Where the Rubber Meets the Road

by

In observing the daily happenings, I am reminded of the opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …

For the moment, the scales are probably tilted toward the worst of times — we are all going direct the other way. And yet, there are very real Earth science issues and challenges that are not going away. The issue of climate is one, and however noisy the discussion might be (and it is pretty noisy these days), there are certain established facts (not beliefs) that will shape the future.

First, carbon dioxide and methane are heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Second, since 1750, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by almost 40 percent and methane has increased by 150 percent, after being relatively constant for more than 5,000 years. Third, the increase is due primarily to the producing and burning of fossil fuels and secondarily to the expansion of agriculture and animal husbandry. Fourth, carbon dioxide is a very long-lived gas in the atmosphere and therefore stabilization of the atmospheric concentration will be very difficult (it requires roughly an 80 percent reduction in emissions). And finally, the use of fossil fuels, which again is the primary cause of the increase in the concentration of these greenhouse gases, is at the very core of essentially all of the economic systems on the planet. And the roots of this fact extend deep into the last three centuries.

On this, there is no scientific debate.

The observational record is also clear: 2010 was the warmest year on record (even though December 2010 was the coolest December of the last decade); December 2010 was, also, the 310th consecutive month with a global monthly temperature above the 20th century average for that month. The last month with a “below-average” temperature was February 1985. Sea level is increasing, glaciers around the world are generally retreating, the Arctic is warming almost twice as fast as the global average, and Arctic sea ice is declining rapidly. In the biological world, plants are blooming and birds migrating earlier in the spring, growing seasons are getting longer, and plants and animals are moving toward the poles and to higher elevations.

So there is a very real problem, and the very real problem is not going to go away. Human actions created this problem, and humans must and will, I believe, address the problem. However, we must not underestimate the scope of the problem. The scope is global, long-term and fundamental. As a consequence, understanding the planet will be ever more essential, and understanding requires planetary observations.

In July 2009, the National Research Council released the report “America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs,” which set forth six strategic goals for guiding program choices and resource planning for U.S. civil space activities. The first of these is: “To re-establish leadership for the protection of Earth and its inhabitants through the use of space research and technology.”

The report notes that the global perspective enabled by space observations is critical to monitoring climate change and testing climate models, managing Earth resources and mitigating risks associated with natural phenomena. Risks associated with natural phenomena are certainly foremost in our minds, as we have watched the myriad tragedies that have ravaged Japan following the 9.0 earthquake and associated horrific tsunami.

Our challenges and needs for Earth observation appear also on time scales far shorter than those of climate or earthquakes — they are right now and everyday. Weather does not wait; severe weather is particularly “impatient.”

According to the National Research Council, weather causes over 600 fatalities each year, and total property losses due to weather events since 1980 exceed $700 billion. Over the past 30 years on our nation’s highways, 1.5 million weather-related crashes resulted in 7,400 additional deaths, 700,000 injuries and $42 billion more in economic losses. Frequent air travelers are also well aware of the effect of weather, with $4 billion lost each year in air traffic delays. The weather conditions that resulted in these staggering losses are usually headline grabbers like hurricanes, floods, winter storms and tornadoes. But even calm weather can kill, with more than 60,000 premature deaths each year attributed to poor air quality.

Weather changes constantly, and hence the need for prediction is constant. In my previous home state of New Hampshire, it was said that if you don’t like the weather, then wait a moment for it will change. Interestingly, I now hear that said about my new home state of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma is no stranger to the cost of weather. Although it is the 20th-largest state in the U.S. by area, it ranks first in Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster declarations over the past decade. Every county in Oklahoma has been declared a disaster area at least twice over this period with the hazards ranging from severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and floods to the opposite extremes of fire and ice. In the past year alone, multiple winter storms, tornadoes, flooding, straight-line winds, hail and fire have resulted in over $1 billion in damage. To put this in perspective, the damages from weather in Oklahoma in 2010 amount to 20 percent of the state’s entire budget. These damages and the loss of life would have been significantly higher were it not that Oklahoma is the most highly instrumented state in the country — we value observations. But weather comes from everywhere; therefore, we must observe everywhere. Satellite observations have been and will be an essential part of Oklahoma’s preparedness for its weather.

Our colleagues and football rivals to the south likewise are no strangers to the impacts of weather. Every time the largest petroleum port in the U.S. — the Houston Ship Channel — closes because of weather, it forces refiners to reduce operating rates. This reduction results in increased prices for refined products as companies turn to spot markets for oil. On the stark side, Hurricane Ike killed 112 people, and 23 more were never found. This is tragic, but the toll was far greater a century ago, when the Great Galveston Hurricane of Sept. 8, 1900, destroyed the city and killed more than 8,000 people. For every Texan and for every Oklahoman, weather is personal.

There is a direct connection between weather and space, and that connection is prediction. The dramatic and documented improvements in our ability to predict weather have come from the linkage of satellite-based observations and computer-based weather models; both are essential.

Currently, there is a real necessity to reduce government spending. There is also a critical need to replace the aging fleet of weather satellites. Satellites, like tires, wear out and must be replaced. We are moving into the tread-bare era — and as with cars, that important foundation is key to our safety. Unfortunately, we are beginning to live on borrowed time.

There is, however, a significant difference between tires and satellites. There is no off-the-shelf satellite store. Weather satellites are complex systems requiring nearly a decade to design, build, test and launch. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is faced with the task of replacing its geostationary satellites and its low Earth orbiting systems. Both are needed and both are in need of replacement. If we proceed in a timely fashion, then we can avoid gaps in coverage — and gaps must be avoided; gaps in observations would be deadly dangerous.

Tough choices must and will be made. Earth observations, like all other costs, must be justified on merit. Weather forecasts do not appear magically on television. The dramatic and documented improvements in our ability to predict weather have come from the linkage of satellite-based observations and computer-based weather models; both are essential. Driving on worn-out tires is risky; relying on worn-out weather satellites could be deadly.

 

Berrien Moore III is vice president of weather and climate programs and director of the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect a viewpoint of the University of Oklahoma.