Guest op-ed

President Barack Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upon his arrival at Atlantic City International Airport in Atlantic City, NJ. Obama traveled to the region to take an aerial tour of the Atlantic Coast in New Jersey in areas damaged by superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File) (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

AUSTIN, Texas—Let’s hope bipartisan cooperation after Hurricane Sandy doesn’t stop at the Governor Christie-President Obama hug. Unfortunately, that may be an uphill battle given the failure by Congress to act more quickly on Hurricane Sandy relief, but it shouldn’t be. The simple truth is the better Americans can prepare for extreme events, the less we’ll need to pay in relief. Both parties should understand that and want to do something about it.

Unlike the stark differences between Republicans and Democrats on taxes and the fiscal cliff, the hurricane-turned-superstorm provides an exceptional opportunity for bipartisanship. Both sides of the aisle must recognize the need to embark on a new era of environmental monitoring and forecasting—one that protects American lives and property, and also grows the economy in a new era of extremes.

As Hurricane Sandy illustrated, the nation enjoys robust and highly sophisticated weather forecasting capabilities that virtually pinpointed the track and landfall of one of the largest, most complex storms ever. Sandy was like nothing the National Weather Service (NWS) had ever seen—a tropical storm that morphed into an extra-tropical storm that not only delivered rain, high winds and record storm surge, but also heavy snow in some areas.

“We have never predicted three feet of snow as part of a hurricane forecast until Sandy,” said Louis Uccellini, director of the NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

Just as Hurricane Sandy morphed into Superstorm Sandy, the nation needs to morph its declining weather, climate, ocean and land monitoring capabilities into a super system of environmental intelligence, one that is better equipped to handle an increasing number of extreme events like those that have battered this nation in recent years.

This new direction would improve forecasting in all environmental areas, not just weather. It would also focus on delivering warnings and other information beyond the science community and emergency managers to businesses, citizens and government officials at the national, regional and local levels, providing an unparalleled capability to better manage risk. In short, it would go a long way toward addressing the theme of this week’s annual gathering of the meteorological community here in Austin, Texas—“Taking Predictions to the Next Level: Expanding Beyond Today’s Weather, Water, and Climate Forecasting and Projections.”

To achieve this vision from a technical standpoint, the U.S. must, as a top priority, address the potential gap in critical satellite coverage that threatens to reduce our ability to accurately predict severe storms. A recent study by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts revealed that without polar satellites, NOAA’s track forecast for Sandy could have been hundreds of miles off.

The nation must also expand observations through new cost-effective technologies, increase modeling capacity, and adopt an information architecture that allows better access and data integration. These ideas are not new and the U.S. has the means to do this today. What is new from a policy perspective, however, is that the nation must commit to new leadership in this area and respond to more demanding societal and economic needs.

Some might argue that the current U.S. investment of $3 billion is sufficient, but an ongoing decline in our monitoring capabilities coupled with a growing demand for information says otherwise. When juxtaposed with recent environmental catastrophes, it is clear that this amount is woefully inadequate. Consider the following:

* The Obama Administration requested $60.4 billion in funding to cover Hurricane Sandy relief efforts and to mitigate future problems such as coastal flooding;

* The U.S. experienced 14 separate billion-dollar disasters in 2011;

* Insured crop losses from last summer’s drought amounted to an estimated $25 billion;

* St. Louis saw hailstones of nearly three inches in diameter cause more than 200,000 damage claims and $1 billion in losses, while Colorado saw more than 550 homes lost to wildfires; and

* Losses due to thunderstorms in the first half of 2011, which Munich Reinsurance characterized as “the third most costly spring thunderstorm season in US history,” are estimated at $8.8 billion.

Corporate America needs this environmental intelligence, too. Government-funded research not only leads to improved weather reports and critical warnings like those seen for Hurricane Sandy, but the resulting information products also inform new standards for home construction as well as the outlook for national and global agriculture, transportation and energy demand.

It will only benefit U.S. citizens and the economy to bring climate, ocean and land observing capabilities and services closer to the sophistication level of our weather enterprise and geospatial industry, in which government investment has spurred substantial private sector growth, with companies like The Weather Channel and AccuWeather creating new, value-added products from NWS data and information. High-resolution images seen on Google Earth are also the result of government-funded (and commercial) Earth-imaging satellites developed primarily for the intelligence sector.

The time is now for the United States to commit to sustaining and evolving its Earth monitoring capabilities into environmental intelligence, and Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath should provide the impetus for bipartisan support to do so. After all, Earth science and observation technologies were key to forecasting this damaging storm, and they will prove absolutely critical to recovering from it and building a stronger future.

Nancy Colleton is president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) and leads the Alliance for Earth Observations. IGES describes itself as “a trusted leader in Earth and space science education, communication and outreach, and in fostering national and international cooperation in global Earth observations.”