Hotlanta Meet the Weather Geeks

11 February 2014

It’s that time of year again, the time of year when a few hundred meteorologists descend on a city to brush shoulders and get blasted with the best. This year’s unfortunate city was Atlanta, Georgia: home of Coke-a-Cola World, a huge-ass aquarium, and people that can’t drive in snow.

First, a little about my Atlanta experience.

If you have turned on CNN in the past week, I am sure you saw the 142,498 stories about children being stranded at schools, people sleeping in CVS, and traffic jams for 20 hours when the city got 2 inches of snow. Now having spent 4 hours in the downtown, it makes sense why that happened.

Nobody lives downtown.

Come 5pm, everyone floods to the parking garages, jumps in their car, and heads out of downtown. Everyone.

In fact, 63% of people that work in Atlanta don’t live there (number 2 only behind Washington DC for commuter percentage for a city over 250,000). Which is exacerbated by the fact that almost 9 out of every 10 people commute using a car, one of the worst ratios in the country.

It should not be surprising that this, plus a little mother nature, caused so much chaos.

And of course, the immediate response, blame it on the weatherman.

Seriously, both the Governor of Georgia and Mayor of Atlanta within 48 hours of the storm were both quoted bashing the National Weather Service (NWS) and local broadcasters for not properly warning them of the impending storm.

Is this true?

Did the NWS issue the correct warnings at the correct times? Yes.

Did the news media relay these warnings during their news broadcasts? Yes.

Did anyone in the Atlanta area actually have a clue what these warnings meant? No.

Which brings me to the conference.

The 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society (yes, the people that put that little AMS next to your local TV guys name) set the theme for the conference, many many months before Atlanta got snow, as “Extreme Weather—Climate and the Built Environment”.

Ironic would be an understatement.

I attended many of the talks on how the weather community can better disseminate (see: tell everyone) complex information about changing weather to the public. I went to these because both my current and old jobs involve trying to make the science of meteorology palatable to the general public.

And because the most heated discussion come out of these talks.

Why the most heated?

Well there are the scientists who hate having their models used for pinpoint forecasts or taking the 10-day forecast from the model as fact.

There are the managers at the National Weather Service who helped establish the 130-color Watch/Warning/Advisory system to best cover every event possible. And want to retire in 5 years.

There are the forecasters at the NWS that are on 3 cups of coffee, have their own opinions on what each Watch/Warning/Advisory should be, and walk the fine line between “the book” and “their gut”.

There are the executives from Weather Channel, ABC/NBC/CBS affiliates, and other media that need to both inform the public of impending doom, while pocketing a few bucks more if people turn to them to watch said doom impending.

And there are the TV broadcasters that need to make sure they speak clearly, looks good on camera, and take the WARNING FROM THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE THAT IGNORES ALL PUNCTUATION RULES AND IS WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS and tell the public what the hell it means to a population ranging from 14-114 years old.

In short, everyone wants it a certain way, and the way we are doing it now is not the perfect solution.

While the debates during these sessions brought up a lot of good points, there was also a lot of resistance.

Some resistance is good. Government policy is designed to be stable. In the same way that ACA mixed up how the government deals with health care, changing how the NWS deals with severe events would be the same way, not everyone will be happy.

Nonetheless, a lot of the reasons brought up were purely defensive. Older managers don’t want to change the status quo. Whether out of pure fear for the projects they have created decades ago, or lack of knowledge of new technologies, many didn’t want to touch something they consider working fine.

But as we saw in Atlanta, some change needs to happen.

As our country grows and cities sprawl, studying the effect climate and weather have on a population will become more and more important. As much as I went to school almost a decade ago to learn to calculate vorticity and derive maximum temperatures from a 850mb map, it’s becoming even more important to explain what the hell that means to an everyday non-weather geek.

Because in the end, you really just want to know if that tornado is headed your way.

Or if it’s currently 23 degrees and partly cloudy.

Header photo credit: John Spink

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