting hazardous weather that is approaching your specific vicinity (as opposed to a radio broadcast that pinpoints your entire county… the current methodology in hazardous reporting). The system allows long-term (hours, in some cases) heads up on impending weather events. Advanced warning can be an issue… how do people deal with warnings that come hours before the event?

The system would make an excellent scenario for digital game based learning. Students could take on the roll of emergency managers. The system would teach probability, critical thinking skills, mathematics, graphing, and communication skills.

The social sciences will need to help collect data on how people respond to this new information. Surveys have been discussed frequently, although some new technologies, in particular Sense Networks, could help provide data on actions taken by people.

From a societal perspective, even if we could better pinpoint hazardous warning, would that change people’s behavior. Ultimately, the goal is to get people to respond by putting themselves in a safe place.

Day 2: Some opening comments on yesterday’s progress. This was the first real response from the social science and psychological perspective. Lots of discussion. And an introduction to updates to the Emergency Alert System (EAS) by changes in the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP). It amounts to an increase in information.

Again, what does this mean for the education community? The National Weather Service is on the crux of unveiling new forecasting methods. Public information will change. If the education community comes to the table, the weather enterprise could begin to suggest the needs for public knowledge to make informed decisions from the forecasts.

Leadership training is another aspect that may need to be considered. More information permits local leadership (i.e. school principals) to make informed decisions that are site specific. Research and practices on innovation diffusion could insure success in this endeavor.

As the education paradigm in the US begins to change, this could be an ideal time to influence the knowledge base of the citizenry. If a core understanding of probability is necessary to make the most informed decisions from the forecast, then the education system should insure high school graduates have the knowledge. While probability is covered by middle school, relevancy is necessary to insure students “get it”.

Probability is an important concept for multiple areas. Climate change is an excellent example. Public availability of raw information requires a better understanding of scientific uncertainty. Math and statistics are not just needed for the sole purpose of improving our nation’s report card. Not only do we tend to question the “facts” reported by media and leadership, leadership is becoming less willing to draw absolute conclusions, partly due to issues of liability. We need a citizenry ready to make personal risks assessments, take probability data, and make their own informed decisions. We need a citizenry that can do inquiry based science, even on a personal level.

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