A Warning Is Only Good If You Respond To It! Atlanta and Other Warnings…

By now, you’ve all heard about the commuter crisis in Atlanta the day that they received snow (you can catch some highlights here, here, and here).  The story of Atlanta’s snow is the story of a successful forecast and failed preparation.  Let’s break down the major pieces:

Atlanta traffic

Atlanta traffic gridlocked after the snow

1.  The meteorologists in the area (scientific experts in assessing and forecasting weather), including the National Weather Service along with several private companies and TV meteorologists, forecast and communicated a potential for snow days in advance.  The details changed slightly, but the message was clear with plenty of notice that snow was likely to fall in and around the Atlanta metro area.

2.  The meteorologists are experts in the science of forecasting weather, and because of that expertise, they understand the potential impacts to traffic and schools that snow in Atlanta can cause.  They communicated these potential impacts across multiple channels of communication, hoping that their expertise would prompt organizations and individuals to take action.

3.  The forecasts were dismissed by public officials and leaders, who encouraged business as usual and took no preventative measures (such as pre-salting the roads).  Individuals, either dismissing the forecasts themselves or pressured to maintain business as usual because the leaders encouraged it, also largely maintained business as usual.

4.  The forecasts were correct.  By the time officials and individuals realized the threat, it was already upon them.  They took action too late, resulting in chaos, near-catastrophe, and even fatalities as people reacted to the threat that they had been warned to prepare for in advance.  Politicians falsely blamed the scientists; citizens blamed the politicians.  Corrective action costs were far greater than potential preventative measures would have cost.

A confident forecast for a high-impact event by experts was dismissed by people in positions of leadership as well as by individuals, with the event occurring and resulting in a major crisis instead of an inconvenient day.  Almost all of the impacts were preventable, if just two things had happened:  if the roads had been pre-salted, and if the city and state leaders had encouraged schools, businesses, and public offices to close.  All they had to do was trust the experts.

Also, individuals could have taken measures even without the leaders.  Sure, it would have been a risk to stay home from work or keep kids home from school based on a forecast.  Sure, one or two fewer cars on the road would not have made much difference.  But imagine if 20% of the population had stayed home… or even 50% of the citizens.  With half the cars, maybe gridlock would have been delayed, and maybe at least some people would have gotten home more quickly.  And those individuals would have been rewarded with their own personal safety and comfort, rather than being stranded themselves.

Abandoned cars in Atlanta

Abandoned cars litter the side of a highway in Atlanta.

To a meteorologist, it is frustrating beyond words to watch our citizens not react to a warning.  We cringe when we see people heading to the window instead of the basement during a tornado warning, and we groan in aggravated frustration when we hear of cars being stranded in ice and heavy snow when we’ve had the word out about it long in advance.  Sure, sometimes we miss an event, either by warning for something that doesn’t end up happening or by not warning for something that sneaks up on us.  Believe it or not, though, those misses are not terribly common, and we’re getting better all the time.

Climatologists face very similar frustrations when talking about climate change.  Let’s go through the steps above, but for climatologists and their warnings instead:

1.  Climatologists across the country and even around the globe (scientific experts in assessing and forecasting climate), including the National Weather Service (and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), NASA, and university researchers, along with several private companies and TV meteorologists, forecast and communicated a potential for climate change years and even decades in advance.  The details changed slightly, but the message was clear with plenty of notice that temperatures will warm, sea levels will rise, ice will melt, and rain and snow patterns will change.

2.  The climatologists are experts in the science of forecasting climate, and because of that expertise, they understand the potential impacts to homes, businesses, schools, and livelihoods that climate change can cause.  They communicated these potential impacts across multiple channels of communication, hoping that their expertise would prompt organizations and individuals to take action.

3.  The forecasts were dismissed by public officials and leaders, who encouraged business as usual and took no preventative measures (such as reducing carbon dioxide emissions and developing clean energy).  Individuals, either dismissing the forecasts themselves or pressured to maintain business as usual because the leaders encouraged it, also largely maintained business as usual.

4.  This step hasn’t happened yet in the world of climate change, but we’re on our way.  The forecasts will be correct.  By the time leaders and individuals realize the threat, it will be already upon them.  They’ll take action too late, resulting in chaos, near-catastrophe, and even fatalities as people react to the threat that they had been warned to prepare for in advance.  Politicians will falsely blame the scientists; citizens will blame the politicians.  Corrective action costs will be far greater than potential preventative measures would have cost.

We can still prevent the scenario in Step 4 from coming true.  Political leaders might take a while to come around, so it might be up to us individuals to take steps instead.  We can make changes in our own lives.  Sure, if only one or two of us do it, it won’t affect much.  But imagine if 20% of us do, or even 50%.  We might not offset all the chaos, but we might at least be able to say that we didn’t contribute to making it worse.

The experts are trying to help our citizens.  Please listen to them, and take their warnings seriously!

Retreat of the South Cascade Glacier

One of many examples of glacier retreat around the planet. This is the South Cascade Glacier in Washington.

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