Executive Interview: Eric Barron, Director of NCAR

Climate Modeling for Greater Good

Eric Barron

Eric Barron

By Karen Nozik
Eco-writerBoulder, Colo.
Photographs by Karen Nozik

Editor's Note: Eric Barron is now President of Florida State University, as of Feb. 1, 2010.

Eric Barron took the helm as Director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in July 2008. NCAR was established in 1960 to support research on atmospheric, ocean and Earth science, and to study the impacts of climate and weather. It is a scientific research lab sponsored by the National Science Foundation. This represents a full circle for Barron, whose early career in climate studies began with a Cray Supercomputing Fellowship at NCAR in 1976.

Imaging Notes: Would you talk about using Earth remote sensing in unique and novel ways? How do geospatial technologies fit into NCAR?

Barron: They fit in extraordinarily diverse ways. For example, satellite data are absolutely critical to validate the predictive models that we produce. If you are going to develop a climate model to predict decades into the future, you really better make sure that you do a good job of predicting the present day. We have an abundance of surface measurements, but they don’t cover the entire planet, and they certainly don’t cover the vertical structure of the atmosphere.

NCAR also probably produces the most advanced weather forecast models in the world. And one of the things that make weather forecast models good is their ability to simulate the current state of the atmosphere. Because basically what these models are doing is sitting there with a particular condition, a pressure temperature that defines the next step in the motion of the atmosphere. So the better you are at having the current structure of the atmosphere, the better you’re able to calculate the next step based on the equations that define the atmosphere. We call this a simulation. So your ability to simulate data is a critical factor in your ability to make a good weather forecast.

The satellite information is a critical element, and of course, attribution of the degree to which the planet is changing, how it’s changing, and what is causing it to change, are also data-critical elements of our program. It’s hard to find parts of NCAR for which remote sensing and geospatial technologies aren’t significant.

Imaging Notes: Are there enough technically trained people to be able to utilize the data and to design the models?

Barron: I would say we’re much more budget-constrained than talent-constrained. Most of our dollars come directly from the federal government to support NCAR’s mission, and a substantial amount comes from federal grants and contracts that are based on proposed ideas. That limits the number of people that we can hire.

We do have an advantage that makes us successful on the talent side of things. We have 73 partner universities with whom we have tremendous collaboration. Eighty-five percent of the proposals that we write have a university collaboration in one fashion or another. NCAR is part of an enormous talent pool that contains a very significant number of people.

Imaging Notes: Are universities doing enough to get people up to speed in areas that you need them to be?

Barron: Universities have trouble contributing to the workforce in large-scale models and in observational systems, because those are large expensive enterprises that require a significant number of years to accomplish. For instance, if you were going to look at NASA awards and instrument development, I suspect there are fewer universities that are capable of playing in that game today than there used to be, because to work on a mission may require, from beginning to end, a decade of effort. And then it stops. How do you maintain that faculty and workforce within a university environment?

There’s a scale issue there in that, if you’re large enough, you can maintain. But a lot of universities are just not in that game anymore. If you’re not in that game, how do you train students? You know, there are a lot of people who say that your career can be made or not made just on whether you actually get an instrument launched in your career. This is challenging for a university environment, and as a consequence we’re probably not developing the talent pool that we’d really like.

A model of NCAR’s facilities in the foothills of Boulder, Colo.

A model of NCAR’s facilities in the foothills of Boulder, Colo.

Imaging Notes: How does NCAR plan to align itself with national needs in global climate change?

Barron: The most fundamental contribution that we will provide is advancing our capability to produce and develop climate models and to use them for various applications. The knowledge that is powerful to a society is an ability to anticipate what’s going to happen next. It’s that ability to anticipate, to forecast, to predict. If you can anticipate, you can take advantage of it, either to work on environmental stewardship, to do something economic, or to help protect life and property.

In terms of focusing on societal needs, that’s just one of the elements we use our models for. When it comes to things like the International Climate Change Assessments, no institution in this country provides more information than NCAR.

The second thing is that, increasingly, society is recognizing that we’re going to make decisions about climate change. There is interest in adaptation, because there’s increasing evidence that we’re incapable of stopping global warming. We can slow it down, we can make it not as large, but we’ve already stepped into it, and we’ve gone far enough down the road where we’re going to experience significant changes. We’re going to have to adapt.

Decisions about climate change will require much higher resolution models, because people are making decisions on a regional level. It’s a city, a particular business in a state, or a water resource manager who’s making up his mind. If you talk to people, they will tell you that one of the most important things they need is very high-resolution regional climate models.

NCAR is one of the few institutions in the world that’s capable of developing models like that, because we have a weather forecasting community and a climate modeling community in the same institution. You need them both in order to be able to do things like simulate how stormy it might be or what the hurricanes might be like in the future. This is an area of significant emphasis within this institution – to try and take that next step with our models that will enable society to use the information.

The third thing is that discussions about how vulnerable society will be to climate change involve how you cross climate with human health or with hydrology or with agriculture. Some people have the sense that institutions like NCAR have to be more “whole earth.” But it’s impossible to grow an institution that can tackle all those different problems, especially when you’re called the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and your funding comes from the Atmospheric Sciences Program in the National Science Foundation.

Should we hire health experts using dollars from the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the National Science Foundation? It’s not part of what the foundation does. And our community of 73 universities is not expecting us to spend in this way. There are a lot of important problems to solve and things to accomplish in the atmospheric sciences without trying to do everything.

