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The World Needs a New Focus on Climate

February 10, 2003|Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. | Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. is U.S. undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator.

In California, El Nino -- the climate event caused by the periodic warming of tropical Pacific Ocean waters -- has had heavy effects on lives, property and the economy. In 1997-98, storm losses due to El Nino reached $1.1 billion in the state; the U.S. total was put at $25 billion.

Understanding the natural processes that lead to an El Nino and other climate events is a central concern to scientists, policymakers and economists. Knowing more about how and why these events occur will have far-reaching implications, leading to improved safety measures, longer lead times, more efficient energy, agricultural and transportation practices and a growing knowledge base to address looming global climate change issues.

Behind each newscast featuring local, regional and national weather is a seamless yet complex research effort. With the five-day forecast commonplace, long-range climate services are needed. Climate services extend beyond near-term weather forecasts and provide less-defined but no less important information on longer-range weather trends. Though weather is what we're experiencing today, climate affects weather patterns over a season or longer.

There are compelling reasons to better understand these patterns, and everyone is a stakeholder. The air we breathe and the sea washing our shores know no boundaries. Global pollution shows up in Antarctica's snow and ice. Africa's dust and traces of its sandstorms show up in Florida's coral reefs. Not knowing how to effectively mitigate these concerns can have far-reaching economic, environmental and security consequences.

For these reasons, climate services must become as critical in this century as weather services were in the last. We need an international system of climate information that links every region of the globe. Without the participation of every nation, we will continue to have gaps in scientific knowledge and understanding. No matter how outstanding the technology, climate cannot be effectively investigated on a piecemeal basis.

More is known about the dark side of the moon than about the oceans that cover 70% of the Earth. The existing ocean monitoring system offers an exciting array of technological marvels, including sea-level gauges, ocean robots and weather balloons. An important addition to these tools are 5-foot-long yellow ARGO floats that are being deployed by the U.S. and its international partners around the world. These floats, which ride ocean currents taking temperature and salinity measurements up to 6,000 feet below the surface, are helping to fill in missing data on our oceans and offer glimpses into longer-range global climate trends. But there are still substantial gaps in coverage.

As scientific eyes and ears in the world's oceans, these technologies can, over time, tell us a good deal about what our future may look like and what steps we can take to prepare for it. At the direction of President Bush, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is moving forward with a plan to broaden and intensify climate science research efforts and is making headway toward gaining international support for an expanded global climate observation system. By monitoring winds out of the Indian Ocean, for example, then tracking the ocean's response to them over the Pacific, the agency was able to provide an unprecedented six months' heads-up that another El Nino was brewing. This demonstrates that we have the capability to save lives and millions of U.S. and global dollars through the use of El Nino data. The forecast, for example, could be used to adjust the release of water from reservoirs or prepare for possible mudslides.

We must seriously consider a global observing system to do for global climate what we have been able to do in detecting El Nino. With a firm commitment by the United States and its international partners to implement a global observing system, we can take the pulse of Mother Earth and provide benefits to California, the nation and the world.

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