Sunday, February 26, 2017

Climate Change and Impacts from Greenhouse Gas Emissions

NOAA R&D has been at the forefront in defining the extent and ramifications of global climate change due to increased greenhouse gasses.  Since the last 5 Year R&D plan, we have seen the on-going effects of increased greenhouse gases and global climate change, including sea level changes affecting our coastal communities; increased ocean temperatures threatening our coral reefs; and increasing ocean acidity challenging our coastal, marine, and Great Lakes ecosystems.  

Of particular note are the recently documented changes in the Arctic. Large changes in multiple indicators provide strong evidence of ecosystem impacts due to the persistent warming trend that began over 30 years ago. It is very likely that major changes will continue in the Arctic in years to come, particularly since projections indicate global warming will continue. Additionally, changes in the Arctic marine environment affect the foundation of the food web in both the terrestrial and marine ecosystems. While more difficult to discern, there are also observations that confirm the inevitable impacts these changes have throughout Arctic food webs. Motivated by these linkages and record-setting environmental changes in the Arctic region, NOAA launched new programs to more effectively measure, monitor and document changes in the marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

More Extreme Weather and Water Events

The Nation has experienced a wave of severe weather events that demand improvements in NOAA’s forecast, communication and response abilities. In 2011 – an unusually active and deadly year for tornadoes across the U.S. – there were 1,691 tornadoes reported across the country, more than any other year on record except for 2004, which saw 1,817 tornadoes. These include the tornado that hit the city of Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011, leaving an estimated 157 people dead. The Joplin tornado is the deadliest single tornado since modern record keeping began in 1950 and is ranked as the 7th deadliest in U.S. history.

Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy are some of the more recent examples of devastating storms that have challenged the Nation. These storms highlighted NOAA’s unique ability to generate forecasts critical for decision makers, but also demonstrated areas where improvements can be made in the observations, models, forecasts and delivery of information. These storms, particularly Superstorm Sandy, demonstrated the significant vulnerability of the nation’s coastal areas to coastal storms and flooding, especially as sea levels continue to rise.  

In addition to severe weather, water resources present a challenge for the Nation. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM), as of early December 2012, more than 60% of the country (by geographic area) experienced drought conditions (moderate to exceptional). A partnership of federal agencies, led by NOAA, has begun implementation of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) to provide decision support for drought planning. The demand for drought understanding and prediction will likely only increase.

Integrating Disciplines for a Systems Perspective

Integrating different disciplines, including natural and social sciences, is essential to develop a more holistic understanding of the Earth system. NOAA’s expertise has traditionally been in the natural sciences of the ocean and the atmosphere, but more and more, mission success depends on a holistic understanding of how natural phenomena are intertwined with human behavior and institutions. Nowhere is the need for integrated expertise more clear than in the implementation of the National Ocean Policy, which “establishes a comprehensive national approach to uphold our stewardship responsibilities; ensures accountability for our actions; and serves as a model of balanced, productive, efficient, sustainable, and informed ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes use, management, and conservation within the global community.”

Implementing the National Ocean Policy requires advancing our understanding of marine ecosystems. As noted in the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan, current understanding of marine ecosystems has not kept pace with the cumulative impacts of human uses and the environmental changes that are occurring. To implement ecosystem-based management successfully (an integrated approach to resource management that considers the entire ecosystem, including humans), decisions must be informed by the best available ecological, social, and economic science and data.

Preparing for and Responding to Unpredictable Events

Some of the research that NOAA conducts is unexpected and in response to immediate needs for public safety and security. While the results of R&D often take years to come to fruition, several recent events have demonstrated the need for, and the ability of, NOAA science to be responsive on more immediate time frames. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and instigating the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. This “omnidirectional, almost indeterminate threat” challenged the resources and capabilities of the federal, state, and local authorities responding to this threat. In 2011, an earthquake caused a tsunami that devastated the northeastern coast of Japan. In addition to the loss of life and property, the tsunami triggered a series of failures at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and ocean.

We cannot know for sure when disaster or, for that matter, opportunity may strike. But we do know from the events of 2010 and 2011 that maintaining – and expanding – the diversity of NOAA’s expertise and experience makes the Nation and the world more resilient to high-impact events that have yet to occur. These events reinforce the need for a nimble and responsive scientific enterprise that supports emergency responders, adapts to rapidly changing situations, and can provide critical information needed to inform immediate decisions.

Managing and Leveraging Big Data

NOAA is a data‐driven agency. Like other data-driven organizations, NOAA must meet the challenge of managing large and complex data sets. Increasingly, NOAA will need to meld its observation and model output data sets into validated, coherent, and easily usable “supersets” to better address complex environmental problems.

Big data also offers the opportunity to create innovative searching, sharing, analysis, and visualization capabilities. Making massive amounts of integrated environmental data available and useful to the public could yield unprecedented benefits. Similarly, the large amounts of data from other organizations can be very useful to NOAA science. Observation systems are the costliest elements in any of NOAA’s mission domains, so data sharing with partner organizations can be a powerful strategy for reducing these costs.

The NOAA Science Advisory Board recently recommended that NOAA better position itself to establish a NOAA‐wide Environmental Data Management Framework (EDMF) into which data sets from past and future – and internal and external sources – can fit together seamlessly to create an effective end‐to‐end environmental data collection, discovery, dissemination, and preservation system.

Modeling and Managing Complex Systems

In many cases, what limits our ability to sustainably manage natural resources or respond to natural hazards is the complex and dynamic interconnectedness of large-scale physical and ecological systems. We can improve predictive capabilities by connecting and nesting models of physical systems, and by integrating biogeochemical with physical models, and biological with economic models. Ecosystems are also difficult to understand and even more difficult to simulate, but the potential value of making ecosystem predictions is enormous. In fact, the reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act requires that NOAA manage fisheries with an ecosystems approach, which will require predictions that incorporate many factors.

Beyond the physical and ecological phenomena we study, the systems we engineer also display complex interactions that need to be understood. For instance, the overall effectiveness of NOAA’s mission depends on how well observation system requirements are derived from desired improvements to particular service areas, and how those systems are optimized. Another example is how data from weather radar systems can be hindered by interference from windmills, but can also be supplemented by data collected by those same structures.