Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Meaning of Life

A question that occasionally surfaces in our lives, when we take the time to ponder such things, can be stated many ways, but they all boil down to "What does it all mean?"  This question is particularly poignant to us when we confront our own mortality.  For many people, the obvious answer is their religion, although I suspect that many believers secretly harbor some doubts when it comes to that.  For some, like Monty Python or Douglas Adams, a humorous or even flippant answer serves to dispel the gloom such questions might stimulate.  For the most part, we go on about our life routines without contemplating such deep issues, perhaps because when we do, they can cause us to be a bit frightened - after all, it's difficult to imagine or accept that when we're gone, the world will carry on without us.

So the question deserves some sort of answer.  In what follows, most of which occurred to me several years ago now, I make no claim to have any profound insight or to know for certain that life has any meaning, much less the ideas I'm presenting in this blog.  I'm simply presenting a way to think about this question that provides me with an "answer" - of sorts.

As a observer interested in most aspects of the natural world, it's evident that most living things have no capacity to ponder such questions.  The birds, the ants, the bacteria, and the entire world of plants - none of them are tormented by such thoughts.  They simply have a will to survive - to find sustenance, to escape predators, to give birth to another generation.  Individual animals and plants know about and care nothing about the meaning of their existence.  Existence and species survival are quite enough for them.  All life on Earth, except us, exists simply to survive as part of a complex ecosystem of mutual interdependence.

We, on the other hand, seem compelled to infer that our existence is special, and privileged among other lifeforms on Earth.  Mere survival and participation in the ecosystem just doesn't seem grand enough for us, with our ability to contemplate the Universe in which we exist.  For many, religion reinforces the comforting thought of eternal life beyond our Earthly demise and a purpose defined by a mythical superbeing.  But long ago, I rejected that path as illogical and clearly mythical.

If you disregard the pat answers provided by religion, which I do, then perhaps the ultimate answer is that there is no meaning to life.  Life simply exists to survive and procreate, even for humans.  Should the astronomers prove to be right, then our Earth is destined for some life-destroying fate in a few billion years - if humans haven't left the Earth and colonized other places, or become extinct by then, we will be utterly destroyed.  And the cosmologists suggest that the entire Universe will come to some life-destroying end, so it seems the ultimate extinction of our species is inevitable.  Everything we have built and struggled for will come to nothing in the cold calculus of the indifferent Universe.  Without the myth of eternal life provided by religion, it seems that science offers no solace for our concerns - in the absence of a perpetual survival for humanity, our personal lives can have no meaning whatsoever.

So how do I deal with this apparently meaningless existence?  What keeps me going?  Why should I not kill myself, or indulge in all sorts of immoral behavior?  If nothing matters, why not do these things?  Well, like many other atheists, I don't need religion to have morals.  Here's the deal:  I have been given life by my parents.  I didn't ask for it, but they evidently wanted someone like me in their lives.  I'm thankful and grateful to them for that unrequested gift.  I've found the Earth to be a wondrous place, full of beauty and grandeur, human kindness, wonderful people, and physical pleasures.  Life is mostly a joy to me and for that joy to be maintained, I feel an obligation to make my joy known to others and to seek to bring joy to them, as well.

There are, of course, other ways to provide "meaning" to life - hateful, evil deeds that bring pain and suffering - even death - to others.  For some religious believers, the meaning in their life is provided by immoral acts that inflict agony and death on others.  What a sad life they've built for themselves, filled with anger and pain, perhaps to be terminated prematurely by suicide on the promise of an afterlife that is pure mythology.  One also can achieve an immortality of sorts by extreme evil - Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, mass murderers, etc.  They become famous  and that fame provides a sort of meaning for them, it seems, but what a terrible legacy they leave behind.  Not fame, actually, but infamy.

But consider this, before you go on a rampage of immorality.  Every person, even those conceived but not yet born, has an impact on at least some other people.  It's impossible to be alive without having an impact on others.  We often measure fame by how many people know of us - but Arlo Guthrie has said it correctly:  "Famous people are not always important.  Important people are not always famous."  Because we inevitably affect at least those around us, we're important - to them.  Whether or not we (or they) become famous is irrelevant.  If we're all important, each and every one of us, then we should consider just what sort of impact we want to have on those around us.

