NOAA Administrator Delivers Remarks at American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting


Thank you, Bill [Hooke]. I don’t need to tell this crowd that 2011
has been a banner year for extreme weather events. Today, I’m going to provide you with a 30,000
foot view of three topics: • Where the science has taken us over the
last couple of decades in our ability to forecast these events
• What we need to do — in addition to more science and better technology — to prevent
the loss of life we saw, for example, in the tornadoes this year, and
• How NOAA is integrating social science research into its commitment to better protect
families, communities, and businesses in a future that likely holds more extreme weather
events. NOAA has been busy predicting the weather-related
extreme events we’ve seen this year. 2011 is in the record books as a year of historic
extreme events. One of those new records is the number of events totaling at least $1Billion
in damages. Last week, we announced the 13th and 14th extreme weather events each totaling
at least $1B. These 14 events – shown on this slide – were identified using NCDC’s current
methodology, which is available on NCDC’s website. In addition to the 14 shown, data
are still bring collected and analyzed for three more events that are approaching a billion
dollars in damages: • Late-October Northeast winter storm
• April 19-20 Midwest and Southeast tornadoes • August 18-21 Midwest and East high wind
& hail The extraordinary nature of 2011 has been
validated by other organizations that track and analyze weather and climate disasters,
such as the reinsurance industries. While different methodologies yield different results,
everyone agrees that 2011 was highly unusual. Now, I caution you that the interpretation
of these results is complex. There are a number of factors that likely contribute to the increase
in costly disasters: a larger population, population migration to more vulnerable areas,
more and more expensive infrastructure, and increases in the frequency and/or intensity
of extreme weather and climate events. Regardless of the causes, the aggregate damage
from these 14 events is estimated at well over $50 billion. But the economic losses
are far from the full picture. Nearly 650 lives were lost in these disasters, with over
1,000 people dead from these weather events from this year. This number is almost double
the yearly average of ca. 600. Each of these events is a huge disaster for victims who
experience them. Collectively, they are an unprecedented
challenge for the Nation – for the safety of citizens, the bottom line for businesses,
and the societal stresses they engender. Timely, accurate, and reliable weather warnings
and forecasts are essential to our collective well-being, but also to the Nation’s ability
to recover and prosper. Now, I’ve emphasized how unusual 2011 was.
But a single year can be an anomaly. How does 2011 fit into longer term patterns? Globally,
according to Munich Re, the frequency of extreme events has risen steadily over the past 20
years. The number of meteorological and hydrological events each tripled in that time. NOAA provides weather and climate products
and services on every time scale – from minutes to decades – and on every space
scale from neighborhoods to global. Environmental intelligence is needed on every time and space
scale in which decisions are made. We provide forecasts for short-fuse events,
such as tornadoes, heavy rains, heat waves, like the extremes we experienced in every
state this summer, or solar storms, which are becoming more frequent with impacts on
GPS, air travel, electric power distribution. We track the progress of extreme events, such
as maturation of a tropical depression into full-blown hurricane. NOAA’s Hurricane Prediction
Center tracks these potentially devastating storms at the regional level, but also on
a very short timescale. We track the development of cold fronts in Colorado into lines of severe
tornadic thunderstorms along the Gulf Coast. We also issue volcanic ash advisories to ensure
safe air travel. We generate climate forecasts weeks to months
in advance, such as droughts in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Georgia, etc. NOAA’s Drought
Monitor issues weekly reports of the current state of the
drought across all areas of the country. We forecasted winter flooding events, in North
Dakota, the Ohio River Valley last spring. NOAA’s scientists contribute heavily to
the National Climate Assessment and other national and international assessments. These
assessments provide an authoritative and comprehensive review of the state of the science with respect
to extreme events. They consider scales up to global and provide projections out to the
end of this century and beyond. Spring flood forecasts are an example of climate
forecasts. 2011 marked the 3rd consecutive year of flooding
for the Red River. Our goal was to give the region an outlook as far in advance as possible
– even earlier than the forecasts we produce for the rest of the country. Decision Support Services started acting in
December, advising communities to pay attention and get ready. NOAA’s National Weather Service
released an initial spring flood outlook on February 18, warning of a risk for moderate
to major flooding along the western boarder of Illinois for the Mississippi
River, from the Wisconsin state line to St. Louis. About a month later, on March 17, the national
spring flood outlook was issued, confirming that the same area of Illinois was indeed
under high risk of major flooding. We noted that many metropolitan areas had a greater
than 95 percent chance of major flooding, including Davenport, IA and Rock Island, IL. The observed flooding shown here confirmed
our outlook. St Paul, Minnesota registered a flood stage March 25, and St Louis, Missouri
April 23. The fact that these and other communities
had more than a month of lead time to warn citizens and businesses of the flood made
a significant difference in the response. Flooding in the Midwest extended throughout
