Government Plans 'National Climate Service'

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A century after the Weather Bureau began to offer regular forecasts, the government is proposing the creation of a similar service focused on climate change and its effects. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco discusses the proposed "National Climate Service."

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. No matter where you get your local weather report from, chances are it has its roots in the National Weather Service. That's part of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The agency is over 130 years old, and this year, 100 years ago this year, it started providing regular weather forecasts to help the agricultural industry. And, of course, it's blossomed into everything that we see today about weather reports.

And this week, as Washington digs out from its record snowfalls and Vancouver wished it had some record snowfalls and a normal winter schedule, NOAA announced that it is planning to create a new office modeled after the Weather Service, but focused instead on the climate.

Joining me now to explain the idea is Dr.�Jane Lubchenco. She is the administrator of NOAA and the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr.�JANE LUBCHENCO (Administrator, NOAA; Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere): Thanks, Ira. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and also join our group at Second Life. Why the need for this service now?

Dr.�LUBCHENCO: NOAA is getting more and more requests from all sorts of different places for information about climate: How is the climate changing? How can we plan for the future? How can we prepare our cities? What crops should we be planting, et cetera?

And we realized that although we currently provide a wealth of climate services, we aren't currently organized to do it most effectively. So on Monday of this week, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and I announced the intention of creating a new NOAA Climate Service.

As you mentioned, this would be somewhat analogous to the National Weather Service in providing information for people to use to make decisions, but in this case, about longer-term events instead of the shorter-term events that characterize the weather.

FLATOW: You said your intention. Does that means it depends on Congress going along with you on this?

Dr.�LUBCHENCO: Yes. There are a number of steps that we have to take for the idea to become a reality. We need to make very specific plans about what the Climate Service would look like, and that needs to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget, and then we send a proposal to Congress, and it needs to be considered by Congress.

There's a lot of interest in climate, and a lot of members of both our authorizing and appropriating committees are - have keen interest in this, and we look forward to working with them as we flesh out exactly what this would look like.

FLATOW: But there's some very vocal opponents of the idea of global warming in Congress. Are you going to be able to overcome that kind of resistance?

Dr.�LUBCHENCO: I think one of the most important things that we can do is get information out to people about the facts. And the information that we provide for weather service, for example, does indeed allow people to make decisions based on that information.

We are actually getting millions of requests a year already about: How should coastal cities plan for sea-level rise? How should various other agencies in the federal government or in state governments make plans for everything from roads to managing water supplies? And a lot of that is going to be changing as the climate changes.

If you want to, for example, create a wind farm, you really want to know what the weather will be, what the wind patterns will be like the next 100 years, not what they've been like the last 100 years.

And so much of our infrastructure today is based on expectations about certain phenomena, weather-related phenomena, climate-related phenomena, but all of that is changing.

And so we're currently getting inundated with requests. So we believe that the demand is out there. Our intent is to reorganize in a way that we can best deliver those services, but also have that delivery of services be connected to the ongoing science of climate change so we can better understand what's happening.

We track it, we measure it, and, of course, it's not a simple set of changes. There are lots of complex changes underway.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how will you be able to track the climate change? Are you going to be getting new satellites, new tracking devices, anything like high-tech stuff here we're talking about?

Dr.�LUBCHENCO: We currently take a lot of measurements that allow us to track climate changes. NOAA and many of our sister agencies have data where we're tracking the temperature records. We're tracking changes in sea level. We are tracking changes in greenhouse gases.

Some of that tracking, some of those observations and that monitoring, is done on the land, some of it in the ocean, some of it from airborne platforms, airplanes, and some, of course, from our satellites from space. So there are a whole suite of different instruments that are currently deployed to give us information. and one of our hopes is to have - continue to improve the acquisition of information, but also, we are committed to being good stewards of those data and to share them freely and openly with everyone.

FLATOW: Will you be launching any new satellites or using new satellites to collect any new data?

Dr.�LUBCHENCO: We currently have a number of satellites that are being constructed that will be - play a vital role in providing continuity of information that we use to generate the weather forecast, but also to track climate. And there's a series of satellites called - that are polar-orbiting satellites, as well as some geostationary satellites. And the current ones that we have up there and the new ones that we are in the process of working on are all essential to having us be able to have the information we need to understand what's happening and make reasonable forecasts about what's likely in the future.

FLATOW: When does a weather forecast turn into a climate forecast?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr.�LUBCHENCO: Weather forecasts are for the near-term future. Climate is on the scale of decades to centuries. And one of the good things about climate science is that in earlier years, the models could only do a pretty reasonable job of looking at entire continents or a whole century. And our models are getting better and better at resolving many phenomena on a regional scale and a decadal time scale.

Those are the areas where we see the greatest opportunity for significant advances, and, of course, that's what a lot of people would like information about, the shorter-term events.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. Let's go to the phones, to Rocky in San Antonio. Hi, Rocky.

ROCKY (Caller): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

ROCKY: My question is - and believe me, I mean no disrespect to anyone. But how can you project climate 25 or 50 years out when local weather forecasters, who get a great deal of their information from NOAA, can't accurately forecast weather three or four days out?

Dr.�LUBCHENCO: That's a great question, Rocky, and I think part of the answer is that - I'd say two things. One, we're getting better and better at the forecasts for short-term events, and I would highlight the most recent snowstorms we've had along the East Coast as a prime example of that.

