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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 09/21/2010

Why weather matters

By Steve Tracton

* Heat coming: Full Forecast | NatCast | Hurricane Tracking Center *

Tree and power pole down in Glover Park, DC. from a thunderstorm on June 26, 2009. By CWG photographer Ian Livingston.

Weather and climate have been and remain integral factors -- directly or indirectly -- in a majority of socioeconomic activities in the lives of individuals, families, tribes, countries, and the global community. Regardless of who you are and where you live, just about everything in life is affected by weather. This is a major theme of a new National Research Council (NRC) report, "When Weather Matters: Science and Service to Meet Critical Societal Needs."

Sure, it's easy to recall the personal and societal disruptions associated with, for example, last winter's cold and snowstorms, the sweltering summer that followed, and extensive damage and loss of life from hurricanes and tornadoes. But, not everyone -- be they government officials or the general public -- may be aware of the degree and extent that weather influenced human history and continues to impact daily life, the economy, public health and safety in the United States and worldwide.

Digging out of the "Snoverkill" storm of February 10, 2010 in Cleveland Park. By CWG photographer Ian Livingston.

Weather manifests itself in a wide array of phenomena encompassing space and time scales that, for example, range from fog, to severe local storms (thunderstorms, tornadoes), to tropical storms and hurricanes, to widespread rain and/or snow storms lasting several days, to excessive heat and cold spells, to drought conditions persisting over a large region for many months. The nature of the impact varies depending upon many factors, including the type of weather, timing, severity, duration, location and level of preparedness.

Note, too, that that weather hazards can have both primary and secondary effects. For example, the primary effects of a snowstorm might be only a relatively minor and short-term disruption of normal commerce, but secondarily can lead to life-threatening heart attacks from shoveling. Tornadoes can injure and kill people and subsequently lead to severe depression of the survivors. A prolonged drought or prolonged period excessive rainfall might directly reduce crop yields of corn, wheat, etc., and lead indirectly to unsustainable inflation in the cost of food supplies.

Whether direct or indirect, some areas sensitive to the normal vagaries of the weather include:

  • Air traffic (e.g. ceilings, visibility, turbulence)
  • Utility companies (e.g., temperature and humidity affecting demand)
  • Forestry (e.g., precipitation and humidity in controlling forest fires)
  • Marine (e.g., winds limiting commercial and recreational use of waterways)
  • Private sector (e.g., weather conditions affecting store stocks, sales)
  • Military (e.g., weather dependent aspects of military strategy)

More generally, just about all weather has some impact, from the inconvenience of carrying an umbrella to the more significant effects of a landfalling hurricane. To delineate the magnitude of various weather impacts, Patrick McCarthy of the Meteorological Service of Canada suggests partitioning impacts into four broad categories:

  • Low impact - minor inconvenience, small and local economic losses, etc.
  • Moderate impact - minor damage, some social disruption, etc.
  • High impact - damage, risks to health, broad economic impact, etc.
  • Extreme impact - catastrophic losses, deaths, injuries, major social disruption, etc.

Of most significance, of course, are the high and extreme categories and their impacts on individuals and their families (health, personal property, etc.), society (communities, infrastructure, etc.), economy (transportation, recreation, agriculture, etc.), as well as the environment (water quality, biosphere, land erosion). According to the NRC report, on average for the period 1999 to 2008, there were 629 directly caused weather fatalities in the U.S. Between 1980 and 2009 there were 96 weather-related disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage with total losses exceeded $700 billion.

Neither of these statistics includes the staggering annual impacts of adverse weather on the nation's highways and roads: 7,400 weather-related deaths; 1.5 million weather-related crashes; more than 700,000 weather-related injuries; $42 billion in economic loss. The largest contributor (approximately 75%) to this sorry state of affairs is wet pavement from rain, snow and ice. Also contributing are impairments to visibility (e.g., fog, blowing snow) and high winds. In addition, keep in mind that weather-related crashes result from interaction of adverse weather with, for example, driver experience and skills, vehicle performance (traction, maneuverability), traffic flow and pavement friction.

It's undeniable that weather intersects our daily lives in many and complex ways. But, while it is not possible to reliably modify weather conditions, progress in Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP, i.e. weather forecasting models) has contributed significantly to mitigating weather related hazards to life and property by enabling broader opportunity to prepare for the worst. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the U.S. lags behind other nations in NWP and, hence, its ability to mitigate weather impacts to the extent possible. Stay tuned for the "rest of the story" in my next post.

By Steve Tracton  | September 21, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Reports, Tracton  
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Next: Risk for U.S. hurricane landfall increasing


Hate the heat, love the snow pic; keep 'em coming.

Is it not true there are far more heat-related deaths, than annual cold-weather fatalities, at least in the U.S.?

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | September 21, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Jerry, as of a the last study I dug up: The average number of deaths attributed to cold is 770 yearly, substantially higher than the number attributed to heat (Kilbourne, 1997).

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | September 21, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

(heat ~384 annually)
But here is the somewhat fascinating statistic you could have been thinking about tangentially: On average over the last 30 years, excessive heat accounts for more reported deaths annually than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and lightning combined.

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | September 21, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the research, Camden; guess it was the other data (hurricanes, floods, etc.) that I read somewhere re: heat-related fatalities.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | September 21, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Some more recent studies have shown heat to be the leading weather-related killer but this is a complex and controversial subject owing to differences in how to count heat and cold related deaths.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | September 21, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

What the number of crashes and injuries/deaths due to wet/icy road fails to overlook is that, unlike the weather itself, that's something that, for the most part, we CAN do something about. People don't HAVE to speed, brake/steer improperly, take foolish chances on slippery roads, or try and drive in conditions that their vehicles are not designed for. In many cases (obviously,not all), they don't HAVE to go out on the road in that kind of weather in the first place.......yet, they choose to do so. What is needed here is simply a change of attitude/life style and a little more caution/intelligence , and much of that problem would be solved.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | September 21, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse


I totally agree. Unfortunately, common sense is a commodity that is far too frequently in short supply.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | September 21, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

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