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NWS working on Building a Weather-Ready Nation and Spanish initiative

Amy Hadachek
for The Fence Post

“Our country has become more vulnerable to extreme events, including fires, hurricanes and other disasters. Many of these disasters are more deadly today because more people live in vulnerable areas. More elderly people live along the coastline. Why is that important? It may take them longer to evacuate, so the people responsible for evacuating the coastline are starting to do it earlier.”

That reveal came from Louis W. Uccellini, Ph.D., director of the National Weather Service, speaking during the virtual National Weather Association conference on Thursday, Sept. 17 entitled “Themes of a Weather Ready Nation; Meeting the Future Challenges of the Evolving Field of Operational Meteorology.”

Major strengths of the NWS are timely and relevant forecasts, watches and warnings. However, new and evolving needs in society have spurred the NWS to shift to Impact-based Decision Support Services or IDSS, which includes forecast advice and interpretative services in the NWS. The information is provided to partnerships such as emergency personnel and public safety officials for making decisions when weather, water and climate impacts Americans’ lives and livelilhood. The NWS also relies heavily on private meteorological partners.

“We’re an agency that touches every county — every day,” Uccellini said. “Building a Weather-Ready Nation is about building community resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather, water and climate events.”

The devastating derecho that blasted through Iowa, parts of the Midwest and Great Lakes states in August was also highlighted in his presentation. Uccellini said the Storm Prediction Center outlook indicated it could be a significant day when it hit.

“This was probably the most extreme forecast challenge — a derecho — producing widespread damaging winds from Iowa through the Midwest. There were intermittent 100 mph winds. The takeaway here? It was a challenging forecast Aug. 10, 2020, there was little in the way of lead time. It highlights the importance of long lead time prior to extreme events that puts the EM (Emergency Management) community in a pro-active stance.”

More extreme weather events including severe storms and tornadoes, heavy rainfall, heat waves, drought, hurricanes and an increase in average temperatures through climate change are reported to be increasing in intensity and recurrences. During a presentation on climate at the NWA on Wednesday, Sept. 16, from Ash Cutright graduating in 2021 from Western Governors University, severe weather-related events and climate change are linked to societal health and socioeconomic impacts, especially drought and heat waves.

TURNING UP THE HEAT

According to NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information, July 2020 was the 44th consecutive July and the 427th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th century average. Nine of the 10 warmest Julys on record have occurred since 2010.

“Climbing temperatures have led to loss of moisture in plants and increases in evaporation rates. This is said to lead to poor air quality and an increase in airborne illnesses. Extreme temperature variations disrupt growing seasons, causing poor crop yields, inflation and potential food crisis,” said Cutright, who pointed out that these climate events also impact cardiovascular and respiratory health, mental illness and malnutrition.

Regarding COVID and its impacts on NWS operations, its forecasters remain steadfast on various schedules around the clock.

“Proud of the fact we’ve never closed,” Uccellini said. “The employees, whether working from office or home, they’ve really gotten us through the severe weather, windstorms, the heat, a snowstorm thrown in — really an incredible performance all around. We’re now supporting public safety efforts in addition, and as we use the information and communicate to Emergency Managers. They need to know that they’ll get the same message, no matter where they’re tapping into the NWS.”

The NWS put together a plan to be ready, responsive, and resilient saving lives and property, teaming up with numerous Weather-Ready Nation ambassadors using consistent forecasts/warnings, social science, a fully integrated field structure through a collaborative forecast process, a national blend of weather computer models, etc. “Bottom line is pulling it all together to build a Weather-Ready Nation and to accomplish our mission to save lives and property,” Uccellini said.

“Having a Weather-Ready Nation means that weather forecasts and warnings, and the impacts, are communicated using consistent messaging across the board,” said Janice Bunting, CEO of the National Weather Association, adding, “It also means everyone understands how to react properly to protect themselves.”

INCORPORATING SPANISH

Protecting people is also the impetus of a research project to create standardized Spanish severe weather risk terminology on the color-coded severe weather risk graphics used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Associations’s NWS Storm Prediction Center. The goal is to give Spanish speaking meteorologists specific severe weather language, so the viewing public doesn’t receive different words when translated. This SPC Spanish Initiative was further researched by graduate student Joseph Trujillo, in late 2019. The SPC categorizes the risk of severe weather into five categories based on numerical probabilities labeled: marginal, slight, enhanced, moderate and high using the numbers 1-5, and colors light green to magenta. However, when this scale was translated into the Spanish language, there were different interpretations of the five risk categories.

“From government agencies to broadcast stations, meteorologists were communicating risk information differently due to regional dialects of the Spanish language,” said Trujillo, graduate research assistant for the University of Oklahoma’s Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies supporting NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory and the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center, who presented his research at the NWA conference on Thursday, Sept. 17.

Spanish linguistic experts worked with Trujillo’s research team in TV Markets in Texas and Oklahoma to develop risk terminology that is dialect-neutral and culturally relevant to all Spanish speakers. “Think how Southerners versus Midwesterners speak even within the United States.” Using a picture of a caramel ice cream sundae to make a point, “Is this sundae kara-mel? or car-mel? People speak differently,” Trujillo said.

“Dialects can get even more complicated in Spanish. So, I’ve embarked on a mission to make sure these translations would at least be a little more universal and fit all the Spanish dialects in the U.S. For example, you may tune in during the morning to a national network and see a different risk category than during your 5 p.m. newscast, because meteorologists may interpret the definitions differently since their Spanish is so different,” he said.

“We’re fortunate to have Joseph’s research. He’s really passionate about the project,” said Emily Summars-Jeffries, communications specialist with CIMMS.

Trujillo’s research has not been officially adopted at the Storm Prediction Center, and a final decision on the Spanish Initiative has not yet been made.

“Bottom line: there’s no consensus between bilingual meteorologists,” Trujillo said. “We must address this once and for all.” ❖

— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at rotatingstorm2004@yahoo.com.


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