Drought is currently plaguing the Southeast. I smelled smoke from wildfires all day Wednesday in North Georgia. My mind wandered to the weather patterns, climate-drought connections and the health-aviation hazards that were at play. It reaffirmed for me that our nation’s weather-climate physical and intellectual infrastructure must remain strong and be taken to new heights.
The transition of governing power is always an exciting and nerve-racking time. The newly elected administration, led by President-elect Donald Trump, is working to understand the processes of the government and how to implement its DNA on the process.
“A focused investment of federal resources in the atmospheric, earth and related sciences will make significant contributions toward meeting important societal concerns including: protection of American lives and property; expansion of new economic opportunities; enhancement of national security; and strengthening the U.S. leadership in research and development.”
(Busalacchi joins me Sunday at noon on the Weather Channel’s Weather Geeks program to discuss these issues in more depth.)
One-third of the United States gross domestic product is affected by weather. It is revealing to review various ways that the U.S. depends on weather and climate information:
- Agricultural productivity
- U.S. commercial and military aviation activities
- Short and long-term planning for national security operations
- Design and engineering of national infrastructure such as buildings, bridges and roads
- Tracking disease outbreaks
- Business decisions related to consumer products ranging from clothing to cereal
The United States has a well-respected weather and climate enterprise. During my term as president of the American Meteorological Society, I saw the strong roles that public-private-academic partnership plays in delivery of weather and climate information.
The federal “leg of the stool” is vital. The National Academies, a nonpartisan science advisory body, found that weather forecasts alone have an annualized value of $31.5 billion compared to a $5 billion price tag to generate the information. Though I wasn’t a business major I clearly recognize that sixfold returns on investments are good for the American people’s livelihood, safety and productivity.
As I write this, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is poised to launch America’s game-changing GOES-R weather satellite. This satellite will provide unprecedented capacity for observing weather systems and improving forecasts.
NASA has also been a key player in the development of this satellite. I worked for 12 years as a NASA scientist developing advanced satellite missions and research that will move the nation’s operational mission forward. NASA uses the vantage point of space to assess and learn about our Earth.
Much of what we know about El Niño, global rainfall patterns, drought, ice sheets, ocean process and so forth come from NASA’s Earth Science mission. For example, the ozone hole and its threat to humanity was only fully appreciated once we saw it from the perspective of space. Such scientific knowledge produced global action to reduce the harmful chemical products that were destroying the ozone layer and threatening humanity. Hopefully there are lessons in this as we face other pressing weather, climate and environmental challenges.
Many of us within the weather community are adamant that the United States should have the best weather model capabilities in the world. This requires advanced computing, new modeling techniques and ways to translate that information clearly to the consuming public. NOAA’s National Weather Service has started down the right pathway, but we can’t get there without vigorous and sustained support.
The tendency has been to “throw money” at the problem after a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, the South Carolina floods or the recent Louisiana floods. We need a more proactive business model to ensure that we can maintain (and extend) that sixfold return that I discussed earlier. (By the way, satellite data inputs are a key reason the European weather model is so good. Some of the most critical of that data comes from NASA and NOAA missions.)
Basic research provided by the National Science Foundation is also important for the weather-climate enterprise. Their contribution is more difficult to convey but basic research leads to the advances we enjoy now, such as GPS, smartphones and advanced medical procedures. They don’t just “poof” and come out of thin air.
National Science Foundation research is critical for developing new knowledge on physical processes, observing technologies, social sciences and meteorological processes. These things do not get headlines but the next generation weather models and observations build upon these basic foundations. There are important weather and climate components within the U.S. Forest Service, Defense Department, Energy Department, Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies that have specific applications.
I have always observed bipartisan partnerships on this issue of investments in weather research and infrastructure. The Lucas-Bridenstine Weather Forecasting Bill demonstrated the understanding that weather affects people no matter how they vote. Such bipartisanship will be needed if we are going to make our models the best in the world, maintain a vibrant observing system, advance two-week to one-year drought forecasts, stimulate new air quality predictive capability and foster public partnerships with the emerging private sector adding value to weather data.
We will have to find a way to address the climate challenges as they are clearly related to our weather. I know it is difficult to discuss from a political lens because of the myth of partisanship, but it can be done. We proved it with the ozone hole.
Our community stands ready to work with President-elect Donald Trump to move the country forward on the weather front.
Marshall Shepherd is the director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program and former president of the American Meteorological Society. He also hosts the Weather Channel’s Sunday news show “Weather Geeks” and has briefed both Democratic and Republican leaders on weather and climate issues.