Weather, Risk, and Searching for Normal in a Rapidly Changing World

Earthzineclimate change, Earth Observation, Weather

How will we adapt to climate change and increasingly severe storms if humans aren’t very good at interpreting risk?

A rain storm over Colorado. Image Credit: David/Flickr

A rain storm over Colorado. Image Credit: David/Flickr

The storms have passed ‰ÛÒ for now, and floodwaters have receded.

Residents in Houston and all over Texas are cleaning up after major flooding submerged homes, washed out roads, and wrought havoc across the region earlier this year.

Officials report 31 people dead in the United States and 14 in Mexico.

As the costs of natural disasters, like the storms that submerged large swaths of Texas at the end of May, continue to escalate, understanding how people make decisions in the face of uncertainty and communicate risk become increasingly important.

The factors that contribute to escalating costs are complex.

Most experts attribute the increase to a combination of poor land use, population growth, and a changing climate. There are more of us than ever, and people are building in places that may not be the safest of options when it comes to natural hazards: flood plains, mountainsides, forests, and coastal areas.

A NOAA analysis shows that multi-billion dollar disasters are increasing; figures have been adjusted for inflation. Image Credit: NOAA's National Center for Environmental Information

A NOAA analysis shows that multi-billion dollar disasters are increasing; figures have been adjusted for inflation. Image Credit: NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information

Dr. Paul Slovic is a professor of psychology at University of Oregon and president of Decision Research, an international nonprofit research organization focused on ‰ÛÏhuman judgment, decision-making, and risk.‰Û Slovic’s work revolves around how humans comprehend and process risk when making decisions.

Slovic says that we don’t take the weather seriously, and people think they know what the weather will do where they live. When extreme events occur, like tornadoes in the Midwest, we tend to view those events as outside of our sphere. But, those disasters in the Midwest do affect everyone, because a tornado in Kansas costs taxpayers all over the country in the form of federal disaster assistance.

Additionally, Slovic’s research shows that we may be our own worst enemy when it comes to interpreting risk.

One area that Slovic and his colleagues look at is heuristics, which are mental shortcuts people take to avoid the hard work of processing every bit of information around us all day. We tend to react to our environment intuitively, because if we really calculated the risks inherent in getting out of bed every day, we probably wouldn’t get out of bed.

He breaks down decision-making processes into two systems: the experiential and the analytical. ‰ÛÏThe experiential system helped human beings survive the long evolutionary journey during which science wasn’t available to provide guidance,‰Û Slovic writes. ‰ÛÏEarly humans decided whether it was safe to drink the water in the stream by relying on sensory information, educated by experience. How does it look? Taste? Smell? What happened when I drank it before?‰Û

The analytic system is crucial to making the right decisions, but research has consistently shown that humans tend to be overly reliant on experiential systems when their brains are working hard, and they aren’t very good at processing numbers and probabilities.

Slovic points to early risk perception research on natural disasters, conducted by geographer Gilbert White. White and his students found that people couldn’t imagine a flood being greater than the largest flood they could personally remember. Slovic refers to this as the ‰ÛÏprison of experience.‰Û

In terms of how one interprets risk, Slovic suggests, ‰ÛÏYou are using your intuition and your feelings rather than any kind of calculations or careful deliberative, reason-based thinking, which we are capable of, but tend not to do.‰Û

So if you’re thinking of buying a house in a flood plain, you’re more likely to think about past experiences with weather than the probabilities of a 100-year flood occurring.

‰ÛÏFeelings are our compass that helps us make decisions and deal with all kinds of things, and sometimes it gives us wrong signals, particularly if we haven’t had direct experience with something,‰Û said Slovic.

Slovic said he believes that a natural first step is education. If people are aware that they are making decisions based on faulty thinking, then they might do better in the future.

But that isn’t a sure-fire solution either.

‰ÛÏIt is hard to overcome these natural and biased ways of thinking,‰Û said Slovic. ‰ÛÏI think we need to create laws and more institutional mechanisms to force people to pay more attention, to think more carefully and analytically about risk.‰Û

Slovic and others suggest that if disaster-related insurance for hazards like earthquakes and floods were mandatory, and the cost of purchasing the insurance actually reflected the risk, people might think twice before buying a home in a disaster-prone area. (Flood insurance is mandatory for federally backed mortgages, and the cost is kept relatively affordable via the National Flood Insurance Program to encourage communities to adopt mitigation strategies and better land-use management. To Slovic, this reduces the perceived risk.)

Weather’s Toll

Tornadoes are spun out from huge clouds that also create lightning. Image Credit: NASA JPL

Tornadoes are spun out from huge clouds that also create lightning. Image Credit: NASA JPL

Notwithstanding climate change and weather-related disasters, the reality is that most days the weather just isn’t sexy. Checking the forecast is about making plans for the weekend, or figuring out how to dress for the day. It’s one of the humdrum details in life that draw little attention unless a catastrophe is imminent.

Still, weather results in economic impacts that are too great to ignore.

In 2011, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) crunched the numbers and reported that even ordinary weather like rain or ‰ÛÏcooler-than-average‰Û temperatures can cost the U.S. more than $485 billion annually.

