Language-inclusive weather information saves lives

Meteorologist, Joseph Trujillo Falcón, on how Spanish-speaking meteorologists are working to make weather information accessible.

Just last year, the western United States saw some of the worst wildfires in history, but these wildfires did not impact all communities equally. Latinos in the West are twice as likely to be affected by wildfires. And although about 1 in 4 people in the state of California, for example, speak Spanish, there are currently no U.S. meteorology programs at the university level working to train meteorologists in this language.

According to census data, there are 41 million Spanish speakers in the U.S., making the U.S. one of the largest populations of Spanish speakers in the world — and that number is only growing. This data is also likely under-representative, as the census often undercounts communities of color, and specifically undocumented U.S. residents.

Spanish-speaking meteorologists and communicators are working to bridge this gap in order to ensure lifesaving weather information is accessible to non-English speakers.

Currently spoke with Joseph Trujillo Falcón — born in Lima, Peru, he now conducts research about how Spanish-speaking communities receive, comprehend and respond to life-threatening weather and climate hazards at the NOAA National Severe Storms Lab. He also is a bilingual meteorologist for MyRadar.

Trujillo Falcón said that while there is a growing focus on addressing this information gap, there is not yet a set structure for bilingual meteorologists embarking on their careers. 

“There are bilingual meteorologists that go all their four years of college, learning everything in English and as soon as they get their diploma, they’re suddenly expected to do everything in Spanish,” said Trujillo Falcón. 

As of today, there is still no official dictionary for English to Spanish translations of climate and meteorology terms. However, meteorologists with the AMS Committee for Hispanic and Latinx Advancement have created a collaborative unofficial dictionary as a starting place.

“There’s still terminology to this day that has not been translated,” said Trujillo Falcón.

Trujillo Falcón said that one important aspect of equitable risk communication is ensuring that researchers and communicators do not view Hispanic and Latino communities as monolithic, but rather get to know individual populations and communities in order to know where there may be strengths or gaps in weather knowledge. 

“If a community has more of a Mexican population, for example, we need to focus on the tornado. And if somebody is from Puerto Rico, we probably don’t need to spend more time looking at hurricane threats, because they’ve experienced them and [are] knowledgeable of them.”

The atmospheric sciences are also one of the least diverse STEM fields — this systematically excludes people who are the most impacted by extreme weather from having input regarding how weather information is disseminated.

Weather alerts that describe potential impacts prompt communities to take proactive safety measures. Trujillo Falcón said that in order for populations to be informed, weather warnings need to be consistent, specific, certain, clear, and accurate. 

“If even one of those components is missing, it could really get in the way of somebody making a protective action during an extreme weather event,” said Trujillo Falcón. “For Spanish-speaking communities, a big problem there is that we’re not even receiving information in the dominant language that someone speaks.”

Trujillo Falcón said that the work is not done after Spanish weather information is accessible; Latino and Hispanic communities speak a multitude of languages and there are hundreds more languages spoken across the United States.

Just this past year we saw how deadly language barriers can be when 18 people died from floods caused by Hurricane Ida in New York City. The majority of the victims were of Asian descent and many did not speak or had limited proficiency in English and Spanish, the two languages that the National Weather Service issued emergency alerts in. 

Such data reinforces the importance of making weather information accessible for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origins, or language. 

“We need to protect all life and property,” said Trujillo Falcón. “A lot of these things could really be pushed forward to other languages and to other cultures and other people across the United States.”

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