Thursday, June 9, 2016

Meteorology...Things Are a Changin'

“Congratulations on your new job! It won’t be here in five years, but congratulations!” This is NOT the introduction you want when you start a new job. In the year and a half since I started working for the National Weather Service (NWS), no one has ever said these exact words to me and yet at times I’ve felt like this is what they meant. The recent ars technica article was just another grim look into the future for many Meteorologists (or so it appeared).

I am not a doomsday person, but I’d be lying if I said this article and words from others hasn’t been at least somewhat discouraging. I haven’t wanted to hear it nor believe it! But, stubbornness is not next to Godliness, so I figured I should at least have an open mind. The people in the field whom I have talked to about this have meant well and their opinions have been shared in a non-threatening way. The nice thing is that this fosters conversation/dialogue. Maybe I am being stubborn, but maybe others are being pessimistic. Either way, dialogue is good, but it won’t work well if one or both sides are closed off to new or different ideas. So, I started there. By the way, if you want some great advice on keeping peaceful and open-minded dialogue going during conversations that involve strong opinions, a great book to read is “Crucial Conversations” by Patterson et al.

Sometimes we let ourselves believe certain things that aren’t true, if for no other reason than that we don’t want them to be. I am guilty of this. I didn’t want to believe that computers could be, or already are in some cases, better at forecasting than humans. Not so much because I have a problem with the success of computer models, but because it has implications on my career (the one I only started a year ago). I uprooted my family and we drove for four straight days from Alabama to Montana to take this job and the last thing I want to hear is that it might have been a bad decision. I love technology, but darn it, it’s taking our jobs! Ok, whoa there Nellie, let’s slow that roll a bit. In “Crucial Conversations”, the authors encourage people to master their stories (Patterson, et al 103). In other words, examine your emotions and whatever story you’ve come up with to see what parts, if any, are valid, and then objectively re-tell the story.

So, back to having an open mind. I came into the NWS with no preconceived notions about the future of the agency or the Meteorological community as a whole. Shortly after, I heard some opinions, read some articles, and boom, I start wondering if I chose the right path. As the emotions built, I began to shut down my mind to what appeared to be outlandish, grim ideas. And you know what? I started getting frustrated and mad at the very people throwing these ideas around. They didn’t mean any harm, they were just trying to help me plan for the future. One of my co-workers encouraged me to keep my head out of the sand and not ignore what is going on. So with a little help from the Big Man upstairs, I decided to keep my head up and truly listen to what others were saying instead of burying my head in the sand. Below are my thoughts on the matter thus far…

1.      This goes without saying, but a lot of ideas from myself and others are just speculation. There appears to be a lot of writing on the wall regarding the future of certain aspects of Meteorology, but like the models seven days out, there is a lot of uncertainty still. Hey, uncertainty is woven into our field every day, I think we can handle it!

2.      I don’t believe we will wake up tomorrow and find that the GFS and ECMWF have taken over our jobs and locked us out of our buildings. There is no doubt in my mind that the models continue to get better and better. I’ve been a Meteorologist for seven years and even in that short time, I’ve seen some pretty amazing changes. But, I’ve also seen plenty of errors, biases, and horribly wrong solutions. They continue to improve, but personally I don’t yet believe we are completely to the point of giving over the forecasting keys to the entire “building”. I do, however, think we can give the keys over to parts of the “building”, but just not all yet. And I don’t think the keys will be turned over next week. Could this happen within the next five years? Maybe, but only time will tell and I don’t know if anyone can say for certain yet when that time will come or how much of the "building" will be given over (maybe some will never be given over completely).

3.      I love forecasting and the thought of handing the “keys” over is admittedly a sad realization to some degree. At the same time, if the point comes where I am not adding any value (and possibly even reducing value), then why fight that part of the discussion? If my goal truly is what is best for our customers, then wouldn’t I want them to have the best forecast even if it doesn’t come from my hands? As much as I hate to admit it or let it go, I realize that one day it just might come to that for many of us.

4.      Even if much of the forecasting responsibility gets turned over to the models, I don't think this means we are all out of a job. I believe there will always be a need for interpretation and decision support. When I’m driving, my car is doing most of the work to get me from Point A to Point B. But, I can’t necessarily tell you what all it is doing or how it is doing what it is doing. My mechanic can, though. He can interpret the weird noises and give me guidance on how to respond to those noises. He is a knowledge expert and I think we will always be that as Meteorologists. In the future, we may not make the forecasts any more than mechanics make cars. But, we can explain what is going on. We can communicate threats, provide guidance…tell people about the “noise” they are seeing in the forecast. Maybe it is a long ways before we completely get to this point, I don’t know. But, it potentially offers a glass-half-full view of doing less forecasting. Personally, I love decision support and forecasting. Maybe the future will hold more decision support / threat assessment and guidance and less forecasting. Disappointing to some degree for sure, but not the end of the world. The world still needs mechanics…

5.      Whatever changes occur in the field of Meteorology, it does seem likely that the field as we know it today will look different 5-10+ years down the road (probably even sooner in some ways). I don’t say this in a negative way, but just thinking realistically (something my wife will tell you I am not that good at). I’d rather dream of everything staying the way it is forever…aahhh. Change isn’t always easy. I’m all about change when it benefits me, but when it has negative implications, I’m less gung-ho. But, I know this isn’t a good place to be. Change always has and always will occur. I think what is important is how we respond to it.

6.      One way to respond to change is look for the good in it. Our four-year old daughter is NOT a fan of change. Lately my wife and I have really had to work hard to teach her to find the positives. ‘Well, Rog, what good could possibly come of the changes people keep talking about?’. One thing I think we will still be able to specialize in for some time, and possibly forever, is high-impact weather (hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fire weather, etc). With the models potentially doing more of the forecasting, this could free up more energy and effort on short-term warnings, communication, threat assessment, decision-support, etc. I’ve heard a couple people argue that even this may go away down the road. Even with an open mind, I’m not convinced of this just yet. I would want to see a marked increase in short-term model performance, among other things. Maybe it will come to this, but that’s still on the table as far as I’m concerned.

Regardless of where you may fall on this topic, I totally understand some of the fear, concern, or just plain not wanting it to be true. I have, and continue to, struggle with this myself. I love weather. I love forecasting. I love doing my best to provide the best information to people in an effort to protect lives and property (or that wedding in the heart of the rainy season). The thought that down the road some parts of the job I love may go away is something I really don’t want to think about much. But, I also believe part of it is just the nature of life. I am a firm believer in finding the good in people, things, life, change, whatever. This is no easy task and is one that I have failed at many a time, but it is doable.

I think as a community, we have to look at each potential change and evaluate it honestly. Some changes may legitimately be a bad idea and if so we should look for an alternative. Others will be good and we may just have to admit that whether we want to or not. I think some changes will look grim at first, but after the fact will be seen as a great idea. Lastly I would say to be careful of believing everything you read. Many people or articles may paint a very grim picture (whether intentional or not). With an open mind and an honest assessment, I think each outlook into the future can be separated between pessimistic and objective.

I’ll end with a quote from “Crucial Conversations”. It refers to dialogue, but I think it relates. “The best at dialogue…aren’t held hostage by their emotions, nor do they try to hide or suppress them. Instead, they act on their emotions. That is, when they have strong feelings, they influence (and often change) their emotions by thinking them out" (Patterson, et al 106-107). Our feelings about the future of the field we love are real. Just don’t forget to QC those emotions.

A little works cited for ya:
Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. Crucial Conversations. Tools
            For talking when Stakes are High. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012. Print

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