Severe weather can bring shipping and commerce to a screeching halt. In the Pacific Northwest, heavy winds or a winter storm can dramatically impact commerce on the Columbia River, a major hub for U.S. imports and exports. Annually, about 46 million tons of cargo or $20 billion worth of goods move in and out of the Columbia River Bar, one of the more challenging stretches of navigable water in the world.

Tyree Wilde is the warning coordination meteorologist for the NWS office in Portland, Oregon. Wilde works closely with the Columbia River Bar Pilots to ensure that they have the most accurate and up-to-date information for decision-making.

He explains, ‰ÛÏThe weather might shut the bar down for 18, 24 hours or so. It has a whole ripple effect, not only on the ships, but on the rail network across the nation, because we have all the goods and services are coming by rail into the port, and now they’re all clogged up because of some type of storm that’s producing 50-knot winds and 30-foot seas.‰Û

When the rail cars are filled with materials destined for cargo ships, or the cargo ships are anchored and unable to unload, they are stuck until the weather passes.

‰ÛÏThe same thing happens in the aviation industry. You get a big ice storm and you cancel a lot of flights and, boy, immediately, it has a big effect on the national airspace,‰Û Wilde adds. ‰ÛÏAlmost every day there’s a weather impact.‰Û

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, weather has accounted for more than 50 percent of the delays in our National Airspace System over the last five years.

A lack of rain can wreak havoc too.


Images of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Nevada captured in 2010 (left) and 2015 (right) by NASA’s Aqua satellite. Image Credit: NASA

California is in the fourth year of the worst drought in the region’s recorded history, leading to massive efforts in reducing consumption. That’s big news for a state that is home to more than 38 million people, produces more than $10 billion in dairy and beef as well as almost half of the fruit, nuts and vegetables eaten in the United States.

While lack of snow and rain is making news out West, on the East Coast severe winter weather, or Nor’easters, made headlines again this year. The stormy season came to an end with one final episode in early March that helped Boston break the regional record for accumulated snowfall: 110.3 inches.

Thanks to severe storms over the last few years, the public is learning an increasingly odd spate of meteorological terms like polar vortex, derecho, and bombogenesis. While the phenomena these terms describe have been around for some time, the general public’s newfound awareness of extreme weather events is leading some to ask an important question: is this the new normal?

Wilde says experts don’t know precisely when we will start to see tangible effects of climate change, but suggests that we may need to figure out what normal will look like in the relatively near future.

Wilde explains that we have been under an el Ni̱o pattern recently. During this weather pattern, warmer temperatures along the equatorial Pacific create dry conditions, and conversely La Ni̱a creates a wet pattern.

To Wilde, these weather patterns don’t account entirely for the changes happening now: ‰ÛÏthe data points to some type of climate change.‰Û

According to NOAA, ‰ÛÏEl Ni̱o is characterized by unusually warm temperatures and La Ni̱a by unusually cool temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.‰Û Image Credit: NOAA

According to NOAA, ‰ÛÏEl Ni̱o is characterized by unusually warm temperatures and La Ni̱a by unusually cool temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.‰Û Image Credit: NOAA

Paying Attention to the Forecast

According to Wilde, today’s forecasts are vastly more accurate than 25 years ago thanks to a lengthy list of new technologies and improved observation techniques, such as higher computing capacity, advanced satellite data, and a network of Doppler radars. The radar network ‰ÛÏallows us to look into storms and see how strong they are. Before we did that upgrade, our lead time for a tornado was maybe three minutes, which is not a lot of time,‰Û said Wilde. ‰ÛÏNowadays, our average lead-time foråÊa tornado is 13 minutes. That’s enough time to get the message and get to safe haven. That investment has saved lives.‰Û

Another addition to the forecasting arsenal is a program that places trained individuals or ‰ÛÏstorm spotters‰Û out in a community to report specific, real-time information about what they are seeing on the ground. While meteorologists are able to monitor a storm remotely, someone in the field can add rich information about what is actually happening in the moment ‰ÛÒ one community may be experiencing golf-ball-sized hail, and folks a short distance from there may just experience a little rain.

According to Wilde, the NSWS has 4,000 spotters in his jurisdiction, and they have started incorporating social media as well.

When trying to issue warnings about dangerous events, spotters and social media aid in getting a response from the public, which can save property and lives. Wilde adds, ‰ÛÏWe’re finding through social science that people are a lot more apt to take action if they hear a corroborating piece of evidence from their own community, so we’re trying to integrate that information into our warning practices.‰Û

As these storms and changing landscapes reveal, paying attention to warnings is likely to become increasingly important.

‰ÛÏWe tend to be rather blasÌ© about weather, and we’re very tolerant of what nature throws at us,‰Û Slovic explains.

Slovic adds that people tend to be overly fearful of technological, chemical, or radiological threats. ‰ÛÏWe have this element called the dread factor ‰ÛÒ that’s something that evokes a feeling of dread in you when you think about it,‰Û he said.

Apparently, nature is very low on the dread scale even though it is much more likely that one will encounter dangerous weather than, say, a Three Mile Island-like scenario.

While weather forecasts are not crystal balls, it’s clear that we should brace ourselves for more intense weather in the not-so-distant future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that we can expect to see higher temperatures, droughts, and increasing storm intensity with regional variations around the globe in most of our lifetimes.