The National Weather Service did a spectacular job of giving people not only plenty of advance notice, but also having very accurate predictions about when the snowfall would start, about how much it would be. And the more advance information we have about a storm system, the better able we are to make more-accurate predictions about it.

And this year, for example, we have an airplane that is stationed in Japan taking data on the storms that are developing over the Pacific Ocean, but then come across the Pacific, slam into the West Coast. In the case of many of these recent storms, they've been dropping a lot of rain in California because this is an El Nino year, dropping a lot of rain and, more recently, snow throughout the Southeast, and then in the storms that we saw this last couple of weeks, coming up the East Coast.

And when those El Nino storms are - confront the cold mass of air that's being pushed down from the Arctic, that's what causes a lot of the snow that we've been seeing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: So I think that the more information you have the better able you can make predictions, number one. But I think it's also possible that many of the kinds of things people want information about we are already able to help make forecasts that are more in the climate realm, not just the weather realm.

FLATOW: Well, we do know, don't we, from looking at reports about the climate that, for example, the drought in the Southwest is sort of cyclical, is it not? And sometimes, hurricane seasons are sort of cyclical, and maybe...

Dr. LUBCHENCO: There are...

FLATOW: ...you can plan long term for maybe some of those.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: There are natural variations in atmospheric and oceanographic conditions that translate into variable weather. And we're seeing that play out this year with the El Nino that is dropping, again, a lot of rain in California and across the southern part of the U.S. And then, another example of climate variability is this Arctic oscillation which is in a phase now where it's pushing lots of cold air down the East Coast. And so, when you have the confluence of El Nino and this phase of the Arctic oscillation, we get lots and lots of snow along the Eastern seaboard but not a lot inland. So we're seeing a redistribution this year in part because of some natural variability in the large scale phenomena that have such a big influence on weather.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones: 1-800-989-8255. Bill(ph) in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Hi, Bill.

Bill (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Fine. How are you?

BILL: Just fine. First of all, Jane Lubchenco is one of my heroes. I am an academic researcher with a marine science background although I'm not really doing that now. I don't study climate, however, I teach about it in a general education course at the Oklahoma State University. And I was just at a public forum last night with someone from another small college who was talking about climate change and there were probably only about 15 members of the public there. But the level of disbelief in climate change at all is just extraordinary, and the misinformation and the conspiracy theories and things -and I just wondered if Jane could address that in - if this new government entity would somehow deal with that.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Bill, thanks so much for your nice comment. I appreciate that very much. We clearly have a lot of work to do. And one of the hopes we have for the NOAA Climate Service is to get out information about what we know about climate change in ways that people can trust and understand and use to make decisions. That's not an easy thing to do but I think it's vitally important and it's part of the responsibility that we take very seriously.

FLATOW: We're talking about the proposed climate service from the government on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Jane Lubchenco.

Question from Second Life wants - Andrew Knox(ph) wants to know, will this new climate service monitor major ice sheets also like Greenland, Antarctica, things like that?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Many of the observations that are important to understand climate are already underway. And there are team efforts to monitor and track the ice sheets, the big ice sheets both in Greenland and in the Antarctic as well as ice, for example, in the Arctic Ocean and in other glaciers and things on land, so some of that is underway. We need more observations than we have. And one important function of this service is to continue to gather all those information - I mean, all those observations to continue to put that into our models but then provide - translate that into useful information that people can use.

FLATOW: And in the few moments we have left, Dr. Lubchenco, what is the - give us a timeline on where you think this is headed and how soon it might be set up.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: We are hopeful that we could have the NOAA Climate Service in operation by October of this year. And Ira, you started off focusing on the fact that this is a big birthday for the National Weather Service. It's now 140 years old and I think it would be a nice tribute to the success of that service to have that anniversary be - coincide with the establishment of the new service at NOAA.

FLATOW: Why not just make it a subunit of the service we have now, the weather service?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: That was one of the options that we considered. And I think the answer is that it is likely to do what we need it to do without detracting from the need to have - to continue to provide weather services if we have them in separate units but, obviously, in good communication.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so, we'll have to watch to see if Congress goes along with this and I imagine...

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Correct, and we have good relationships with many members who are very interested in this. And I'm hopeful that this will proceed in a way that will be in the best interest of the country.

FLATOW: Maybe the extremes in weather we're seeing this year might spur people to pay attention to a long term climate. They're going to have to deal with

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Well, we're certainly are seeing a lot of extremes and it is important to have good information about what's causing those and that would be one of the functions of the service.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today, Dr. Lubchenco, and taking time out of your busy schedule to come on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. LUBCHENCO: Thanks, Ira. I appreciate it.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Jane Lubchenco is the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere in the Obama administration. She spoke with us from snowy Washington, and we're very happy that she took time to be with us today.

We're going to take a break and change gears and we're going to talk about something, well, that's quite unusual and that is the - there are these Humboldt squid. The appearance of these - you wouldn't call them the giant squid. You know, they're not those big giant squid you see in the movies, but they are sort of big squid. They're about five feet long and whatever. And they're - they can reach 100 pounds and they're making their way around the Pacific so we're going to talk about where all these squid are coming from and are they good eating. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

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