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Summer to Winter: A Bracing Start to the AMS Centennial

January 13, 2020, 10:04 AM EST

Above: Gina McCarthy was the featured speaker at the AMS Presidential Forum kickoff on Sunday, January 12, 2020, in Boston. Image credit: Bob Henson.

Weather, climate, and water geeks flocking to Boston for the 100th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) saw a weekend truly fit for their arrival. Temperatures soared to 70°F on Saturday and stayed above 60°F until Sunday afternoon. That compares to an average high and low in Boston this time of year of 36°F and 22°F. The balmy conditions peaked Sunday with a high of 74°F—the warmest January temperature in Boston records that date back to 1872. The only previous January days that had even made it as far as 70°F are Jan. 1, 1876, and Jan. 26, 1950.

Nearby Providence, Rhode Island, also set a January record with 70°F, topping the 69°F most recently notched on Jan. 29, 2002.

The mild southerly flow in Boston, part of a disruptive U.S. storm system that led to at least eight deaths, came to an abrupt end Sunday night with a sharp cold front. Conferencegoers awoke Monday morning to light drizzle and snow flurries, with temperatures just above freezing.

As pleasant as Sunday’s brilliant sunshine and warm breezes felt, they also had an unnerving quality. In the last 80 years, Boston’s average temperature has climbed 3°F, a product of the urban heat island as well as broader human-produced climate change. The oddly mild January afternoon set the stage well for the kickoff talk from Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2013 and 2017 and the newly appointed president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

McCarthy grew up in Dorchester, just a few miles from the Boston Convention Center. She gave the crowd a fiery, humor-laced exhortation to action on protecting the environment, including the climate. She built her remarks around memories of Don Kent, the Boston weathercaster who was a local fixture from the 1950s through the 1980s.

“I watched him on my three-channel black-and-white TV, standing in front of a blackboard with a few pieces of chalk….He was essentially part of the family. We thought he cared about us.” Just as Kent’s weathercasters made a difference, she said, “You produce and deliver science that matters.” McCarthy gave a shout-out to Weather Geeks, the Weather Channel show (and now podcast) hosted by Marshall Shepherd. An in-studio appearance on the series brought her to TWC’s Atlanta headquarters: “No one there called into question my sanity or my patriotism, which made it way more fun than congressional hearings.”

Before heading EPA, McCarthy was advisor to six governors. “Five of them were Republicans, and they were never thrilled by dirty air or dirty water,” she said. “Does anybody dislike a tree? Or a playground?”

McCarthy expressed admiration for teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, adding that she was both “excited and distressed” by the surge in youth concern about climate. McCarthy posed the question of whether the much-discussed year-2030 deadline for massive emission cuts is more motivating or more dispiriting, and encouraged finding steps that can get done tomorrow and the next day. “Tell people that they can do this. Reference the work that was done in the environment a long time ago…Let’s get real and give people real hope.”

McCarthy pointed to the United States Climate Alliance, a group of 25 governors who are working in their states to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the United Nations climate deal signed by the world’s nations in 2015 but from which the United States is in the process of withdrawing. As a group, these states are effectively the world’s third largest economy and sixth largest emitter, containing more than half of the U.S. population. According to the alliance, these 25 states reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent between 2005 and 2017, compared to 7 percent for the other 25 states.

In a question-and-answer session, McCarthy saluted her previous colleagues in the federal government: “I’m heartbroken that they are being treated as second-class citizens. Public service is the most noble profession.” She added: “When is the last time a science issue became so political? I think we all have to reject the idea that climate change Is a political issue or a partisan issue. People will trust your judgment if you talk about things you know.”

According to McCarthy, “While we have done a hell of a job in getting people’s attention…it’s time to shift gears to start motivating people to act, not to have their heads in the sand. We have to empower them, not frighten them.” She encouraged the use of everyday language: “You gotta be more colloquial in how you communicate so people will understand...not language that’s incorrect from a science perspective, but information that’s more colloquial."

McCarthy concluded: “Stay hopeful. Keep your foot on the accelerator. Put your faith in human ingenuity and entrepreneurship….that’s how we all move forward.”

A centennial smorgasbord of science

Outgoing AMS president Jenni Evans (Pennsylvania State University) summarized this year’s annual meeting: “It’s record setting by almost any measure.” Almost 5500 registrants are on hand in Boston, hailing from some 50 nations and including more than 800 students. The packed program features almost 3000 talks, almost 1500 posters, and more than 100 exhibits. Recordings of many of the talks will be freely available from the meeting website in a few weeks.

Those who aren’t at the meeting can also dig into an exhaustive survey of the last 100 years in weather, climate, and water research. “A Century of Progress in Atmospheric and Related Sciences: Celebrating the American Meteorological Society Centennial”, a special issue of Meteorological Monographs, is now available in open-access form.

To follow the meeting via Twitter, check out @AMS and #AMS100. Many groups with AMS are producing their own Twitter and Facebook feeds as well.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

author image

Bob Henson

WU meteorologist Bob Henson, co-editor of Category 6, is the author of "Meteorology Today" and "The Thinking Person's Guide to Climate Change." Before joining WU, he was a longtime writer and editor at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO.


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