Our attitude is that we should make a good partner. We have the climate and weather expertise, and we can interface with the health community and with the hydrology community, and let those existing communities take on the value that we bring, because we have fifty years of experience in climate modeling. We’ve been developing programs to partner with CDC and to partner with the hydrology community, and this is a new area of emphasis for NCAR.

Another element is how we can enable people to make good decisions. The nation has a national weather service that puts out its weather forecasts, and everybody under the sun uses it. Private companies look at the model results and tailor them to a particular need – a farmer, or a hotel, for instance – and offer a weather forecast for any agricultural area or any hotel in the country.

Currently there is no equivalent prediction for climate – there’s no place to go for climate information that one can know comes from some authoritative place. It doesn’t exist. So one of the other things that is going to have to happen if you’re going to enable private enterprise or enable decision-makers, is to be able to make sure that the information is out there in an authoritative enough way that you could go to a place, find it, and know these were all the models developed in the United States that predict climate, and here’s what they say. And here’s the range, here’s the uncertainty, here’s the probability of this happening, here are the assumptions that went into this, so somebody can make decisions.

We think that we have a role to play there, because one of the chief bits of information is a climate model output, and one of the chief developers of that output is NCAR and our community partners. So that’s another area for which we see ourselves serving society. We just don’t know what our role will be yet, because the Feds also have to decide what their role is if they’re going to enable it to happen.

Imaging Notes: On climate change, the conversation seems to have shifted from, “maybe it’s happening,” to, “it’s a given that climate change is happening.” Do you agree?

Barron: Yes, a lot of people out there feel like the wraps have come off. Just a short time ago, it wasn’t something you really talked about, and now everybody is talking about it. It’s really quite fascinating that it has become such an open debate.

I think in the previous decade the topic was, “Well, we’re not going to contemplate any changes because this is uncertain. So you reduce the uncertainties.” And yet, at that sort of granularity, it was very clear that we were going to end up with certainty with significant warming, but it didn’t seem to matter. The research dollars, the focus, the topics of discussion were about reducing uncertainties. That has switched to, “We know we have a problem, now what are we going to do about it?” Of course, you hope the research doesn’t get lost in between. We know enough to make some decisions, but we don’t know enough to really be helpful to society in solving some of the problems.

Imaging Notes: Could you speak to that a little more, in terms of what tools you wish you had at your disposal?

Barron: You need to have this climate service. You need to have the information available to people in an understandable and accessible credible format; otherwise it’s going to be very hard for people to do things differently.

There’s a whole group of sciences out there that connect to climate: eco-systems, health, and water, for example. We have not focused on that intersection between climate and health in order to be able to say, “This is what’s going to happen to mosquitoes, this is what’s going to happen to infectious diseases, this is what’s going to be the real impact of heat waves.” We need to be able to discuss the impacts of change on air quality, and then of air quality on human health.

We’ve gone for a very long period not making those connections. We have people out there who are working on the problems, but there’s been almost no investment in making those connections to solve problems.

Many of the problems that people focus on and decisions that are going to be made are regional. When they’re regional, climate isn’t the only thing that’s happening. Climate is coupled with how people are using the land, with what pollutants are added into the systems of water and air, and with all sorts of management decisions that are local. We have to get to the point where we combine all of those. That means that we have to take a very different or surprisingly global look at this topic of climate change, and there is this strong suggestion that you have to regionalize it.

You need the global perspective because the atmosphere is connected. But you’re going to have to bring it down to the local regional planning level, which changes the type of models that you have. This regionalization, this localization, implies very different science strategies.

Imaging Notes: Going forward, is it NCAR’s job to get ahead of the curve?

Barron: That’s the whole idea. What predictive capacity can we bring to bear to solve society’s problems? I see this as really exciting and interesting. We have a job of understanding fundamentally how this atmosphere and ocean system works. We turn that science knowledge into a predictive capability. That’s what our mission is and our mandate is, plus to enable better observations and a whole host of other things. What we’re talking about is partnering with other people so that our skill set and our discipline of forecasting can be translated to other fields and become useful.

Air quality is quite natural, because we have a weather forecasting group, an atmospheric chemistry group, and a group that is interested in the urban environment. These things work together naturally. Others, with aspects of human health, are not NCAR’s strength. We have an interest, but we need to have more partners.

I’ll give you two examples of predictive capability in human health. Have you ever heard of anyone doing a prediction for Lyme disease? Well, right now, we know that warm days and little snow cover in the northeastern United States in the fall predicts what Lyme disease will be like a year later, because of what weather does to the tick population and to the host population. And in Africa, meningitis along the drought belt ends with the rainy season. Whatever is going on there is probably being transported by wind, or associated with dust, or perhaps the dry conditions and dusty conditions are enabling meningitis.

Can we get to the point where one can actually forecast the start and stop of meningitis? If we could, it would really help a set of nations to deal with the problem much more effectively than they can now.

That’s the type of thing that one can imagine… the ability to predict adverse health outcomes, outbreaks that occur. Disease is associated with the environment, and one can predict environmental conditions. NCAR won’t do all that by itself. It can’t. But we have this predictive foundation that can help other disciplines. That’s the idea, and the potential is huge.

You need groups like CDC or NIH that support work on infectious diseases or health effects associated with pollution. I know I can go to Hershey Medical Center and find a scientist who looks at how ozone damages lung tissue. That person is there. I know that there’s a research group there. We don’t share any common funding envelope. We don’t share anything that would allow us to put the pieces together. And so we wonder if we can start, because we’re a national lab, to put those pieces together? I’m willing to play to put those pieces together.

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