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The New Face of Severe Weather--As Manifest at the Higher Level of "Earth's Reality Game"

  • By William H. Hooke
  • Nov 12, 2023

William H. Hooke

In the mists of “ancient history” (as defined by Gen Z or Generation Alpha, that might be the 1980s or a bit earlier), Dick Hallgren, who directed the National Weather Service at the time, was fond of saying that the United States faced a greater set of weather hazards than any nation in the world. We had as many tropical storms making landfall as the other low-latitude countries. Our winter storms rivaled those of Russia and Canada. Our vast land, with its thousands of watersheds, was always facing the woes of drought and flood at any given time. The United States, alone among nations, had a monopoly on the world’s tornadoes—especially the severe ones. And so on.

But in the few decades since, the U.S. weather threat has been turned on its head. On the summer morning I started writing this, warnings spoke to severe weather of a different sort: enduring, stultifying heat over much of the South, and dangerously high levels of air pollution spanning the Midwest, Northeast, and Middle Atlantic—the latter a result not of any local weather conditions but rather the result of downwind airflow from Canadian wildfires hundreds of miles distant. And those severe thunderstorms that have always been the hallmark U.S. warm-season threat to life and property? They’re now prayed for as possible saviors—breaking up the weather patterns maintaining the heat and bad air. 


A lot to wrap our minds around. Really calls for a limber mind. But maybe we’ve seen this all before, just in different context. This kind of thing is nothing new to gamers, who constantly reframe their thinking as they master successively more challenging video game levels and move from one to the next. Real-world living has much in common with their virtual reality.    

In effect, all of us, whether or not we identify as gamers, have willy-nilly moved to Earth Reality’s Next Level. Today’s pace of Earth’s Reality Game is faster, and the stakes higher, than a century or even a few decades ago. Much more is demanded of national and individual players to survive, let alone prosper. For starters, we find ourselves in an environment where the cycles of storm and quiet and larger patterns of flood and drought are substantially more intense than those familiar from recent memory (think last winter’s epic snowfalls across California and the long-term threat to the Colorado River’s water allocations compared with historic norms).

Fact is, weather is only one facet of Earth’s Reality Game 21st-century level. Urbanization and dependence on critical infrastructure have changed human vulnerability to natural hazards. As populations and resource-use per capita have increased, so have the scale and dimensions of human environmental impacts. Fossil fuel consumption is changing climate. Drawdown of underground aquifers is detectably changing the Earth’s spin. Mining and processing of lithium and other rare earths needed to make the global switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy pose their own environmental risks. 

Earth’s Reality Game 21st-century level itself is only one component of an even-more-daunting 21st-Century Reality Game. That meta-game adds additional challenges: pandemics, war, immigration, and more. That’s the set of problems we must solve simultaneously in order to live and prosper on today’s real world.

Fortunately, Gen Z and Generation Alpha are gamers—their young, pliable brains are daily being hardwired with a gamer mentality. The active play is not the whole story. Gaming is woven through the fabric of their young lives:

“…younger generations show notable differences from older generations when it comes to engagement with gaming. Not only do they invest more leisure time, but they are also more likely to spend money on games and engage with gaming in many diverse ways outside of playing. Gaming has become part of their everyday lives as they also look to games for many other reasons.”

There are two more pieces of good news. The first is that these same young people are also increasingly AI savvy. Secondly, they’ll be the backbone of the workforce tasked with solving the 21st-century’s challenges. They’ll bring to bear tomorrow’s tools to solve tomorrow’s problems.

The task remaining for the rest of us is to do what we can to encourage some fraction of these younger generations to use their skills and tools to work on natural resource, hazard resilience, and environmental dilemmas. That’s going to happen only if K–12 public education embraces AI.

Don’t take my word for it. This past May, Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, gave a TED Talk entitled “How AI could save (not destroy) education.” In 15 minutes, he provided an inspiring view of how this could be achieved and why we should care.
What are we waiting for? Ready Player One1 . . . 

1You probably recognize this as the title of the Spielberg movie, based on the Ernest Cline book. But where did the title come from? We’re told the title Ready Player One was inspired by old, classic arcade games. When you used to put your quarter into an old arcade game it would often say, “Ready, player one,” and that was kind of the last thing that you would see before you were immersed in this two-dimensional world of the video game.

* For more content from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, please click here.