GEOG 4343: Weather, Disaster, and Societal Impacts

 Course Overview

When you think of weather disasters, what images come to mind? Perhaps you think of Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps flash floods across the Colorado Front Range or the level farmlands of the Midwest. Perhaps the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado or the one that struck Saragosa, Texas. Or perhaps you see not so much the names or weather that frame these events but the people who survived or the forecasters who issued warnings. Perhaps you know many of these people, or are a survivor yourself. In this course, we’ll examine a range of issues that stem from and contribute to a “weather disaster.” What counts as a weather disaster? Who decides? What challenges underpin these definitions within forecaster communities? Within different lay publics? And how does responsibility get connected to or divorced from different events or different groups? In sum, we’ll examine different techniques of definition, challenges of practice, and controversies inherent in weather prediction.

 The term disaster offers a flexible narrative for conveying several complicated and often contested terms: risk, uncertainty, probabilities, and societal impacts. Even the word “disaster” itself raises significant questions about how to demarcate boundaries between the visible signs of a hazard and the invisible and chronic conditions that might underlay and linger well after the weather has turned calm again. To understand these concepts, we’ll put them into contexts that demonstrate how they’re made, used, and contested. For example, by reading through a service assessment from the National Weather Service about the challenges and successes surrounding the forecasting of the May 2013 Oklahoma tornado outbreak, what can we learn about the way disaster is discussed? Who does this document cite? What populations were interviewed and consulted? How is the narrative of this “weather event” discussed in terms of risk, uncertainty, and societal impacts? To more fully understand this event, who else should we consider? Who is missing from the conversation? Why?

 Weather forecasting is a type of activity that most people take for granted today. We can get on our cell phones and laptop computers or turn on our television sets and NOAA radios to find the latest information about weather in our area. But weather forecasting is a relatively recent scientific activity, and it’s one that occurs in the context of many sociocultural and technological challenges. This course will introduce students interested in meteorological issues to an overview of the types of technological developments, sociocultural contexts, and ongoing controversies that frame weather forecasting today. Specifically, I’ve drawn on contemporary controversies and issues within the meteorological community as they relate to weather forecasting—these are taken from current literature, conference topics, and online conversations. To frame these issues, we’ll look to literatures from a broad range of disciplines that offer insight and critique of these issues, including, of course, geography, but also Science and Technology Studies (e.g. philosophy, history, and sociology / anthropology), critical pedagogy, and risk communication. That is, while this course is offered within a geography context, it will be infused with interdisciplinary perspectives. We will also invite a few guests to class from different weather forecasting communities to help us understand more deeply their own points of view.

In particular, we’ll examine six modules, each two weeks in length. The class will vote on a sixth topic during the first half of the semester. This means we’ll be adding a few other readings to the course, though I’ll look to you to help me identify relevant topics and literature.

Student Learning Objectives

By the end of this course, you will be able to do the following:

  • Describe key issues related to definitions of disasters;
  • Summarize key ideas from literatures in history, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy as they relate to our topic;
  • Explain how actual cases might be re-visioned in relationship to these literatures;
  • Compare the experiences and points of view of different publics involved in weather disasters;
  • Synthesize commonalities across different disasters to develop ways of understanding problems that are taken for granted or publics who are neglected;
  • Develop suggestions and insights for how things might have been different in a particular weather disaster case study;
  • Articulate ethical and political dilemmas in weather disasters that are often hidden or masked by technological solutions.

Course Activities and Assignments

Each module will begin with a brief lecture that offers an overview of the topic and puts it in context. The majority of class time, however, will be based primarily on student discussion—both small and large group. In preparation for these conversations, you will select two modules of interest to you and write a summary of the readings and the related case. You will be responsible for offering an oral overview of their summary and developing discussion questions that help relate the readings to the case study. Each of you will present twice, either alone or as part of a small group.

For a final project, you will select a particular “weather disaster” of interest, create a case study that highlights the challenges faced by a particular public, and write a 4-6 page paper that analyzes relevant issues to that public and offers suggestions or insights based on the literature of the course. Each student will make a 5-7 minute presentation of their work to the class.

Course Structure and Readings

The class is organized around six modules, each two weeks in length. The class will vote on a sixth topic during the first half of the semester. This means we’ll be adding a few other readings to the course, though I’ll look to you to help me identify relevant topics and literature. Please make sure you’ve read the following chapters and articles before the class for which the readings are listed.

