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December 11, 2012
U.S. Environmental Intelligence Efforts Need Leadership

U.S. Environmental Intelligence  Efforts Need Leadership

By Nancy Colleton, president, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (http://strategies.org), Arlington, Va.

 

There’s nothing like a 70-mph wind gust to get your attention.

It seems like only yesterday I found myself writing about the hottest July ever recorded in the United States and how it was impacting U.S. business. Last summer’s drought resulted in approximately $25 billion in crop losses and drove up food prices globally.

But that’s nothing compared with my concerns while listening to Hurricane Sandy’s calling card pound against my window while awaiting the full arrival of her 1,000-mile swath of trouble. Wind, rain, floods, power outages, downed trees, travel advisories and cancelled meetings captivated my attention.

Whether hurricanes or heat, the message is as loud as Sandy’s howling wind: Just as the United States increasingly needs improved environmental intelligence, the future of the nation’s weather forecasting and broad Earth-monitoring capabilities are declining. As a result, citizens should be concerned, and someone, somewhere within our government, needs to be made responsible for fixing the problem.

 

This Is Nothing New

Unfortunately, repeated warnings of some of the nation’s most respected institutions and experts on this problem have fallen on deaf ears.  The Space Studies Board of the National Academies stated in a study earlier this year “… that a rapid decline in capability is now beginning.” An American Meteorological Society report found that “a notable disconnect exists between an aging satellite fleet and the federal funds needed to maintain and replace it.”

Just last month, an independent review team described the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s management of our weather satellite programs as dysfunctional. And, recently, Government Accountability Office’s David Powner warned about a potential 17-month gap in weather satellite coverage. Numerous editorials in leading national papers immediately following Hurricane Sandy argued that the United States has fallen behind in storm forecasting, noting that a model from the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts was more
accurate and days ahead of any U.S.-
produced hurricane model.

Despite the many lengthy reports, editorials, news articles and hearings on this subject, solutions and the leadership needed to fix the problem haven’t emerged. As a result, the United States could be looking at significant data gaps, impairing our forecasting capabilities for extreme weather events and increasing risk to all Americans.  This is hard to imagine on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, with an estimated economic loss of $50 billion and counting.

 

Designing a Practical Solution

Given the severity and frequency of these events, along with long-term trends and the potential impact on U.S. business, here are a few ways to start addressing the problem and ensuring the United States has the capabilities it needs to manage future risk as well as grow and protect the economy:

Define and Assign Responsibility—With capabilities spread across numerous federal agencies, a cabinet-level official should be given the responsibility to examine these broad capabilities, prioritize programs, determine budgets and facilitate the transition of research products to operational status. This means developing a comprehensive, long-term strategy for the nation, which should include transitioning best practices and new technologies from the defense and intelligence sectors.

Understand National Needs—Any long-term strategy for U.S. capabilities must consider business and economic needs and opportunities, not just science interests. Although sound science should and always will drive U.S. capabilities, it must be recognized that the information products derived from weather satellites and other observation technologies, such as ocean and land remote sensing programs, are vital to the U.S. economy. A healthy private-sector weather and climate enterprise has resulted from government investment.

Demand Innovation and Greater Efficiency—U.S. Earth-observing capabilities must be driven by greater efficiency and less costly approaches. We can no longer take more than a decade to develop a weather satellite at a cost of billions of dollars to U.S. taxpayers.  New technological approaches, along with acquisition and management processes, are needed to deliver this vital information to the hands of those who need it sooner rather than later.

Embrace Long-Term Forecasting—We must identify trends, risks and opportunities to see beyond a single weather event and understand it in the long-term context. Long-term forecasting will be essential to redevelop the Northeast areas damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Understanding climate trends, the intensity and frequency of potential storms, and changes in sea-level rise is critical to rebuilding.

Consider the Future—So much effort has been devoted to trying to correct current problems and programs (primarily satellites) that virtually no thought has been given to the kind of systems and capabilities the country will need in the future and the best way to provide them. Building satellites, integrating data, and refining short- and long-term forecasting capabilities aren’t quick and easy propositions. We must improve our seismic network, ocean-observing capabilities and weather forecasting proficiency with more cost-effective and innovative approaches.

Whether a hurricane is pounding wind and rain against your window or some other natural event is pounding your business’s bottom line, the United States needs improved environmental intelligence to better manage risk and grow and protect our economy. Defining and assigning leadership to ensure the country has the capabilities it needs to navigate the future would be a major a step in the right direction.

 

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