By Cameron McBroom-Fitterer

Dr. Christopher Zarzar is a meteorologist teaching at North Carolina Central University. In a talk with the University of North Carolina’s Natural Hazards Resilience Speaker Series on February 22, 2022, Dr. Zarzar gave an overview of how his work as a meteorologist—or, more specifically, a hydrometeorologist specializing in water quantity and quality issues—intersects with the ongoing climate crisis.

To dive deeper into this work, one must first understand the fundamental distinction between the fields of meteorology and climatology. Put simply, meteorology is primarily concerned with forecasting and analyzing current weather conditions, while climatology deals with long-term patterns and (more specifically) with anthropogenic climate change.

This is not to say that meteorologists’ work does not overlap with climate issues. We are all familiar with local news meteorologists that provide daily weather updates to the general public, but the field stretches beyond that common point of reference. While meteorologists mostly do focus on forecasting short-term weather conditions and relaying that information to the public, only a select few operate in front of a greenscreen. Meteorologists like Dr. Zarzar – perhaps more appropriately known as atmospheric scientists—are more interested in conducting specialized weather-related research. The end results of this research might manifest as academic papers, programs/tools like water system models, or concrete strategies designed and implemented alongside environmental engineers.

A primary area of focus for Dr. Zarzar is examining issues of agricultural runoff related to hog and chicken farming in North Carolina. North Carolina has a notably high number of livestock farms and these farms generate large quantities of hazardous waste (often stored in lagoons) that can contaminate local water sources. The potential for contamination grows considerably during periods of high rainfall or storms. Zarzar utilizes techniques like drone land cover mapping and modelling to help better predict how lagoons will respond to adverse weather.

Projects like this one confront what Zarzar defines as “rapid hazards”. Rapid hazards are acute problems and thus fall within the realm of short-term weather relevant to meteorology. In contrast, a climatologist would be more likely to address what Zarzar calls “gradual hazards”—comparatively slow-moving matters like sea level rise or saltwater intrusion. Still, it is important to see how these spheres are overlapping rather than discrete. Though the fields of meteorology and climatology are distinct in name, their work is unmistakably intertwined. In the case of agricultural runoff studies in North Carolina, Zarzar and his colleagues need to account for extreme weather events. Here is where climatology studies and the climate crisis come into close contact with meteorological research. Climatology projections show that global warming is likely contributing to increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather across the world. Current estimates in North Carolina suggest that the state can expect a 40% increase in heavy rain events. The climate projections of today are the weather events of tomorrow, and for Dr. Zarzar’s purposes this rise in heavy rain will translate to a rise in agricultural runoff. In turn, projected spikes in extreme heat events will only amplify runoff problems by creating an environment suitable for the growth of harmful algae blooms in North Carolina’s water reservoirs.

These projects also present real problems of equity. Livestock farms are very likely to be located in and around socioeconomically marginalized communities. The people that live near these locally unwanted land uses are more likely to be poor or people of color. Historic patterns of inequity and systemic injustice have unequally subjected these communities to the negative impacts of hazards like agricultural runoff.

Part of Zarzar and his colleagues work on this issue aims to create tools and practical strategies that can help empower marginalized communities to understand risk and reduce negative impacts. Most importantly, these measures are guided by community input and tailored to communities’ specific needs. Perhaps the most compelling and encouraging point Dr. Zarzar made was emphasizing that scientists like himself should not be communicating their results with other scientists as the final audience or end recipients. Rather, by making tools and documents as accessible as possible for the general public, the science community can better ensure that these resources can be utilized to the fullest extent by a diverse set of groups (regular citizens, policy makers, researchers from other fields, etc.).

Ultimately, Dr. Zarzar’s talk helped to define meteorology’s distinct placement in the overall web of climate crisis response. Because weather is—by definition—rooted in the present moment, meteorology seems uniquely positioned to engage with concrete issues on the ground. Whereas climate science is a necessary source of information regarding future conditions, meteorologists like Zarzar interpret these findings as they relate to the present day and help to initiate and carry out actions that speak to communities’ immediate concerns. The average person is likely more concerned with (and receptive to solutions about) the problems of tomorrow rather than the problems taking place 30 years from today. That perspective is rational and unlikely to change, and it seems like that simple truth drives meteorology’s role in climate resilience.