the spring and summer, not ending in some places until August. These advance outlooks have a great deal of
impact on communities. The people of Cairo, IL know just how important they are. On May 2, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
made the decision to blow up the levee in Birds Point, MO. The destruction of that levee
lowered the Mississippi River by 3-4 feet, saving Cairo from disastrous flooding. 130,000
acres of farmland including about 90 homes became a muddy lake. Cairo with its population
of 2800 was spared. To quote Maj. Gen. Mike Walsh of the Army
Corps of Engineers “Every decision we made was calculated into public safety and protecting
lives”. This example shows how accurate, reliable
forecasts are used to inform communities’ and emergency managers’ decisions. ADVANCING SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PROTECTS
LIVES AND PROPERTY So where have improvements in science and
technology taken us? Thanks to advances in radar, instrumentation,
such as dropsondes and step-frequency microwave radiometers, and numerical models, today’s
5-day track forecast is as good as the 3-day track forecast of a decade ago. This year, the forecast for Hurricane Irene
was spot on. As Irene headed toward land, our forecasts indicated that Florida, coastal
Georgia and SC were not in her path. Forecasters accurately predicted both the initial landfall
in NC as well as a second landfall along New Jersey/Long Island. As part of our efforts to do proper economic
valuations of our forecasts, we produced a track forecast for Irene based on methods
used back in 2001 to predict hurricane tracks. This track is shown on the right. Of course,
in 2001, we were only making 3-day advance hurricane forecasts, not 5-day forecasts as
we do today. This slide shows what the forecast for Hurricane
Irene would have looked like 10 years ago compared to today. On the left, you see the
2011 actual forecast track and cone of uncertainty for Tuesday, August 23, 2011 @ 11PM. 68 million
people were in Irene’s forecast path in 2011. In contrast, 93 million would have been
in the forecast path if our knowledge and tools had been limited to those available
in 2001. We’ve clearly made impressive progress in
improving track forecasts. But, we haven’t had comparable improvements in forecasting
intensity of hurricanes. The graph on the left shows improvements in track (drop in
track error) from 1970-2007. The graph on the right shows a glaring lack of improvement
in intensity error since 1990. The Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program
(HFIP) is looking to continue to improve the accuracy and reliability of hurricane track
and intensity forecasts, extend lead times for hurricane forecasts with increased certainty,
and increase confidence in hurricane forecasts. Let’s take a look at how we’ve done with
improvements in forecasting tornadoes. This slide shows the number of deaths per million
people in the U.S. since 1875. From roughly 1925 to 1980s/90s (around a 60 year period),
the number of deaths/million significantly declined. The decline is due to a number of
factors: better forecasts, radio communications, improvement in the construction of homes,
etc. A 40% decrease in mortality has been attributed to Doppler radar. From 1980s/90s to present, the number of deaths/million
leveled off. 2011 is an exception to this trend. You’d have to go back 100 years ago
to see similar numbers (1.8 deaths/million people). When we look more closely at the
human dimensions, we see some alarming statistics: People living in mobile homes (solid squares)
have a far greater death toll than those who live in permanent homes (open squares). This
is despite the fact that in 2000 only about 7.5% of the population lived in mobile homes;
in 1975, roughly 2% lived in mobile homes. People living in mobile homes today are just
as vulnerable as people were pre-1925 in the U.S. The service assessments from the April 25-28
outbreak in the southeast and the May 22 Joplin tornado tell us that too many people still
lose their lives or sustain injuries, despite lead times of 17 minutes or more. On April 25-28, 2011, tornadoes wreaked havoc
across the southeast. The deadliest part of the outbreak occurred during the afternoon
and evening hours of April 27, with 122 tornadoes resulting in 316 deaths across central and
south Mississippi, central and northern Alabama, eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and
northern Georgia. On May, 22, 2011, an EF-5 (greater than 200
mph) tornado, struck the Joplin, MO area resulting in over 150 fatalities and more than 1000
injured. Even the best weather forecasts don’t always
produce the results we need. In Joplin, NWS issued outlooks 48 hrs in advance, and warnings
17 minutes before touchdown. The assessment concluded that overall, forecast
offices did well in some key areas: pre-season preparedness; pre-event planning and staffing;
decision support activities; overall situational awareness;
and lead time. Tuscaloosa was advised 5 days in advance based
on polar satellite images. Three days out, NWS intensified the language of the advisements. In Joplin, the population decreases appreciably
over the weekends. The May 22nd tornado hit Joplin on a Sunday. Though Joplin is in tornado
alley, it’s typically spared. HOWEVER: many lives were lost and the human impact was devastating. Findings from the NWS Service Assessments
for Joplin and southeast outbreak include: Too many people had been desensitized to sirens
and warnings. Warnings lost credibility & there was confusion over multiple warnings (Sirens
“go off all the time”). There was confusion about where warning areas were located. People
did not know how to evaluate risk. ‘Shall I wait until I can see a tornado before taking
shelter?’ Warning messages need to be easily understood
by the public to facilitate decision making.Despite the popularity of social media and text messaging,
the NWS has not taken full advantage of this capability. Ultimately, our job is to reduce fatalities
and damages. Doing so requires advances on many fronts.
