Meeting of the Minds

March 5, 2016 - 11:35am

By James Done

James Done leads a UDECIDE discussion. Photo Credit: Heather Lazrus (NCAR)
James Done leads a UDECIDE discussion. Photo Credit: Heather Lazrus (NCAR)

Why don’t people respond to weather and climate information the way we think they should? Surely they can see what we see.

This tired lament of the atmospheric scientist is starting to wear thin. It’s time to transform how weather and climate information is produced and communicated. Atmospheric scientists are making huge advances in how we understand our weather and climate, but they're using a frame that resonates with no-one outside of scientific circles . . . and then expecting non-scientists to respond. While advancing understanding of our weather and climate is the lifeblood of improving weather and climate predictions, the inclusion of societally relevant variables would revolutionize how the climate science is perceived and ultimately used.

Indeed, the discipline of creating information that resonates with stakeholders’ frames of reference is snowballing, and armies of scientists are emerging from their offices and starting to interact with societal stakeholders. And scientists are starting to realize this pays dividends. New areas of basic scientific investigation are being pioneered, in lands where no scientist has stepped before. A treasure trove of data waits to be identified and mined to answer climate questions of societal importance. And the fruits of these investigations attract the attention of the most prestigious peer reviewed journals. Perhaps the bigger carrot, however, is notice of the results by groups who now see the business case of supporting the research.

An example project in which scientists interact with stakeholders is UDECIDE: Understanding Decision Climate Interactions on Decadal Scales. Funded by the National Science Foundation, and conducted within NCAR’s Engineering for Climate Extreme Partnership (ECEP), UDECIDE seeks to understand the role of 2-30 year climate outlooks in societal decision-making – specifically, the role of flood and drought information for decisions relating to water resource management.

Like all relationships in life, the winning strategy is communication, communication, communication. So, rather than producing a prediction and lobbing it over the fence, UDECIDE scientists start by leaving their offices to understand stakeholder information needs. This critical first step then guides the production and presentation of the decadal climate information that moves beyond temperature and rainfall towards flood height, bank destabilization and benefit cost analyses of mitigation strategies.

The flow of information works the other way too: the climate scientists may uncover predictable scales and metrics not currently used in decision-making that may bring benefits. This two-way flow of information between information needs and production of skillful predictive information is key to ensuring a societally relevant trajectory of climate science. This meeting of the minds is essential to aligning the use and production of climate science.

About the author

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James Done

Dr. James Done is a Project Scientist II and Willis Research Fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder Colorado, engaged in an active research program on future changes in extreme weather and societal impacts. He is a founding member and science lead of NCAR’s Engineering for Climate Extremes Partnership – an interdisciplinary collaboration bringing together engineering, scientific, cultural, business and government expertise to develop robust, well-communicated predictions and advice on the impacts of weather and climate extremes in support of society.