If we attach value to our acquaintances, friends, and family, then it behooves us to have a positive influence on their lives, to whatever extent it's possible.  We encourage them to pursue their dreams, we praise them for their accomplishments, and we let them know when they do something we believe to be wrong.  We listen to them with attention and try to provide them with comfort when they're sad.  If the world and humanity eventually will vanish, why should we do such things?  Why does it matter?  Because our minds have been programmed by evolution to feel good about ourselves when we do so.  We're social creatures, who can only survive by cooperation with others of ours species.  Cooperation requires morality.  I have morals because it feels right to have them.  Life is better when I feel good than when I feel ashamed and regretful of what I've done.

A life spent doing things you love is dominated by positive feelings, and when we do what we love, we usually do it well enough that it provides something of value to others - even others we may never meet.  Our lives can be inspirational to many people we don't know.  Our work can stimulate others to achievement.  It's so easy to be happy and this can give meaning to my life in a very personal way.  I have no need for fame or glory.  Immortality is beyond my grasp, so it's pointless to seek it.  I'm pretty sure that in 500 or 1000 years, no one will remember I existed, but during the time I've been granted, I know that I've been thrilled to the core with what the world has offered to me, and I've tried my best to give something of that joy and happiness to others.  It simply feels good ... and right.  That's how I find meaning in my time of existence.  For me, it's more than enough.  How about you?

Monday, June 10, 2013

The EF-Scale Ratings Brouhaha

In the wake of upgrades to the EF-scale ratings based on mobile Doppler radar-measured windspeeds, there's been a lot of back and forth on the topic of (a) whether or not to use such measurements at all in the rating process, and (b) if mobile Doppler radar measurements are to be used, just how should this be done?

Item (a) is relevant since the NWS Director some time ago issued a directive to the field offices in which use of mobile Doppler radar windspeed measurements should not be used.  The following is a recent directive from the NWS Director, Dr. Louis Uccellini:
Directive NWSI 10-1604, Post-Storm Data Acquisition, requires us to use the EF scale, which is an impact-based rating assigned to a tornado after extensive investigation of the damage it caused. EF ratings are determined by observed damage rather than measured wind because we have no consistent way to measure wind speed for every tornado that occurs. Adhering to NWSI 10-1604 ensures we continue to use consistent methodology throughout the country for assigning EF ratings.

Tornado research is an exciting and rapidly evolving area of science, and we are able to capture more information about the character of tornadoes than ever before. We are updating Directive NWSI 10-1604 to allow the option of including this new information, when available, in the narrative of tornado summaries. The new policy will allow NWS to document available data that are scientifically valid and reliable without changing the objective and consistent EF assessment. Until the update is finalized into policy, WFOs should continue to follow current policy.
This is essentially a management directive from the agency head to the field offices, and it naturally must be obeyed by the NWS employees, without regard to the scientific merits for such a choice.  Personally, I find it absurd to force the offices to ignore the only "direct" measurements of wind speed in a tornado they're ever likely to have.  I'll have more to say about "direct" shortly.  The EF-Scale was never intended to be a damage scale, but rather is a windspeed scale.  The problem always has been that we have so few actual windspeed observations we must use damage to infer the windspeed - otherwise, only a tiny number of events could be rated.  That was Fujita's contribution to the science of tornadoes, and it has been useful (albeit controversial) ever since it was introduced in 1971.

The "consistency" argument is traditional within the NWS as a reaction to technological innovation.  I could provide numerous examples of the wrong-headedness of this policy, but I'll try to keep this as concise as possible.  For instance, should we degrade the data obtained by WSR-88D radars to that from WSR-57s simply to maintain consistency with the older data sets?  Should we disregard the dual polarity information of the new upgrades to the WSR-88D radars just to maintain consistency with the old versions of the radar?  When something new and exciting comes on line, its capabilities should be embraced by the agency, not rejected as inconsistent with older technology!