We need to continue to invest in research so that we can understand the factors conducive
to tornado formation. For hurricanes, we need more research on hurricane intensification.
We also need technology, such as dual-pol, and not just new technology – but technology
that we can adopt and mainstream. But a big, new area that we must embrace quickly and
fully is social science research. BUILDING A WEATHER-READY NATION REQUIRES SOCIAL
SCIENCE RESEARCH The frequency and/or intensity of extreme
weather events likely will increase in the future. NOAA recognizes the risk this places
on America’s families, communities, and businesses. Therefore, in July, NOAA launched
a comprehensive initiative to build a “Weather-ready” nation. The Weather-Ready Nation (WRN) initiative
is about making America safer by saving more lives and protecting livelihoods as communities
across the country become increasingly vulnerable to severe weather events. NOAA’s Weather-Ready
Nation (WRN) end goal is to help people make better decisions with better information. Our job is not done once forecasts or warnings
are issued. Our success is not based solely on metrics of accuracy or lead time. Success
depends on understanding and addressing the human dimensions of response. Success means
building resilience to weather events. We can’t do this alone. We need our partners
in other agencies across all levels of government, emergency managers, researchers, the media,
insurance industries, non-profits and more to work with us to achieve the vision. NOAA’s Weather-ready Nation initiative strategically
aligns resources within NOAA and beyond. We need a Nation that’s ready, responsive,
and resilient to extreme events. A key part of the WRN initiative is a national
dialog with the top experts, key stakeholders, and America’s weather enterprise. Incorporation of social sciences must be done
in a different fashion from the typical manner of entraining social sciences at the end or
half way through a project. It is essential to tap social
scientists before the project is fully framed, before criteria and methodologies are set.
We need social science at the outset. The purpose of the dialog is to examine what
we know and what we can do in the short- and long-term to improve the Nation’s severe weather
forecasts and warnings, and community preparedness. What does this national dialog look like? The first meeting took place in Norman, OK
on Dec. 13-15. The focus was improving resiliency to severe weather, with a special eye toward
tornadoes. The goal was to identify, prioritize, and set in motion actions to improve the nation’s
resiliency against severe weather, especially tornadoes, to protect lives and property. Nearly 180 participants from academia, social
science, media, private sector, emergency management, community leaders from all over
the U.S., including folks from Joplin and Tuscaloosa who saw first-hand the devastation
caused by the Spring tornados in their areas. From Joplin, Emergency Manager Keith Stammer
attended as did Ken Horst of Tuscaloosa’s Fire and Rescue Services. At the symposium, NOAA heard loudly and clearly
the value of integrating social science methodologies and concepts from the very beginning of all
that it does. This Word Cloud was derived from the over 50 pages of notes taken at the
December 13-15 Symposium. The more often the word was used in the notes…the bigger the
font. You can see the emphasis on people in the
discussions. Some other priorities that came out of the
Norman Symposium: We need to bring corporate America into the conversation. We need to
embrace and include the risk management community. We need to hone in on basic and applied social
science research questions. Fully integrating the social sciences community
with the weather and climate communities means significant and sustained commitment. We must share in this commitment – both
in human capital and in dollars – across government agencies. NOAA cannot do this alone. We must commit to collaborating across disciplines.
