Our People - Julie Demuth

Examining how people perceive weather risks

On June 3, 1980, seven tornadoes touched down in or near Grand Island, Nebraska, killing five people and injuring 200.

Julie Demuth, now a project scientist in NCAR's Mesoscale & Microscale Meteorology Lab, was 2 years old at the time. While she doesn't remember what would later be dubbed "The Night of the Twisters," the events made an indelible impression.

"My dad worked for the city, so I grew up listening to the stories from that night," she said.

Those tornado stories played a role in Demuth's lifelong love of weather. She went on to receive a bachelor's degree in meteorology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree in atmospheric science at Colorado State University.

While working in Washington, D.C., as a post-graduate scientist, she met atmospheric scientist Roger Wakimoto (who joined NCAR leadership in 2004 and served as NCAR director from 2010 to 2013). When he learned Demuth's background, he gave her a detailed map he and fellow atmospheric scientist Ted Fujita had made of the Grand Island tornadoes.

Over time, Demuth became interested in how people experience tornadoes and other extreme weather events, and how those experiences shape perceptions of risk. That's her current specialty and was the topic of her doctoral dissertation in public communication and technology from Colorado State University.

Demuth was part of an NCAR risk communications team that helped the National Weather Service better convey forecast information visually, research that went operational last year. She recently has been working with researchers at NOAA's Earth Systems Research Lab in Boulder on creating more useful weather hazard products and tools for forecasters.

Julie Demuth backpacking
Julie Demuth backpacking in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. (Photo by Daniel Nietfeld.)

You're in a unique area. What drew you to your field?
Julie: I trace it back to my master's in atmospheric sciences and a class I took in applied climatology. We had a lot of flexibility to investigate whatever we wanted, and I got really hooked on the public perceptions of climate change. I was reading a paper by a scholar who is now a colleague. This was research from the mid-1990s about people’s mental models of climate change—specifically, their beliefs about what causes climate change. I remember a quote from a layperson who thought that when NASA launched the space shuttle it poked a hole in the ozone layer and let heat in and caused climate change. It’s hard to know how this person formed this connection in their mind. But the whole point was that I realized that what someone thinks can affect how they approach problems, including risks. What I learned in that class got me thinking about bridging atmospheric science with human behavior.

After I got my master's degree, I went to Washington, D.C., where I worked for the National Academy of Sciences Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate. I was interested in science policy. I met Eve Gruntfest there, who was known for studying what people did during the Big Thompson flood in Colorado in 1976. We talked a lot and stayed in touch, and that's how I got into weather and society studies at NCAR, running the Weather and Society *Integrated Studies (WAS*IS) workshops for several years.

Why do you feel your work is important?
Julie: One reason is that, when you think about the original NCAR philosophy of service to society, you also think of the broader weather community, because ultimately we want to provide better information to people and reduce harm. I'm very connected to the forecasting community. I do think (in my field) you have to understand meteorology very well and also how people interface with the weather, and try to connect risk communication with meteorology.

That sounds like the basis for your project last year (with Rebecca Morss and Jeff Lazo) to improve local forecast communication.
Julie: The Weather Service had an idea of what they thought was the main problem with their point-and-click forecast webpage, but we took a broader look (through surveys and usability studies). NWS was really concerned about the icons. What we found is that the major problem was that if there's a tornado warning or some other hazardous weather threat and you to go the NWS website, it wasn’t up front. We found it was important to clearly communicate that those threats existed and when they were in effect.

What's the coolest thing about your work?
Julie: When I get to go into the field and talk to people (meaning, when I collect data through interviews). I was just in the field for eight days, working with forecasters. I've also done work with emergency managers, the media, and members of the public. Hearing people's stories is how you learn so much. I remember talking to this woman about a week after the Super Tuesday 2008 tornado outbreak, while I was doing a service assessment. It was a rich conversation about the multiple decisions she made along the way, and her vulnerability of not being able to open a storm cellar door herself (she had to wait until a relative came home from work). The tornado struck the house next door to hers and three people were killed. People want to tell their stories. And they know there are people out there who work to make their lives safer.

There have been cases when warnings were issued, but then nothing happened – and then people were complacent when an actual, deadly tornado hit.
Julie: Forecasters are making decisions under uncertainty and using their best science, skills, and experience to put the best information out there they can. It's an imperfect science so they're wrong sometimes, but they're doing it to save lives. Also, I think it’s easy to believe that people get complacent, but this is an important and understudied research area. We don’t have a very deep understanding of what information people get, what they think, and how they make decisions and how this all evolves during a rapid-onset threat, like a tornado.

What do you like to do when you're not working?
Julie: I love the mountains. I love weather, so I love to be outside. I backpack. (Her favorite place is the Wind River Range in western Wyoming). I love disconnecting, not having a phone or computer. My whole goal is to eat, sleep, and try not to attract bears. One of my favorite bumper stickers is "I brake for interesting cloud formations." We have such great clouds in Colorado. I have two things on my cell phone, pictures of clouds and pictures of my cat.

What kind of cat?
Julie: A spoiled one. My mom and I visited my grandmother in Parsons, Kansas, in 2002. It was a couple years after a tornado had struck the town, and there were a lot of feral cats, so we rescued two kittens. My parents took one and I took one. We named them after characters from "The Princess Bride." Their cat is named Inigo Montoya, and mine is Fezzik.

Jeff Smith, science writer and public information officer