Arts & Sciences

The power of stories: Steinberg co-edits book on extreme weather’s effect on people

June 01, 2016 by Cindy O'Dell

May in India is typically the hottest month of the year, but this year May brought that nation’s hottest day ever, 123.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the western city of Phalodi.

William Sprigg and Sheila Steinberg

William Sprigg and Sheila Steinberg

The new extreme created exactly the kinds of health and community problems that are the focus of a new book edited by Brandman Professor Sheila Lakshmi Steinberg and William A. Sprigg of the University of Arizona.

“Extreme Weather, Health, and Communities; Interdisciplinary Engagement Strategies,” which includes chapters written by Steinberg and fellow faculty members Michael Moodian and Margaret Moodian, so impressed academic press publisher Springer Press that they’ve requested a continuing series focusing on how extreme weather affect society.

In the case of India and extreme heat, the chapter by Jyotsana Shukla, “Extreme Weather: Mental Health Challenges and Community Response Strategies,” looks past the immediate threats to health caused by heat and focuses on the indirect threat to mental health, particularly depression triggered by loss of income and displacement. Her recommendations include ways to enhance preparedness, reduce vulnerability and build resilience through an interdisciplinary approach.

Seeking answers

Steinberg first approached her co-editor when they were both teaching at Chapman University. Steinberg, whose research focus is the intersection of environmental science and sociology, sought out Sprigg for his expertise on weather and climate change. Sprigg, whose career includes a long stint as a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, which includes the better known National Weather Service), suggested she go to a meeting of the American Meteorological Society.

Brandman Professor Sheila Steinberg.

Brandman Professor Sheila Steinberg teaches at the Irvine campus.

“As I was strolling around (the American Meteorological meetings), I started looking for a book that looked at the social side of weather extremes,” said Steinberg. There wasn’t one, but an editor at Springer Press suggested she write one.

“I didn’t expect that comeback, said Steinberg. She decided to take up the challenge, wrote a proposal and then decided she needed an expert on extreme weather and climate as she began work on the book. She turned to Sprigg for interdisciplinary collaboration.

As they see it, one of the fundamental issues around extreme weather is communication.

“When Sheila walked into my office, I realized that the biggest issues we face is that the science is not being communicated properly. The human aspect, what the consequences might be, had always been marginalized from the physical sciences,” said Sprigg.

When she asked if he wanted to work on the book, he thought it was exactly what needed to be done.

Steinberg said there’s been a disconnect between academic scientists and what she calls “citizen scientists” – people who know their environment because it’s where they live and, at least in the case of indigenous people, see what’s changing and have strategies in places for dealing with extreme conditions.

“As a sociologist, I’m going to say that local societies have the best understanding of their environment because they interact with it every day,” said Steinberg. At the same time, while people have long learned to cope with floods, tornadoes, droughts and dust storms on the personal level, the new extremes are taxing everyone’s limits.

“You can’t wait until a tornado is drilling down on your community to do something, but at the same time you don’t want to be the boy who cries wolf,” said Steinberg. False alarms (or the public’s perception that the alarms are false) tend to lead to complacency and a lack of preparedness and, as the book shows, that can lead to tragedies like the ones caused by the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, in 2011

The Joplin tornado is one of the specific extreme weather conditions discussed in the book. Others include Superstorm Sandy, dust storms, drought and extreme temperatures in India and elsewhere and even a step back in time to look at the severe winter weather of the 1880s as written about by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Reaching for multiple audiences

“When Sheila and I started talking about this book, we talked about the audience we were trying to address,” said Sprigg, whose usual writing targets other scientists with the goal of advancing science. “We tried to address that so that scientists and the general public can understand what is going on. We wanted to strip it of too much jargon or too many equations that wouldn’t be understood by others. Sheila taught me how powerful bringing it home to a personal experience might be.”

An expert on dust storms, Sprigg realized that the experiences of his neighbors with valley fever (an infection that affects humans and animals when a common soil fungus is unleashed by winds and inhaled) were exactly the kind of story needed.

“They wanted to make their story known. This is another way we have of bridging that gap and getting our neighbors and people around the world to read a little bit about it and understand it and make better decisions for themselves and their communities,” said Sprigg.

“It’s about the applied stories that well-recognized scientists have,” said Steinberg. “They know the scientific method, but they were very passionate to write their chapters, to get a chance to translate it in a very clear way that normal people can understand. I love that scientists got passionate about telling the stories.”

Steinberg hopes the book will find its way into college courses, but the pair also hope it will have an impact on policy makers.

“It struck me after reading a few of these chapters that every governor of a weather-affected state should have it on his or her desk and point it out to the next governor when they take office and say, ‘I got into trouble because I didn’t have this in time to affect some of the decisions I made,’” said Sprigg.

“It’s a climate issue and it’s a weather issue,” he added. “How do you communicate the issue of weather events. How do you assess the damage? How do you articulate an appropriate response? Where will we get our food? How are we going to handle transportation?”

The book gives readers a chance to see those issues across many types of weather events. Sprigg hopes that readers reach the conclusion that he did: helping communities devise systems for responding before an event happens and finding a way to communicate these systems to everyone can make the biggest difference.

“We really want people to connect the pieces,” he said.

“Our hope is that the book will lead scientists, policy makers and community members to work together in preparing for extreme weather, to build off local strengths and knowledge,” said Steinberg. Deadly floods in Houston and the Seine overflowing its banks in Paris this week serve as reminders of just how urgent that is.


Brandman contributions
  • Michael Moodian and Margaret Moodian write about the effects both cooperative responses and failure-to-respond had on the political careers of those in charge. They focus on governmental and political responses to Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast; blizzards in Denver, Chicago and New York and tornadoes in Texas. They recommend developing a strong social media presence on a regular basis and not just during an event; creating a social media plan; keeping politics out of weather data interpretation and creating communication collaborations.
  • Sheila Lakshmi Steinberg wrote the chapter “Interdisciplinary Engagement of People and Place Around Extreme Weather,” co-authored “Introduction: Extreme Weather, Health and Communities: Why Consider the Connections?” and was a co-author on “Refining the Process of Science Support for Communities Around Extreme Weather Events and Climate Impacts” about indigenous perspectives of extreme weather changes and science/ community collaborations.
“Extreme Weather, Health, and Communities” is available through Springer Press and through Amazon Books.

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