We must develop mutual understanding of and respect for each other’s expertise. We must
identify and address the gaps in knowledge and tools. Now is the time for us to act as a cohesive
WRN community to tackle these problems. Now is the time to invest in understanding how
people interact with weather—how their understanding, their perceptions, their uses, their experiences,
their environment, and their culture—all intersect with weather. How committed is NOAA to integrating social
science into our WRN initiative? Our commitment starts with the Coastal Environment
Impact Decision Support Services (IDSS) in New Orleans – a pilot we just kicked off on
Saturday. IDSS, is the provision of additional assistance
to decision makers to ensure correct interpretation, to ensure the most relevant information is
presented in the proper context for the decision maker, and to avoid breakdowns in communication
between NOAA, core partners, and end users. In general, these pilots take an approach
of integrating at the outset, impact-based decision support services and social science
into the way we operate. The pilots are built around a philosophy of “build a little,
test a little, field a little.” The purpose of IDSS is to provide in-person,
on-the-scene decision support during high impact events. To jump start this process, NWS forecasters
will be trained as Emergency Response Specialists. These specialists will be the front-line rapid
responders who provide high quality observational and forecast information to our core partners. NOAA will work closely with its Core Partners
to minimize societal and economic impacts of weather and man-made hazards and educate
Core Partners about IDSS to ensure they are aware of these unique emergency response capabilities
and able to incorporate them into their decision-making processes. Our core partners the Coastal Environment
IDSS pilot here in LA are: DHS/FEMA; U.S. Coast Guard; USACE; USGS; EPA; any other Federal,
state, and local agencies; and national and local media NOAA also has a number of social science research
projects underway relating to Risk Communication and Economic Valuation (Storm Surge, Hurricane
Forecast Improvement Project, Tsunami, Emergency Management Decision Support, Coastal Resiliency,
Climate Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISAs)). NOAA’s Climate Program recently established
a Regional Decision Support (RDS) effort to accelerate interaction with users of climate
information and forecasts at multiple spatial and
geographical scales. The RDS portfolio supports decision making through an integrated program
of: 1) research and assessment related to impacts and decision making needs; 2) transition
of research to operations; and 3) operational production and delivery of local and regional
climate services that can be utilized to enhance adaptive management options. The newly established NOAA Sector Applications
Research Program (SARP) will identify and promote research and application priorities
that foster improved decision support for fundamental climate-
related issues in key socio-economic sectors. One useful tool being developed in partnership
with the University of South Carolina, is the Social
Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Social vulnerability measures characteristics of human populations
that influence the ability of places to prepare for, respond to, and recover from hazards
and disasters. The index can be used to compare places according to their social vulnerability
generally at the county or sub county (census tract) scale. Just as the landscape of hazards
varies geographically, so does the landscape of social vulnerability. Social
vulnerability has many dimensions and using one
attribute such as age, income, or family status does not adequately capture the dynamic intersection
of factors that produce the social vulnerability of communities. For hurricanes, the Hurricane Forecast Improvement
Program (HFIP) Socio-economic Working Group is initiating socio-economic research that
focuses on the people’s perceptions of risk and uncertainty associated with tropical cyclones
and storm surge forecasts and warnings. The project will look at Cone of Uncertainty. WORKING TOGETHER AS A COMMUNITY TO BUILD A
WEATHER-READY NATION 2011 is our wake-up call. And we are taking
action! More than 1,000 weather-related fatalities
and more than 8,000 injuries in 12 months. We saw record-breaking snowfall, cold temperatures,
extended drought, high heat, severe flooding, violent tornadoes, and massive hurricanes.
We have documented the greatest number of multi-billion dollar weather disasters in
the nation’s history. What does the future hold? The recently-released
IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance
Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) says that we can expect the following 5 things:
• “It is virtually certain (99-100% probability) that increases in the frequency of warm daily
temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur throughout the 21st century
on a global scale.” • “It is very likely—90 per cent to
100 per cent probability—that heat waves will increase in length, frequency, and/or
intensity over most land areas.” • “It is very likely (90-100% probability)
that average sea level rise will contribute to upward trends in extreme sea levels in
extreme coastal high water levels.” • “It is likely—66-100% probability—that
the average maximum wind speed of tropical cyclones (also known as typhoons or hurricanes)
will increase throughout the coming century, although possibly not in every ocean basin.”
• “It is likely (66-100 probability) that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the
proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many
areas of the globe.” Now is the time to take bold steps to build
a weather-ready nation: one in which the public understands the threat of weather; communities
prepare in advance; timely and credible warnings are issued; and people take prompt, effective
action. The result: fewer deaths and economic losses
from severe weather. NOAA is committed to social science research
that helps us become weather-ready. Dialogue and partnerships will be keys to the success
of this endeavor. Our network of partners in emergency management
and the commercial weather enterprise who help identify, prioritize, and set in motion
actions to improve the nation’s resiliency against severe weather are invaluable. This is about resiliency. Reducing fatalities and injuries requires
a continued investment in research to understand the physical science behind the many types
of weather phenomena, to develop new technologies and adapt existing technologies and mainstream
them into operations. Resiliency is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary.
We cannot afford for any discipline to live outside of our efforts. Resiliency is also about examining infrastructure,
communications, construction of buildings, consideration of mobile home parks, availability
of EF-5-resistant structures, and so on. Then rebuilding. Then what about after the
fact? How do we rebuild? Resilience sits in our ability to do all of
these things – not just one or two of them. We at NOAA look forward to collaborating and
carrying forward dialogue with you. We need you to help us build a ready, responsive,
and resilient Weather-Ready Nation.

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