Turning to item (b), the primary concern is that the mobile Dopplers "measure" the winds within a sample volume well above the standard 10 m anemometer height, and the EF-Scale is supposed to be based on the virtually non-existent anemometer-based windspeeds at that height for a 3-second gust.  By and large, this is a meaningless definition since anemometer measurements in tornadoes are very, very, very rare - a tornado is an anemometer-hostile environment!  [I need to point out that no absolutely "direct" measurement of wind speed is ever possible.  Anemometer output is electronic signals associated with its rotation rate, which must be calibrated to the wind speed.  Any instrument, even in situ systems, are not direct measurements and entail a lot of issues (sensitivity, accuracy, response time, etc.)  Doppler radar windspeed estimates are not absolutely direct, either of course, and are a form of remote sensing, which is why they can be used in tornadoes.]

So the issue becomes:  what relationship exists between the Doppler radar wind measurements and the actual wind at the 10 m level averaged for three seconds [which is virtually never observed but must be inferred from a highly nonlinear relationship with damage]?  As of this moment, research is underway to try to determine this as unambiguously as possible - it will never be completely unambiguous, of course.  There are reasons to believe that windspeeds  might actually increase at decreasing heights as we go downward from where the Doppler measurements are taken.  The details of that windspeed profile remain to be established and there likely is variability from one tornado to another, or even from time to time during the life cycle of a single tornado.  It's unlikely some single profile would actually be observed at all times for every tornado!  Of course, theoretically, the wind must be zero at a height of 0 m but the winds just above that level must increase quite rapidly with height if they are to become capable of damage at 10 m.

Given that the research is not yet complete (and when is research ever truly complete?), it could be argued that it's premature to use the Doppler measurements and the suggestion to keep them but not use them is at least not entirely ridiculous.  However, all the anxiety about the consistency of the EF-Scale ratings strikes me as rather silly.  The existing record is laced with numerous inconsistencies for a host of reasons.  Denying the value of the most direct measurements of windspeed in tornadoes in order to maintain consistency with an inconsistent data set strikes me as silly.  You can argue we shouldn't introduce yet another source of inconsistency but I say we should take advantage of new techology as soon as possible and not get trapped into the "consistency argument" I discussed earlier.

Many years ago, earthquake intensity was "measured" with a damage scale that had many of the same problems as the original F-Scale.  It eventually was replaced with various objective measures of earthquake intensity and has passed into the dustbin of history.  No one ever suggested degrading the Richter Scale to match the old intensity scale for the sake of "consistency" with the older system.  The extent to which Doppler radar measurements will be able eventually to supercede damage estimate is unknown, but it's likely they never will become capable of being used for every tornado to map out the detailed space-time distribution of windspeeds.  Nor will the relationship of their measurements to the mostly hypothetical 3-second gust from an anemometer at 10 m ever be known perfectly.  But to ignore them or defer their use in EF-Scale assessment just for consistency's sake makes absolutely no sense to me.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

When Being Right About a Forecast Brings No Joy

Recent events in Oklahoma have validated something I have been saying for many years.  Specifically, the gridlock to the south and east of the deadly tornado of 31 May 2013 verifies comments I've made many times - escaping a tornado in your vehicle is very much dependent on the specific situation.  You need to be "situation aware" if you choose to attempt to escape a tornado by driving away.  I'm far from the only one who's said such things, of course.

Out in the open country or in a small town, driving away is generally feasible, assuming road conditions permit it.  But in a metropolitan area, this can go tragically wrong.  On 31 May 2013, many people were told a falsehood - that there was no chance they would survive "above ground".  This falsehood owes its origins to Gary England during his coverage of the 03 May 1999 tornado.  His statement, unfortunately, garnered much positive attention and was credited with saving lives.  But the statment is simply not true, as has been demonstrated many times over.  Even in homes hit by the EF4/EF5 winds in EF-4/EF-5 ("violent") tornadoes (Those extreme winds occupy only a tiny fraction of the damage path in such tornadoes.), most people will survive!  Dispensing such misinformation creates unnecessary fear and such fear can induce bad decisions like people in urban areas trying to escape by driving away since they have no underground shelter, rather than seek to shelter in place.  Spreading misinformation via media broadcasts is irresponsible!

The gridlock of 31 May 2013 resulted from a combination of factors, including the recent EF5 killer tornado that struck Moore, OK on 20 May 2013.  But when media weather broadcasters directly or indirectly encourage people living in a metropolitan area to drive away from tornadoes, the potential loss of life skyrockets.  On 10 April 1979, the F4 tornado that struck Wichita Falls, TX killed 44 people, with many of the fatalities occurring in vehicles, including people who left homes that were undamaged, only to drive into situations where they were caught in their cars and killed.

