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U.S. proposes new climate service

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A02

The Obama administration proposed a new climate service on Monday that would provide Americans with predictions on how global warming will affect everything from drought to sea levels.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Service, modeled loosely on the 140-year-old National Weather Service, would provide forecasts to farmers, regional water managers and businesses affected by changing climate conditions.

The move is essentially a reorganization of NOAA, and would bring the agency's climate research arm together with its more consumer-oriented services. It would not come with a boost in funding.

A Web portal launched Monday at www.climate.gov provides a single entry point to NOAA's climate information, data, products and services.

The effort was announced at a time when skeptics have become increasingly effective in attacking the credibility of global warming forecasts.

NOAA, along with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, ranks as one of the federal government's key agencies for monitoring the climate and conducting climate research.

"We currently respond to millions of annual requests for climate information, and we expect those requests to grow exponentially," said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco in an interview, adding that in light of recent scientific advances, "the models will continue to improve, and we will be able to provide more and more information."

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in an interview that the service would be able to provide advice on such diverse topics as where ski operators might want to refocus their activities in light of changing snowfall patterns and which farm crops will need increased irrigation.

In the same way businesses such as the Weather Channel and AccuWeather.com have taken advantage of the National Weather Service's predictions, Locke said, "you'll see much of the private sector will want to build on this one-stop shop of climate services."

In order to formally launch the reorganization, Locke said, the House and Senate Appropriations committees with jurisdiction over NOAA will have to approve the move, which is planned for Oct. 1.

Even without the reorganization, NOAA has recently been providing more detailed climate-related forecasts. The National Integrated Drought Information System, which became law in December 2006, provides drought forecasts and impacts for the West and Southwest for at least a season and up to a year. Climate models suggest that both these regions will experience increasing dryness over the next 20 to 40 years, and Lubchenco said the agency will expand this system to cover the Southeast as well.

It remains unclear whether the new Climate Service could answer all the questions Americans have about global warming. Researchers are still looking at how best to make regional climate projections and pinpoint future changes in precipitation, as well as determine what cooling effects aerosols have and how to better interpret tree-ring temperature data over the past several hundred years.

Flaws have surfaced recently in some of the 2007 projections of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including one that suggested that Himalayan glaciers would all melt by 2035. This has led some critics to question the value of climate computer models and predictions.

Paul Reiter, who heads the insects and infectious disease unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said researchers need to recognize that small changes in the assumptions can produce radically different results, given the complex nature of climate dynamics.

"People feel they can feed in a few variables and think they can explain nature," said Reiter, an expert reviewer on the section of the 2007 IPCC report that addressed climate change and public health. "Nature is very complicated."

Brenda Ekwurzel, federal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said researchers "have a lot of confidence" in future temperature rise projections, "but we have a lot less confidence in the amount of rain or snow" that will fall in coming years in different regions of the world.

Thomas R. Karl, who directs NOAA's National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., would serve as transitional director of the NOAA Climate Service. He said that although regional climate models have improved in recent years, "We're not where we want to be."

Still, several key groups welcomed the initiative.

Frank W. Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, said the new service "will provide essential information to the public and private sectors" to cope with global warming. "The insurance industry is heavily dependent on public data and information related to climate, and the creation of a NOAA Climate Service with new data services will greatly enhance the industry's analysis of climate and extreme event weather risk," he said.

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