Week 1-2: What do we mean by disaster?

            Readings: Bowker, G. C. & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences.Cambridge: MIT Press. Introduction and chapters 9-10.  Knowles, S. G. (2011). The disaster experts: Mastering risk in modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Introduction and chapters 5-6.

Weeks 3-4:  Forecasting and its challenges at the National Weather Service

            Readings: Fine, G. A. (2007).  Authors of the storm: Meteorologists and the culture of prediction.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Introduction and chapters 2 and 5. Jasanoff, S. (2004). The idiom of co-production. States of knowledge: the co-production of science and social order. New York: Routledge, 1-12.

            Case: May 2013 OKC Tornadoes 

U. S. Department of Commerce. (2014). Service Assessment: May 2013 Oklahoma Tornadoes  and Flash Flooding. Silver Spring, MD: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Visitors: Guest, National Weather Service.

Weeks 5-6: Meteorology in a historical context

            Readings: Anderson, K. (2005). Predicting the weather: Victorians and the science of meteorology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Introduction and chapters 1 and 3. Edwards, P. N. (2001). “Representing the Global Atmosphere: Computer Models, Data, and Knowledge about Climate Change,” in Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance, edited by C. A. Miller and P. N. Edwards. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

            Case: The F-Scale and its revision

Fujita, T. (1971). A proposed characterization of tornadoes and hurricanes by area and  intensity. SMRP paper, 91. Chicago: University of Chicago. 

Wind Science and Engineering Center. (2004). A Recommendation for an Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF-Scale).

Visitor: Guest, committee member of the EF-Scale revision

Weeks 7-8: Risk and uncertainty in weather contexts

            Readings: Bijker, W. (2007). American and Dutch coastal engineering: Differences in risk conception and technological culture. Social Studies of Science, 37: 143-151. Gigerenzer, G., et al. (2005). "A 30% chance of rain tomorrow": how does the public understand probabilistic weather forecasts? Risk Analysis, 25 (3): 623-629. Jasanoff, S. (1993). Bridging the two cultures of risk analysis. Risk Analysis 12: 123-129. Lupton, D. (1999). Risk. New York: Routledge. Chapters 1 and 2.

            Case: Improved Forecast Models & Prediction Accuracy (Aug. 8, 2014). “Weather-Ready Nation: Forecasting Models to Improve This Fall.” Retrieved from

Weeks 9-10: “Educating the Public:” Issues in the Public Understanding of Science

            Readings: Bucchi, M. (2008). Of deficits, deviations and dialogues: Theories of public communication of science. In M. Bucchi & B. Trench (Eds.), The handbook of public communication of science and technology (pp. 57-76). New York: Routledge. Epstein, S. (1995). The construction of lay expertise: AIDS Activism and the forging of credibility in the reform of clinical trials. Science, Technology, & Human Values 20(4)  408-437.  Fischhoff, B. (1995). Risk perception and communication unplugged: twenty years of process. Risk Analysis, 15 (2): 137-145. Wilson, K. M. (2008). “Television Weathercasters as Prominent Science Communicators." Public Understanding of Science, 17(1), 73-87.

            Case: The Cone of Uncertainty in Hurricanes

Broad, K., Leiserowitz, J. W., and Steketee, M. (2007). “Misinterpretations of the ‘Cone of Uncertainty’ in Florida during the 2004 Hurricane Season.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Web Weather Extra: Cone of uncertainty.  Retrieved from

            Visitor: Guest, Social Scientist

Weeks 11-12: Politics of Disasters

Readings: Hughes, T. P. (1987). The evolution of large technological systems. In W. E. Bijker & T. P.  Hughes (Eds.), The social construction of technological systems, (p. 51-82). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Fortun, K. (2001). Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, disaster, new global orders.Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Chapter 10 and Epilogue. Harding, S. (2009). Standpoint theories: Productively controversial. Hypatia 24(4): 192- 200. Winner, L. (1977). Do artifacts have politics? The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 27-45.

Case: Superstorm Sandy

Superstorm Research Lab. (2013). “A Tale of Two Sandys.” White paper.  Retrieved from  

U. S. Department of Commerce. (2012). Service Assessment: Hurricane/Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy, October 22–29, 2012. Silver Spring, MD: National Oceanic and    Atmospheric Administration.

Visitor:  Guest, Occupy Sandy activist

Weeks 13-14: TBD

Weeks 15-16: Student presentations .