The gridlock of 31 May 2013 didn't involve a tornado tracking over all those immobilized vehicles, but many of us have been worried about such a scenario for a long time.  We have predicted a potential disaster.  As of today, such a disaster hasn't occurred, although the 1979 Wichita Falls event provides a foretaste.  But if we do little or nothing to prevent it, such a tragedy will occur eventually.  Should things work out that way, none of us making this prediction will be exultant!  We may or may not say "I told you so!" but whether we do so or not, none of us will gain any pleasure from saying it.

When I saw the infamous "overpass video" from 26 April 1991 in Kansas, many of us agreed that this video eventually would cause unnecessary deaths in tornadoes.  On 03 May 1999, that prediction came to pass - 3 people died sheltering under overpasses.  We still see people gathering under overpasses to this day, despite the continuing repetition of the message "Do NOT seek shelter under overpasses!" by everyone involved in tornado preparedness.  There will be more such fatalities unless we can change that behavior.  I hope the producers of that video are finding it difficult to live with the consequences of their irresponsibility.  I know it brings me no joy to have made that prediction and live to see it verified.

Because the long-term trends in tornado fatalities have been steadily downward, a level of complacency has emerged.  The evidence seemed to suggest that big numbers of fatalities had become a thing of the past.  Tornado forecasts and various preparedness efforts had removed the potential for tornado disasters in the modern era.  But some of us knew that this complacency was not based on reality.  The threat was still there - the relatively low fatality counts were as much a matter of good luck as they were the result of casualty mitigation efforts.  Survivors often feel they've experienced the worst (e.g., on 03 May 1999), but the reality is that things to come can always be worse!  Then came 2011 and the good luck ran out - the most fatalities since 1925 - the year of the massive death toll associated with the "Tri-State" tornado of 18 March 1925.  Many of us knew something of the sort was still possible, and said so.  Again, being right is no consolation for the huge losses of 2011, mostly on 27 April (Mostly in MS and AL) and 22 May (Joplin, MO).

Another item that causes concern for many of us in severe storm research and operations - large venue event disasters.  Eventually, at some crowded venue for some large entertainment event, a tornado will strike with insufficient warning to evacuate.  With tens of thousands caught essentially in the open, the casualty figures could be enormous.  Some efforts are underway to try to do something about this potential nightmare, but in at least a few cases, it seems nearly impossible to do anything about the threat.  Something of this sort inevitably will happen.  The fact that I can say that, without specifying where and when, of course, doesn't alter the awful feeling that will ensue when this prediction is verified.

No sane person wants tragedies to happen.  Science gives us the capacity to make predictions of disasters, and we can try our best to convince others to take our predictions seriously enough to induce them to seek ways to reduce the disaster potential.  Sadly, we can get out our message, but there's usually little or nothing done to prevent tragedy until people die.  It seems we need a body count if we're to have any hope of changing things for the better.  The only solace we can offer to the victims is that their loss might mean gain for people in the future.   Might.  That prospect is what we cling to when sad events we've predicted come to pass.

Storm Chasing's Day of Infamy

The day some of us have long foreseen has finally come to pass - a tornado has killed storm chasers.  31 May 2013 will live forever in chasing history as a day of infamy.  This has triggered a torrent of op-ed media articles, blog posts, and considerable traffic on social media - including this blog post, of course.

The biggest shock for me is not that it finally happened, but that it happened to my friend Tim Samaras (and his son Paul, as well as colleague Carl Young).  Further, there was another chaser killed by the tornado - Richard Charles Henderson - whom I don't know but suspect that he more closely fit the "profile" of what I expected would be the first chaser killed by a tornado.  More on him shortly.  The particular challenge Tim's death creates for responsible, knowledgeable chasers is obvious:  being a safety-conscious, responsible chaser is no guarantee of safety from the storms.  Tim was killed doing what he loved.  But his activities were inherently more dangerous than those pursued by most responsible chasers.  To achieve his goal of placing "probes" so that tornadoes would pass over them necessarily put him at great risk.  Before Tim's successes, getting tornadoes to hit purpose-built and deployed instrument packages had basically proven to be nearly impossible.  To be successful, you have to take substantially greater risks than most chasers.  Storm chasing is inherently dangerous and none of us are completely immune from that danger.  Including me.

