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The WAS*IS revolution

Workshops aim to transform weather research

by Bob Henson

Eve and Julie

WAS*IS founders Eve Gruntfest and Julie Demuth. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

When she was completing her master’s degree in meteorology at Colorado State University, Julie Demuth knew she wanted to do some sort of applications-based work. She didn’t, however, envision herself helping lead the charge for a new way of studying weather and its impacts. Demuth is now the co- organizer of a series of workshops aimed at giving participants the tools and peer support they need to carry out truly interdisciplinary weather research.

“The next great leap in meteorology arguably could be the comprehensive incorporation of social sciences,” says Demuth.

More than 100 invited participants from a variety of backgrounds—meteorology as well as anthropology, economics, sociology, and other fields—have taken part in several workshops over the last two years under the banner of WAS*IS (Weather and Society* Integrated Studies). The first WAS*IS took place in Boulder in November 2005, with a week-long follow-up the next winter. Subsequent WAS*IS sessions have been held in Boulder and Norman, Oklahoma, with the first overseas WAS*IS taking place near Melbourne, Australia, this past January and February. Applicants are being sought through 2 April for the next WAS*IS, to be held this July in Boulder (see WAS*IS Summer 2007).


Michael Tarrant (Emergency Management Australia) discusses the devastating bush fires of Ash Wednesday 1983 on a WAS*IS field trip near Melbourne in February. (Photo by Katherine Tarrant.)

The WAS*IS founders see the workshops as a way to “empower people who are passionate about investigating societal impacts of weather but who don’t know how or where to start,” says Demuth. Because there are few formal paths for such work within traditional settings, WAS*IS aims to build a community of like-minded scholars who call on each other for mentorship and support as well as for research collaboration.

“My dream was to have 20 brilliant, creative, culture-changing people,” says Eve Gruntfest, who teamed with Demuth to launch WAS*IS. Gruntfest, a geographer at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, made a name for herself early in her career by analyzing how individuals and groups responded to the disastrous 1976 flash flood that killed nearly 150 people in Colorado’s Big Thompson Canyon. Her work led to the “Climb to Safety” signs in Colorado canyons that encourage motorists to leave their cars if a flood is imminent.

While on sabbatical from UCCS, Gruntfest began a year-long visit at NCAR’s Institute for the Study of Society and Environment (ISSE). She found herself pondering how to cultivate a new generation of interdisciplinary ­researchers. “My whole career has been as a social scientist in a world of physical scientists and engineers,” says Gruntfest. Though she’s enjoyed the work—“it’s just been grand,” she says—she’s also experienced the frustration of being tacked onto studies as a token social scientist.

“When I would give talks, there would always be a few people who would come up to me and say, ‘I want to do this work, too.’ I found myself thinking that if these people had a little training in social science—and more importantly, if they knew about each other—they could do so much more than I ever did.”

Gruntfest and Demuth teamed up in 2005 in the Societal Impacts Program (SIP), a joint effort between ISSE and NCAR’s Research Applications Laboratory. Gradually, WAS*IS began to take shape, drawing on input from SIP director Jeff Lazo, Rebecca Morss (NCAR), John Gaynor (NOAA), and other principal investigators. The first WAS*IS was conceived as a single event, but interest in additional workshops was high enough to draw support from a variety of sources, primarily SIP, NOAA’s U.S. Weather Research Program, and UOP’s Visiting Scientist Programs.


Close interaction during the workshops is an essential part of WAS*IS. Participants are required to attend each day’s sessions as well as evening dinners and other special events. “Bringing people together to develop relationships and learn and brainstorm together is invaluable,” says Demuth.

The workshops include a crash course in social science techniques (although “you can’t really learn social science in eight days,” acknowledges Gruntfest), as well as a few sessions on key meteorological concepts and ample time for discussion and small-group projects. Participants also learn about several real-world examples of work that integrates weather and society.

The quirky acronym for the workshop series is now an adjective as well as a noun: Gruntfest and Demuth as well as participants refer to “WAS*IS-y” perspectives. Ironically, the acronym violates one of the cardinal rules of the workshop itself. “We don’t allow people to use acronyms,” explains Demuth, “because they can inhibit communication when you have a group of people from diverse backgrounds.” However, says Gruntfest, “I realized at NCAR that we’d be invisible if we didn’t have an acronym. The workshop is about culture change, going from what was to what is, so the acronym WAS*IS seemed to fit.”

The enthusiasm of WAS*IS participants comes through on the project’s Web site, which includes biographies, presentations, projects, testimonials, and other materials from each of the workshops thus far. “I expect the knowledge and contacts gained from WAS*IS to pay rich dividends in the coming years,” writes one participant. “To state plainly, I would not be doing this research without WAS*IS.”

An article summarizing the project is being submitted for the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, and the AMS annual meeting in San Antonio this past January included a full day of talks related to WAS*IS. However, says Gruntfest. “I think it’ll take many years to see the full impact of WAS*IS.”

On the Web image2 image3

WAS*IS Summer 2007 (includes links to other WAS*IS materials)

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A sampler of projects by WAS*IS graduates

Tanja Fransen, a warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS in Glasgow, Montana, teamed with Olga Wilhelmi (ISSE) to examine the demo­graphic and geographic characteristics of deaths and injuries related to winter weather in Colorado and Montana over the last decade. In their preliminary analysis, they found that the 57 deaths and 54 injuries in Colorado (1994–2005) occurred mainly among young males, perhaps due to high-risk recreational ­activities. The Montana casualties (15 deaths and 11 injuries from 1996 to 2005) were more evenly split by gender, with less of a trend toward younger victims.

Alan Stewart, an associate professor of counseling and human development at the University of Georgia, has used WAS*IS as a springboard to expand his research on how weather affects people. Stewart has developed a 53-item Weather Salience Questionnaire and tested it on more than 2,000 Georgia undergraduates. The tool evaluates seven dimensions of weather experience, such as one’s attachment to certain weather conditions and the need to seek weather information from multiple sources. The early findings show a bell-curve distribution of weather salience among the people polled. Stewart is now in the midst of a nationwide expansion of the survey.

Randy Peppler, the associate director of the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies in Norman, is embarking on a mid-career doctorate in geography at the University of Oklahoma. For his dissertation, Peppler plans to examine how Native Americans have observed and regarded weather over time, including traditional indigenous means as well as more contemporary observing practices. One potential topic is to see whether any particular tribe’s forced relocation during the Trail of Tears in the 1830s wrought a change in that tribe’s way of thinking about nature as embodied in weather and climate.


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