Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
of the Story
When I was a teenager I dreaded riding in the car with my parents. Not only was it not “cool” to be in our family stationwagon with my five siblings, but my parents’ choice in radio nearly drove me crazy. They were fans of talk radio long before its high standing in today’s political circles. My parents were also fans of Paul Harvey and “The Rest of the Story.” “Shhhh!” they would say to me and my younger brother as we sat in the back seat imitating Harvey’s halting catch phrase, “And now you know … the rest of the story.”
Like many grown adults, things that seemed totally stupid to me as a teenager now make perfect sense. (My parents prayed this day would come.) The idea behind Harvey’s radio shows – exploring new or undiscovered aspects of well-known stories – is intriguing. Perhaps that is why I, like so many others, find myself in the business of exploring and understanding our planet. We all want to know the rest of the story.
The Earth – its tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, climate, wildfires, severe weather, and extreme cold and heat – is a topic that often dominates the headlines. Whether it’s a “good” story about an incredible discovery of dinosaur fossils, or a “bad” story about an environmental disaster, the Earth is constantly making news and its story is a never-ending one.
This August marked the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – one of the strongest, deadliest and costliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. Katrina has occupied much of the news over the last year. More than 1,800 lives were lost, a halt in energy production sent gasoline prices to new heights, and according to the Insurance Information Institute, insured losses are estimated at nearly $40 billion. Economic losses are now estimated at $80 billion.
Beyond the numbers, few of us will ever forget the powerful images of people standing on their rooftops crying for help, or the pictures of families returning to find their homes destroyed. The first anniversary of the storm meant numerous news stories with headlines such as “Katrina: A Year Later” and “Katrina: Lessons Learned.”
But even with Katrina there are parts of the story we haven’t heard. In this particular case, the rest of the story involves our business: Earth observations.
|This lighthouse is located at Bell Fontaine Point, a little east of Ocean Springs, Miss. Photo courtesy of GE Geospatial Solutions.|
Many people don’t know that 44 hours before Katrina made landfall near the border of Louisiana and Mississippi, the National Weather Service (NWS) issued highly accurate warnings notifying people approximately where and when the hurricane would hit. In fact, few hurricanes had ever been predicted more accurately or further in advance. Nor do people know that on Aug. 28, 2005, 24 hours before Katrina made landfall, the NWS office in Slidell, La., issued one of the most detailed and foretelling warnings it has ever released:
“DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED — HURRICANE KATRINA — A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH — MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS ... PERHAPS LONGER — AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL-CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE — HIGH RISE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY — A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE — POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS — WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS —”
Although we all watched the endless footage of the catastrophes taking place in New Orleans, few of us learned that more than 90 percent of Louisiana’s southeast coastal area was evacuated ahead of time. According to a statement issued by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco on Sept. 25, the evacuation “was ordered on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 27. Within 48 hours, 1.3 million citizens – representing more than 90 percent of the region – were safely evacuated.” Early warning, as a result of integrated observations from space, aircraft, ocean buoys and other instruments, resulted in the safety of hundreds of thousands of people. Imagine the devastation following Katrina had we not had accurate data and forecasts.
Another part of this story that you may not have heard is how accurate forecasts helped to protect the people, the environment and the economy of the offshore energy industry. When one considers that the offshore workforce in the Gulf of Mexico is estimated between 25,000-30,000 people at any given time, it is remarkable to learn that no loss of life or injuries were reported as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Despite the fact that hurricanes Katrina and Rita combined to destroy more than 100 production platforms and five drilling rigs, no significant offshore environmental catastrophes were reported, either. Observations and prediction capabilities provided critical information that enabled the energy industry to prepare, secure and shut down its production facilities, thus saving lives, protecting the Gulf of Mexico from environmental disaster, and aiding our economy.
Whether it’s Hurricane Katrina, the much-talked-about global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore, or an announcement by the Cleantech Venture Network LLC stating that a record $513 million in venture capital was invested in North American clean technologies during the first quarter of this year, the rest of the story with each of these topics involves Earth observations and our ability to monitor our planet, understand and predict its changes, and apply the tools and technologies that enable us to respond to its challenges.
Without observations, we are unable to protect our citizens from the forces of nature. Without observations, we are unable to characterize climate change, not only with respect to amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but also to impacts on global temperatures, the oceans and land. Without observations, we will not have the critical performance measures that show whether clean technologies are in fact improving our environment.
Without sustained, integrated and improved observations, we will never know … the rest of the story.
Announcing a Partnership: The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies is very pleased to announce a partnership with Imaging Notes. Through the Institute’s Alliance for Earth Observations initiative, we will deliver engaging stories and viewpoints related to observing our planet, with a special focus on the evolving Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). This is in alignment with the Imaging Notes mission of providing articles on the environment. See page 6 for the new Imaging Notes mission statement.
|The storm track for the eye of Katrina is in orange, and Rita is in pink. The black dots show locations of oil platforms in relation to the storms. Credit: Minerals and Management Service (MMS).|