NewsNovember 28, 2012

Top 5 Weather & Climate Challenges Facing White House

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman


As President Obama approaches the start of his second term, the country faces a growing list of climate and weather-related challenges. Some of these, like addressing global warming, are long-term and high-profile challenges that have only grown more urgent during the past four years. Others, such as grappling with how to improve weather and climate forecasting despite limited resources, are newcomers to the agenda.

How the Obama administration handles these issues, and more, will help determine how resilient the U.S. will become in the face of weather and climate extremes, two of which – the year-long drought, and Hurricane Sandy – were center stage in 2012. Some of these kinds of events are already becoming more frequent and severe due in part to global warming.

Image of Hurricane Sandy approaching the U.S. coastline on Oct. 29, 2012. This was taken from the NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite, which the JPSS satellites are intended to eventually replace.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: NOAA.

Hurricane Sandy's impacts were exacerbated by climate change-related sea level rise, and the storm was powered in part by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures. Sandy's final price tag may exceed $100 billion.

In addition, the costs of the worst U.S. drought since the 1950s, which has earned comparisons to the infamous 1930s “Dust Bowl” era, also might exceed the $100 billion mark, and its impacts are already being felt worldwide through higher food prices. The drought was most likely triggered by natural climate variability, but global warming-related heat waves exacerbated the drought conditions, making it a more severe event than it otherwise might have been.

With a satellite infrastructure that is set to atrophy over the coming decades—which may make weather forecasts less accurate—and a budget crunch that is already squeezing the main federal agency responsible for weather and climate forecasting, it will require strong leadership and a wise investment strategy to keep the U.S. at the forefront of international weather and climate science.

Here then are the Top 5 weather and climate challenges facing the Obama administration in a second term: 

1) Building a More Weather and Climate Resilient Society

Hurricane Sandy, which killed 85 people in the U.S. and caused at least $72 billion in damage in New York and New Jersey alone, highlighted the need to bolster the resilience of coastal cities so that they can withstand the increasing threat posed by the 1-2 punch of global warming-related sea level rise and major storms.

Credit: By CasualCapture

Steps that may need to be taken include installing sea walls or storm surge barriers to better protect populated areas, as well as potentially retreating from some vulnerable locations that are almost certain to flood again, given current sea level rise projections. It could also involve reforming the federal flood insurance program, which currently provides incentives to rebuild in vulnerable areas.

While Hurricane Sandy revealed the work that needs to be done in coastal areas, other recent extreme events, some bearing the fingerprints of climate change, have also shown that the U.S. is not nearly as resilient in the face of extreme weather events as it needs to be.

At the federal level, the Obama administration established a climate change adaptation task force in 2009, which has sought to integrate adaptation planning into the activities of federal agencies. However, as Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, there is much work yet to be done. Bolstering societal resilience will require extensive coordination between federal, state, and local agencies. It will also necessitate working with the many private sector companies that play a role in weather and climate forecasting and research.

So far, though, there hasn’t been a strong leader at the forefront of climate adaptation efforts. Instead, such work has been routed through interagency committees. It’s possible that more progress could be made in the next few years if a cabinet-level official were assigned to oversee climate adaptation.

2) Maintaining Weather and Climate Observation and Forecasting Capabilities 

The climate and weather community is facing the very real possibility that basic Earth observation and forecasting capabilities will decline during the next several years, which could leave scientists in the dark at a time when accurate observations and predictions are most needed. For example, starting in 2017, there is likely to be at least a year-long gap in polar orbiting satellite coverage. Such satellites provide crucial data to the sophisticated computer models that are used to forecast the weather, and they also carry instruments for monitoring the climate system.

Plot of CO2 concentrations, which hit a record high in 2012, from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.Credit: NOAA.

Rather than maintaining two satellites, which scan the globe in pole-to-pole circles, there is only going to be one functional polar orbiting satellite. That is due to a perfect storm of bureaucratic bungling, cost overruns, and technical challenges involved in fielding the next-generation of polar satellites, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS.

The delays have pushed back the launch date of the next polar-orbiting satellite to 2017 at the earliest, which is past the design lifetime of the youngest polar-orbiting satellite currently in orbit. No one knows exactly how the satellite gap will affect everyday weather forecasting, but there have been some troubling signs that there may be significant erosion in early warning capabilities. For example, one such computer model, built by the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting in Reading, England, accurately predicted the path of Hurricane Sandy five days ahead of time. The model outperformed its American counterparts, and was widely credited with alerting officials in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast that storm preparations were needed.

After Hurricane Sandy came and went, the Europeans tested their model by depriving it of some polar satellite data. What they found was alarming—instead of projecting landfall in New Jersey, it projected that Sandy would head harmlessly out to sea.

There are delays and gaps predicted in other satellite programs as well, and these, too, may deprive scientists of the data they need to understand how climate change is affecting the planet, according to a recent report from the National Research Council.

In addition to satellite issues, budget troubles are hampering the capabilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is responsible for protecting life and property by issuing severe weather warnings, among other duties. Forecasters at NOAA’s National Weather Service have indicated the U.S. is starting to fall behind other nations in medium-range weather forecasting, and the budget cuts that may come from the so-called “fiscal cliff” could further hamper the agency’s work to improve areas it performs poorly in, such as forecasting changes in hurricane intensity.

