Profile: A New Climate for Earth Science Research


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Profile: A New Climate for Earth Science Research

Space News Correspondent
posted: 18 March 2009
04:10 pm ET

Eric Barron


for Atmospheric Research

If there is a list of shovel-ready science poised to benefit from expanded government spending proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama, understanding the behavior of Earth’s atmosphere and related systems is high on that list. To that end, the
for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in
, is playing a central role in coming to scientific grips with global climate change, as well as advancing overall knowledge regarding the intricacies of our Earth system.

NCAR was established in 1960 to support research on atmospheric, ocean and Earth science, as well as study the societal impacts of climate and weather. NCAR is a scientific research laboratory sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Outfitted with state-of-the-art computing facilities, NCAR’s research team creates computer models, makes use of radars, research aircraft, satellites and other tools to carry out an interdisciplinary workload.

Eric J. Barron is NCAR’s director, taking the post in July 2008. He brings to the job an admittedly eclectic scientific background that includes geology, oceanography, marine geology and geophysics.His resume even includes a Cray Supercomputing Fellowship at NCAR back in 1976.

Barron draws upon this diversity of research interests to spotlight the important intersection of the geological sciences with the atmospheric sciences and the field of Earth system science. He sees a need for people of different disciplines to rub elbows but says that interdisciplinary science is not something to be directed, but something to be enabled.

Prior to becoming NCAR director, Barron served as dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the
. A lengthy list of his scientific and policy-shaping work includes serving as chair of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Committee, as well as chairing the Science Executive Committee for NASA’s Earth Observing System and the space agency’s Earth Science and Applications Advisory Committee.

Barron discussed NCAR’s present and future agenda with Space News correspondent Leonard David.

Given the projected rise in

science dollars, is this the best of times for climate research?

It’s great. You listen to the speeches, and then you see it in the budgets. When you hear the president talk repeatedly about science, and do the same thing for climate change issues as well as education and energy science, my feeling is that there’s reason for optimism. Let’s see if the budgets get passed.

How does this impact NCAR’s research activity?

NCAR has had subinflationary budgets for four to five years. We had to let people go. We’ve watched some of our premier capabilities squeezed to the limit. These are efforts that are of paramount importance to the nation right now and the funding of them has just been squeezed miserably for several years. We are more than ready to go out and tackle the problems and bring in Earth scientists to match up with our more seasoned veterans.

The way I look at it we know what problems we want to solve. We’re going to get there and focus on a lot of those topics. The challenge is how to get there more quickly.

If the money tap is opened wider for climate and Earth science research, are we prepared to spend it wisely and productively?

We need more support for peer reviewed grants and contracts. There are a lot of good ideas out there. Not enough of them are making it through this narrow hole. We are, quite frankly, losing out on innovation. The chance for innovation and having people with good ideas obtain funding – this is a really important step to take.

Just how key are satellite measurements?

The satellite contribution is tremendous. It is also not everything. Surface observations help provide a view of what’s happening. You can’t fly enough airplanes and put enough surface observations down to solve a problem. You need it all working together. It’s the combination of those that makes the difference. To me, it’s a big partnership.

What about the continuity of satellite data?

Look how long it takes to launch something. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was a nine-year effort, and then it’s lost. Those are measurements that I doubt the communities are going to want to give up.

I would like to have the ability to do innovative things. And when you discover something to replace the prior technology, do it in a way where you overlap instruments so we obtain a credible long-term record. Sometimes it might look like you’re wasting money because you’re launching something new before the old platform or instrument has failed. But launching it after it’s failed is not so very helpful.

You take a strategy that minimizes risk for the science. Sometimes that could give you overlap for four to five years. My personal feeling is, well, that might actually come in handy.

The coupling between sets of observations and the satellites becomes something that enhances the information tremendously. I saw that as a strength of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

Any concerns about finding a new generation of talent to take on climate issues?

There are a lot of young people interested in these problems. We have a generation of scientists that are not only interested in the fundamentals of their science, but they enjoy the fact that the application of their research has real impact. The whole science of prediction and modeling enables society to make good decisions.

That’s the strength of NCAR, that’s what we’re about. Not just observing – which is a key part of what we do – but prediction and forecasting are central to what this institution does. I think we have to bring that discipline to a bigger set of fields. I think 30 years from now, if we make the right investments, we’re going to be amazed at what we’re capable of forecasting, to serve society in a lot of ways.

In what ways?

I think of it as what’s beyond climate science. With increased capability, we can move toward higher resolution, and a greater partnership with the weather sciences in terms of creating a sort of high-resolution realism.

For example, we’re discovering that infectious diseases have environmental controls – that the vectors delivering the diseases to humans are controlled by weather and climate. I think it sets off issues like forecasting human health. And I suspect satellites will play a significant role.

The issue of global climate change is tagged by some as controversial. Why so?

First of all, I think in any problem where there are perceptions of winners and losers, the debate changes. In climate change there are winners and losers, and they are not even that well-defined. It’s been quite disappointing over the last 20 years to see issues tagged as “I don’t win unless I get my way.”

You cannot have this many humans on the planet without impacting the planet. You cannot return it to some other state. We have to consciously think about how it is we manage the planet. We have to do it in a way which isn’t one in which no decision is made because it’s a point-scoring contest on an issue. And I think, unfortunately, that’s where climate science ended up.

Can we really get our arms around the climate change issue, particularly when we’re dealing with chaotic patterns?

It’ll never be perfect. You can’t know every molecule. And we’re now at a point where the information we gather affects our behavior, which in turn affects the outcome. So one of the great uncertainties in making future predictions is how humans will act. I’m not willing to try to predict that particular part of it.

So how society responds to climate change is part of the equation?

I like to think that the distinction for humans is truly their ability to anticipate the future and act on it. We’re increasingly recognizing that the more humans can anticipate, the more action they can take to their own benefit.