Background and Motivation

In February 2016, fifty tornadoes affected neighborhoods in the Southern and Eastern U.S., killing 10 people and injuring hundreds. In August, 30 inches of rain fell in just a few days, submerging streets and homes in Louisiana and causing billions of dollars in damages and 13 deaths. In October, the entire southeastern seaboard braced for Hurricane Matthew. The associated wind, storm surge, and rainfall led to significant damage and disruption. Stories like these are all too familiar. In fact, data from global resources, such as the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in Brussels, show that the number of natural disasters has been increasing worldwide, including in the Americas (Guha-Sapir et al, 2016). Most recently, the World Economic Forum (2017) has listed extreme weather events as the number one global risk in terms of likelihood, and the number two global risk, second only to weapons of mass destruction, in terms of impact.

One longstanding question that emerges from these facts is: How can we as citizens, operational practitioners in the public and private sectors, researchers, regulatory and funding agencies, non-profit organizations, and entrepreneurs and philanthropists, most effectively mobilize and coordinate our collective resources to mitigate impacts like those described above?

As research across the SBES demonstrates, intense “naturally occurring events” take place in complex social and political contexts. Rittle and Webber (1973) called such intractable dilemmas “wicked problems” because they resist straightforward or “tame” definitions, analyses, and solutions. They require novel modes of inquiry, new working relationships across a spectrum of groups, and a meaningful integration of SBES and physical sciences (Brown, Harris, and Russell 2010). Indeed, close, strategic coupling among the physical sciences, engineering, technology, SBES, and the humanities represents the best strategy for creating a sustainable future (e.g., NRC 2006; Schultz et al. 2010; Hoekstra et al. 2011; NOAA 2013; and Ripberger et al. 2014, 2015). Yet, institutional and financial barriers arise when groups attempt to work together across disciplines, organizations, or sectors of society. For example, seemingly straightforward concepts are not simple at all and often have vastly different meanings when applied across different topic domains. Plus, traditional disciplinary education and practice tends to focus attention on singular parts of an inherently multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted problem. Finally, some of the other sectors noted above—such as entrepreneurs and philanthropists—frequently are absent yet have a strong desire and demonstrate a compelling need to be involved.

Within the weather, climate, and disaster communities, significant steps have been taken to integrate social science and meteorological perspectives to offer more holistic approaches to multifaceted environmental problems. Important and long-standing initiatives have played an important role in laying a strong foundation for developing hybrid social and physical sciences expertise that leverages the strengths of each to generate new insights, research agendas, and action-oriented insights. Principal among them are: WAS*IS (Weather and Society * Integrated Studies: Demuth et al. 2007), which sought to “facilitate a culture change within the weather enterprise” toward a comprehensive integration of social sciences into meteorological practice; SSWIM (Social Science Woven into Meteorology), which created a university curriculum to create scholars with a hybrid understanding of social sciences and meteorology; and the Weather Ready Nation (hereafter WRN; NWS, 2013; NOAA, 2012; Lindell and Brooks, 2012), an ongoing U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) initiative to help communities build resilience to extreme weather and climate events.

Many agencies and organizations, such as the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), have developed programs, research agendas, and training curricula that integrate SBES into their efforts to better understand disasters. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently launched a Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Fair to better leverage SBE research in public health. Likewise, in 2016, NOAA commissioned a National Academies study entitled “Advancing Social and Behavioral Science Research and Application within the Weather Enterprise.” This effort underscores the essential role of the social and behavioral sciences in addressing current and future challenges of extreme environmental events. The results are expected in early 2018 (http://dels.nas.edu/Study-In-Progress/Advancing-Social-Behavioral-Science-Research/DELS-BASC-PR-15-04). In addition, NOAA established a position at its Washington, D.C. headquarters dedicated to integrating the social sciences into NOAA research and operations portfolios.

These and other activities taking place globally reflect clear recognition that a truly integrative approach to extreme environmental events—one not in which relevant disciplines, organizations and sectors of society work side by side, but rather one in which researchers, operational public and private sector practitioners, regulatory and funding agencies, foundations, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs come together via an appropriate organizing mechanism—to truly address the horrific loss of life and property, and the associated economic and social disruption, wrought by extreme environmental events. It is this motivation that drove creation of the Alliance for Integrative Approaches to Extreme Environmental Events.