How to do more with less is a mantra these days across all levels of government, but when it comes to forecasting extreme weather events, penny pinching could result in more lives lost.

3) Climate Change Mitigation 

After failing to get legislation through Congress during its first term, the Obama administration chose to address the issue of manmade global warming through regulatory actions. Two examples of those actions are the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first-ever emissions reduction requirements for coal-fired power plants, and the White House reached an agreement with automakers to significantly increase the fuel efficiency of the new cars and light trucks.

Storm waves and surge cut across the barrier island at Mantoloking, NJ, eroding a wide beach, destroying houses and roads, and depositing sand onto the island and into the back-bay. The yellow arrow in each image points to the same feature.
Credit: USGS.

Meanwhile, a glut of natural gas and so-called “unconventional” oil drove major shifts in the energy industry, dealing coal a major blow and increasing natural gas-fired power plants. Since natural gas plants emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions relative to coal plants, and overall emissions declined due to the economic downturn, the U.S. is now on track to meet its emissions reduction goals, which are to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020, relative to 2005 levels. 

However, scientists have made clear that much more needs to be done in order to avert dangerous consequences of climate change. In a report released November 18, the World Bank warned that the world is headed for as much as 7.2°F of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, which might set dire scenarios into motion, such as 3 feet or more of global sea level rise.

The amount of carbon dioxide, which is the main long-lasting greenhouse gas, in the air hit a record high this year, and it’s clear that reversing that trend will require concerted efforts to wean the U.S. and the world off of fossil fuels.

Energy market developments, which have yielded an increase in natural gas use, won’t be nearly enough to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to the levels that mainstream climate scientists advise in order to slow, and eventually halt, manmade global warming. Given the financial clout of the fossil fuel sector, that’ll be no easy task, and so far, there are few, if any, indications that the Obama administration wants to tackle that battle anytime soon, beyond ending fossil fuel subsidies.

In his first press conference since being re-elected, Obama signaled that climate change is on his agenda, but is not a top priority compared to growing the economy and creating new jobs. The key question facing the administration is whether the U.S., and the world, will be in a better position to arrest manmade global warming in 2016 than it is now. So far the trends have been headed in the other direction, according to many climate scientists.

Another question the administration has to grapple with – and this is a sign of how little progress has been made on the climate change mitigation front – is how to deal with geoengineering schemes, since as one climate scientist put it, “the genie is out of the bottle” on such experiments. Geoengineering methods would constitute deliberate attempts to adjust the planet’s thermostat in order to reduce the effects of global warming. Geoengineering experiments carry with them considerable risks with potential negative environmental consequences, and currently there is no governing framework preventing individuals, corporations, or even countries from unilaterally testing geoengineering technologies.

4) Containing the Rising Costs of Natural Disasters 

Last year and this year (so far) were respectively the most and second-most costly years in U.S. history for natural disasters, and many scientists expect that general trend to continue due to a combination of a growing built environment and a warming planet. Given the trend toward more costly natural disasters, weather and climate experts are increasingly calling upon the Obama administration to lead the nation in becoming more severe weather resilient.

President Obama tours storm damage in Staten Island, N.Y. on Nov. 15, 2012. 
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

That is one of the motivations behind efforts to create the first U.S. Weather Commission, which would bring the disparate entities that play a role in weather and climate science—from federal agencies to private companies—together to address subjects of common concern, such as moving toward a more resilient society.

William Hooke, a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society, has proposed an innovative way to reign in the incentives that have led us to rebuild in risky locations, such as low-lying coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes and nor’easters. He favors the creation of a federal agency on natural disasters that would be analogous to the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates the causes of transportation mishaps and makes recommendations to avoid such accidents in the future.

The new agency would look for the root causes of natural disaster losses, such as land use and the location of critical infrastructure, and move policy makers to adopt an attitude that says “this must never happen again,” rather than, “we must rebuild as before,” which has often been the case up to now. 

5) A Revised Climate Research Agenda 

As science has shed new insights into how the climate system is responding to the growing concentration of manmade greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there have been increasing calls for regional climate-impact assessments, rather than just national to international climate projections.

Officials at the federal, state, and local levels want more actionable intelligence before they can take necessary actions to harden their infrastructure against global warming-related threats. 

Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, recognized this need and cited it when pushing for the creation of a National Climate Service, which would be a one-stop shop for federal climate science information. Congress thwarted the efforts, in part due to the influence of lawmakers who don’t see manmade climate change as a major threat, or in fact, as a reality. However, perhaps a second term will provide opportunities for this proposal to be revived, since it has many merits beyond just the work underway pertaining to manmade climate change.

Right now, researchers and forecasters are trying to improve forecasts in what forecasters refer to as the “valley of death” timeframe. That period exists between long-range weather and short-range climate, or between about two weeks to a couple of months in advance. Improved predictions at those timescales could provide enormous economic benefits to agricultural producers, transportation companies, and many others.

The military, particularly the U.S. Navy, is already moving forward on its own, having conducted base-specific analyses of how sea level rise could put expensive naval assets at risk.

Climate scientists are working to provide actionable climate information on regional scales, which is a major scientific challenge since more localized climate projections tend to involve greater uncertainty and require considerable computing power. How much support the federal government can provide to the broader research community will help set the course for the next generation of climate reports, and the climate policies that may flow from those reports.

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