The United States has had its fair share of extreme weather calamities in recent years, from Hurricane Katrina, to multiple tornadoes, to flooding and severe storms. This table from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists every billion-dollar weather and climate disaster from 1980 to present. The prevalence of extreme weather, and how communities respond to it, have led to a unique collaboration between scholars from two fields that usually occupy buildings far apart from each other on college campuses: Sheila Steinberg, a professor of social and environmental sciences at Brandman University, and William Sprigg, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Arizona. The two recently released a book titled Extreme Weather, Health, and Communities: Interdisciplinary Engagement Strategies through Springer. My wife Margaret Moodian and I contributed a chapter on communication strategies public agencies use to engage communities during these occurrences.
I interviewed Sprigg, the architect of the U.S. National Climate Program, tasked in the early 1970s by the Undersecretary of Commerce and the Interdepartmental Committee for Atmospheric Sciences to develop a plan that would address concerns of a changing global climate. His insights are below.
Please tell me about your new book, Extreme Weather, Health, and Communities.
Our book is an interdisciplinary look at extreme weather and its consequence to human health and communities in different geographies. Through real-world experiences, the book illustrates how the social and environmental costs of extreme weather events can be reduced when scientists, citizens, and public leaders work together to be better prepared. It highlights a geographic cross-section of experiences, from economically advantaged to the disadvantaged, from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, from India to the Americas, from city to farm and ranch, and from time that spans pre- and post-satellite and computer technology. One particularly interesting chapter by Barbara Mayes-Boustead shows how storytelling in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books, recalling a family's ordeals facing severe weather before there was a weather service, can be so effective in informing us today of best practices when severe weather threatens.
Why the interest in researching this particular topic?
A few observations taken together symbolize the need, opportunity, and proof of concept that can change the way, and therefore the speed, by which lives and the quality of life can be significantly improved around the world. A 2015 report of the United Nations finds that over the last two decades 606,000 people have lost their lives due to extreme weather, with another 4.1 billion people injured, left homeless, or requiring emergency assistance. Thirty years ago the best tornado forecasts gave people 5 minutes to take cover; today, with scientific advances and new radar technology, we have 10-minute warnings. And, the most comprehensive data catalogue of natural disasters worldwide, EM-DAT, shows a clear increase in weather-related disasters each succeeding decade since 1985-1994. While a 2016 study by the National Research Council cannot unequivocally link most observed extreme weather events to climate change, heat waves are an exception.
We believe this book, demonstrating the immediate benefits of communication across scientific disciplines (environmental, political, and social) and societal divides, begins a critical, new path to payoff in community health and safety. As those who fund research would say, there is economy in money, time, and lives when the gap between research and applications is bridged. We saw the need, the opportunity, and the examples in our fields of study that could make a contribution and we knew some of the authors who could provide guiding examples.
What will the public learn after reading your new book?
While history and weather rarely repeat exactly, lessons are learned that will help reduce the suffering consequences of severe weather. How others have dealt with these extremes may differ, but what has worked successfully in one time or in another place is good guidance if you have never before had to face a similar threat. Readers will find how Canada has reduced vulnerability to heat waves, how careers of elected officials have been bolstered or ruined by their attention to pending storms, why mental health is a problem during long-term drought, how social implications of weather extremes are similar in both Alaska and Louisiana, why tornado warnings have improved but the public still must be reminded of life-saving reactions, how blizzards bring out the best in communities, why windblown desert dust does not stop at the desert edge and why it is a global health concern, how getting to know people and the place in which they live is important in preparing for the next storm, how interdisciplinary research informs urban planners in reducing impacts of heat waves, how extreme heat and drought combine to create a cascade of problems for human health, why air quality regulations become critically important when stagnating weather systems decide to linger, and why effective communication is important in all weather-related disasters.
One cannot ignore the elephant in the room: Are today's weather extremes associated with climate change? For our purposes we need not enter the discussion. Nor must we become part of the polemics of attribution. If heat waves or hurricanes or floods or drought or tornados become more frequent, and more threatening, one can look for solutions where these events have been addressed successfully. Extreme departures from the usual will present new community challenges for health, safety, and sensible governing. We have addressed climate change in its more subtle nuance, not in the abstract of some meaningless statistic of global average temperature, for example, but in what really matters: the weather extremes we may encounter. One point to remember, if our usual, pretty dependable, climate is knocked off course by some change in energy source or distribution, it will try to find a new, relatively stable norm by redistributing energy. Climate will use ocean currents and weather to find and maintain that stable state.