I'm proud to say that I wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of Tim in his pursuit of his first National Geographic grant.  I gave him the strongest possible recommendation.  He clearly had the technical expertise to do the project, the chasing experience to put him in the right place at the right time, and the level of responsibility to carry out his work in the safest possible fashion, given the high danger of doing so.  Tim was not about fame and fortune - he was dedicated to learning about tornadoes using his engineering expertise to create a practical design to accomplish his goals.  It was a pleasure to be of some help in getting his work started properly.

Tim's death reminds me of David A. Johnston's tragic death - the USGS scientist killed by the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption in 1980.  The science was robbed of work he would have done by his premature loss, just as we have been robbed of Tim's work way too soon - to say nothing of the loss to his family and friends.  News of that 1980 tragedy affected me deeply and personally at that time, since there were some obvious parallels to the danger associated with storm chasing.  Although I didn't know Johnston in any way prior to hearing about his death, I felt I understood him and his motives.  He was killed pursuing his passion.  His was not a feat of great bravery, but rather was driven by the same need to understand the natural world that some storm chasers have.  I had been intrigued with vulcanology when I was a boy - I could have wound up as a vulcanologist.  That very well could have been me that infamous day in 1980.  I would have wanted to be at the volcano, where the knowledge was to be gained.  This is what we scientists do - it's got nothing to do at all with bravery.  Nothing at all!

Tim's death, like David Johnston's, is an act neither of bravery or bravado.  Tim wasn't killed pursuing fame and fortune, or indulging in an "extreme sport" for the sake of drawing attention to himself.  He was killed doing what he had to do in order to leave the world with a legacy of greater knowledge.  I honor that goal and I honor the lives of Tim and his colleagues.  He brought great credit to storm chasing.  Moreover, there's no shame in becoming the first victim of a tornado while storm chasing.  If it happened to Tim and his team, it could happen to anyone engaging in that danger.   The atmosphere cares nothing about its victims - at most, it's indifferent.

Although the fourth victim was not a science professional, it seems he had some interest in storms and simply blundered into a situation he was unprepared to handle.  He leaves behind mourning family and friends, too.  This sort of victim is what I had anticipated the first deaths by tornado chasing to be - people who had some interest in storms but neither the experience nor the knowledge to avoid the danger if it came upon them suddenly.  Had Richard Charles Henderson been the first and only storm chasing victim of the tornado on 31 May 2013, I wouldn't have been pleased about having my expectations fulfilled.  Instead, I'd have been very unhappy that all the media publicity had finally led to what we all feared it could lead non-professionals to do!  I could not, and will not exult in the death of any chaser, no matter who it might be!

Storm chasing's day of infamy has arrived.  As we mourn our recent losses and gather some solace from thoughts of the good times that we had with the victims, we chasers should draw insight from what this tragedy has revealed.  I had my personal revelation about tornadoes on 24 May 1973 - now a tad more than 40 years ago.  See item #32 here.  Specifically, the spectacular atmospheric phenomena I so much hoped to see could cause great sorrow and pain.  It took me some time afterward to arrive at a moral accommodation with my passion for storms.  First, I recalled that the atmosphere doesn't do my bidding - what happens is not under my control and so I have no responsibility for the storm.  However, I also realized that by being there, and learning about storms, and sharing that knowledge with society, we could mitigate the toll from such events.

I can chase with a clear conscience because I serve a purpose beyond myself in doing so.  How many of today's "extreme" chasers can make such a claim and be credible in doing so?  I hope they'll use this occasion to reconsider just why they chase and decide to spend little or no time focused on themselves, but rather seek to achieve some more worthy goal than self-aggrandizement and boastful bravado.  Let them become more sensitive to the anguish of tornado victims.  Let their cameras be turned away from them and remain on the phenomena they claim to seek.  Let them take pains to give something meaningful back for all their fun and excitement.  Let this day of infamy mean more chasing with safety, responsibility, and courtesy.