Figure 1. Hurricane Ike in a photo from Sept. 10, 2008 that was downlinked by the crew of the International Space Station, flying 220 statute miles above Earth. The center of the hurricane was near 23.8 degrees north latitude and 85.3 degrees west longitude, moving 300 degrees at 7 nautical miles per hour. The sustained winds were 80 nautical miles per hour with gusts to 100 nautical miles per hour and forecast to intensify. Photo Credit: NASA.

Weather & Climate Communities Bring Transition Document to Next Administration

Dan Stillman
Science Communications Manager
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Arlington, Va.

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, like other natural disasters in recent years, demonstrated both the nation’s progress and its shortcomings with regard to predicting, preparing for and responding to severe weather and a changing climate.

The track forecasts issued by the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center for both Gustav and Ike were fairly consistent and, as it turned out, quite accurate. The result was adequate advance warning for those who would find themselves in the path of these storms.

On the other hand, meteorologists were much less confident in their predictions of storm intensity at landfall. Forecasts fluctuated from Category 1 (74-95 mph winds) to Category 4 (131-155 mph), which translated into significant swings in anticipated damage and overall impacts.

Coincidentally, these two devastating and deadly storms ravaged the Gulf Coast just weeks after the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research released its report, "Advice to the New Administration and Congress: Actions to Make our Nation Resilient to Severe Weather and Climate Change."

Developed by UCAR together with seven other organizations, the so-called "transition document" is intended to provide guidance to the next administ-ration and Congress. Implementing the report's recommendations would cost an estimated $9.8 billion more than what the nation is currently planning to spend in five specific areas of concern:

1. Observations

"Fully fund the Earth observing system from satellite and ground-based instruments as recommended by the National Research Council," the report advises. "Observations from both space and the ground are key to monitoring climate and weather variables and developing climate and weather models. These observations will be essential in monitoring the progress and success of any carbon emission reduction initiative (e.g., cap-and-trade)."

The cited NRC recommendations are those included in its 2007 study, "Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond," ("The Decadal Study") which identified 17 satellite missions necessary over the next decade to ensure continuity of existing observations, and those expected in "Observing Weather and Climate From the Ground Up, A Nationwide Network of Networks," a study scheduled for an October release.

The transition document estimates the recommended satellite missions would cost almost $3.7 billion between 2010 and 2014, with cost estimates for the needed ground-based instruments yet to be determined.

John Snow, co-chair of the Weather Coalition, a group that advocates on behalf of the private, public and academic sectors of the weather community, emphasized the importance of observations during a media teleconference about the transition document.

"The first step in understanding the climate system is to really do a better job of observing both the atmosphere and the ocean," said Snow, who is also dean of the College of Geosciences at the University of Oklahoma and director of the Oklahoma Weather Center. "We have a good understanding, we think, of what needs to be measured. We have some idea of the technology needed to do it. But to deploy a global observing system of the scale that we need to make the observations is essential. We have to do that to be able to actually use the computers wisely."

Improved observations of the ocean are critical for better understanding and for predicting weather and climate, according to Robert Gagosian, president of the nonprofit Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

"Our ability to accurately predict the path and intensity of storms, so that communities can adequately prepare for these events, requires significant investment in ocean science, access to data though observatories, and computational infrastructure for modeling," Gagosian said. "The ocean is the missing piece of the climate equation. The ocean holds and transfers vast amounts of heat, carbon and water across the globe. Better understanding of these circulation patterns and sea-atmosphere exchange processes are essential for understanding and predicting global and regional climate systems."

Figure 2. Satellite image of Hurricane Ike captured on Sept. 13, 2008, one hour prior to landfall in Galveston, Texas. Diameter of the eye is 75 km. Image courtesy of ESA, 2008, captured and processed by CSTARS/University of Miami, under license from Eurimage.

The report recommends nearly $2.1 billion in ocean-observing initiatives between 2010 and 2014.

2. Computing

"Greatly increase the computer power available for weather and climate research, predictions, and related applications," reads the transition document's second recommendation. "Current climate models do a reasonable job of providing useful information at the global level, but most climate change and severe weather impacts will be managed at local and regional levels (e.g., public health and safety, water and ecosystem management, energy production and use, food production, transportation services, recreation opportunities, military readiness)."

Most of today's computer models can only simulate climate changes on scales as small as around 100 kilometers, according to Snow.

"Right now we're dealing at resolutions of hundreds of kilometers, which really just barely resolves the Rocky Mount-ains. What we would really like to be able to do is run numerical models of the future climate at scales of tens of kilometers so we can pick up important terrain features and are able to see the level of detail so we can answer people's questions at the county and state level," he said.

The report notes that there are existing computers capable of resolving the desired level of detail, "but the climate community does not have enough access to them to meet the demand of modeling climate at these local and regional scales."

The report recommends more than $7.2 billion in upgrades to climate and weather supercomputing between 2010 and 2014, with the funding going to the nation's four primary climate modeling agencies—the National Science Foundation, NOAA, NASA and the Department of Energy.

3. Research and Modeling

"Support a broad fundamental and applied research program in Earth sciences and related fields to advance present understanding of weather and climate and their impacts on society," reads the report's third recommendation. "We don't start from zero—the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) and the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) provide a substantial base of funding to work from."

The CCSP, an outgrowth of the USGCRP, coordinates research on climate and global change among 13 federal agencies. The base annual funding for the CCSP, expected to be around $1.9 billion in 2009, must be continued through 2014, the report recommends, and accompanied by approximately $2 billion in additional funding between 2010 and 2014 in order to improve knowledge of Earth's past and present climate, reduce uncertainty in climate projections, understand the impacts of climate change on natural and human systems, and explore abilities to manage risks and opportunities that climate change may bring about.

Jack Fellows, UCAR's vice president for corporate affairs, explains the importance of funding research and modeling activities. "Local and regional decision makers continue to move forward with climate-related planning with inadequate information and in the face of substantial climate feedback uncertainties that may prove very costly to civilization," Fellows said.

4. Societal Relevance

The fourth recommendation states, "Support education, training, and communications efforts to use the observations, models, and application tools for the maximum benefit of society... We need to support programs that teach children at an early age to collect, analyze, and apply data to pressing environmental problems in a way that will help develop the next generation of environmental leaders. We also need to equip emergency managers and other public and private officials with the needed tools and information to make local and regional decisions."

Climate change is a particularly effective hook to attract young people to science and engineering, according to Nancy Colleton, executive director of the Alliance for Earth Observations, one of the report's sponsoring organizations.

"The topic of climate change is of great interest to students and has tremendous potential to draw them into science and engineering careers like never before," Colleton said. "This is a generation that is concerned and wants to do something about it."

5. Leadership and Management

"Implement effective leadership, management, and evaluation approaches to ensure that these investments are done in the best interest of the nation. Strong, qualified leaders must be appointed to top policy positions," reads the report's fifth recommendation. "Most important, an experienced and knowledgeable leader coordinating the overall federal effort should report directly to the President."

Specific recommendations include revising the management structure of the CCSP, optimizing the role of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, creating an Earth system agency, and developing a comprehensive strategy to transition NASA research satellites into operational NOAA weather and climate satellites.

As part of the document's release, UCAR and the report's other sponsoring organizations are soliciting nominations for weather and climate leadership positions in the next administration, and plan to share the names of those nominated with the next administration.

On the international scale, the transition document urges the United States to remain involved in the Global Earth Observations System of Systems, an effort to integrate observations of the Earth collected by countries and organizations around the world.

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