The National Academies: Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine
Current Operating Status

The National Academies Testimony before Congress

Public Laws Containing Studies for the National Academies

Briefings to Congress

Congressionally Mandated Reports

Policy Statements and Historical Documents

The OCGA staff

Request a Report (Congressional and Government Staff Only)

Mailing Address:
The Office of Congressional and Government Affairs
The Keck Center of the National Academies
Keck WS1008
500 Fifth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Tel: (202) 334-1601
Fax: (202) 334-2419

Back to Main Page

Session:107th Congress (First Session)
Witness(es):Eric Barron
Credentials:  Distinguished Professor of Geophysics, Pennsylvania State University, and Chairman, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Division on Earth and Life Studies, National Research Council, The National Academies
Committee:Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee, Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives
Subject:NOAA Weather and Climate Prediction Budget






MAY 9, 2001


Mr Chairman, I am Eric Barron, Distinguished Professor of Geosciences at the Pennsylvania State University, and the Chair of the National Research Council’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate. The Research Council is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, chartered by Congress in 1863 to advise the government on matters of science and technology. Thank you for this opportunity to discuss with you certain issues relating to the climate programs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate is an increasingly important element of public and private decision-making. The breadth of these climate-related decisions is becoming truly remarkable, including such diverse areas as farming, forestry, energy production, water resource management, emergency management planning, development of building codes, building design criteria, insurance, retail marketing, and international treaty negotiation.

Basically, advances in our capability to monitor and predict variations in climate, coupled with concern over the potential for climate change and its impact, are yielding a growing awareness of the importance of climate information. We no longer view this climate information as simply the average of a large set of weather records. Instead, we are realizing that climate observations and models are yielding a growing understanding of how climate varies and how it may change in the future. We are realizing an increased capability to predict short-term climate variations such as El Nino. Our ability to project long-term decadal to century scale change has improved dramatically over the last two decades. Predictive capability, as long as it contains reasonable estimates of uncertainty, is powerful. It enables us to enhance our economic vitality. It becomes a key ingredient in environmental stewardship. It is also critical in our ability to limit threats to life and property. In short, it allows us to promote economic well-being and to solve problems.

There are three fundamental elements to a NOAA climate program, and a U.S. climate program in general: (1) a robust observing system, (2) a strong modeling prediction/projection capability, and (3) a strong link to the needs of the decision-makers. For each of these three elements, we can examine key requirements, assess the current status of our efforts, and describe a set of investments required for a more successful U.S. program. In each case, my recommendations find their foundation in National Research Council Reports of the National Academy of Sciences, and other national efforts to assess the importance of climate and its impacts on our nation. This review and assessment is followed by a vision of how U.S. and international programs may evolve over the next decade or two. Our vision of future needs and capabilities provides a guide for the investments in NOAA that will enable this agency to better serve our nation.

(1) A Robust Observing System

The objective of a climate observing system is to provide information on trends and variability and is the basis for testing and improving upon our knowledge of how the climate system functions. In other words, the climate observing system provides the foundation upon which to build our predictive capability. The research community and every sector of climate-related decision-makers, from the weather derivatives industry to those assessing the potential impacts of future climate change, calls for a stable, sustained, high quality observational base to the U.S. climate program.

NOAA clearly recognizes this important need. The operational environmental satellite systems operated by NOAA are of considerable importance to the climate community because we recognize that the NASA mission plans can not fulfill all of the long-term observational needs. NASA and NOAA have proposed a National Polar Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project (NPP) that serves to bridge NASA’s Earth Observing System and operational satellites. It is a promising sign of a potential mechanism for maintaining much-needed continuity to our measurements while providing a mechanism for development and testing of new technology. At the same time, NOAA provides a surface observing network that has become central to our understanding of climate variability and change. Many of these observations are combined with forecast models through an assimilation process that yields the de facto record of global weather and climate. NOAA’s Environmental Modeling Center (EMC) has made great strides in improving the U.S. efforts in this arena. Recent efforts to establish a development, testing, and integration facility at EMC that allows new techniques of prediction and assimilation to be examined while maintaining current operational forecasts is a major step forward in NOAA capabilities.

Yet, the climate community continues to place a more robust observing system at the top of its list as an area of needed improvement. There are two keys to understanding this fact. First, most of the information about the climate system is derived from observations taken for purposes other than climate. Often this means that the data collection and management requirements for climate are a part of a secondary, and less well supported, mission. Second, the observations required in order to understand variability and change on our planet involve numerous federal and state agencies and an array of satellite and ground-based systems. The lack of integration of these systems creates vulnerabilities and limits our ability to produce an observing system of real utility to both science and society. There are four immediate needs:

(A) The climate community has articulated a series of basic properties required of a climate observing system (NRC, 1999) involving overlapping measurements, documentation, data quality and homogeneity, data maintenance, free and open exchange of data, links between operational providers and users, and assessing any changes in observing systems in terms of its effects on climate time-series. The climate community frequently refers to these basic properties as the “ten commandments” of a climate observing system. The investment required to adhere to these rules is often small and will reap many benefits.

(B) We must ensure that the NPOESS strategy has a clear and credible plan for archiving observations and for managing data access. We also need to explore the integration of NOAA and NASA data management and access.

(C) We need to plan and implement sustained and integrated observing and information systems that cross traditional agency boundaries. This is critical to the entire endeavor and requires a much greater interagency cooperation. There are several elements to this recommendation. We need a real inventory of current observing systems including their purpose, connection to users, management, and decision-making rules. We actually need the resources to create a more cost-effective and cost-efficient observing system. The inventory of capabilities is a first step. Examining redundancies and potential synergisms between agencies is a step towards a more efficient system if the potential savings can be utilized to fill gaps and weaknesses and to create a more integrated framework. Budget constraints combined with the number of agencies involved have resulted in haphazard changes to our nation’s observing systems to the detriment of our understanding of climate. Instead, we should take the view that we need to make a short-term investment by supporting the research and analysis needed to create a more efficient, integrated system. This requires a collaborative process combining the scientific community, operational agencies and decision-makers with the objective of creating an integrated system.

(D) The greatest weaknesses in our global observing strategy involve the water cycle – specifically a commitment to sustained measurement of precipitation, atmospheric moisture, soil moisture and run-off.

(2) A Strong Modeling Prediction/Projection Capability

The development of predictive models in the U.S. is fueled by a world-class research enterprise. NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, and facilities and capabilities supported by NASA, DOE and NSF, have created a powerful capability to build predictive tools that will increasingly serve the climate needs of our nation. There is a growing demand for the products associated with this model development. Primarily this demand reflects our increased ability to provide short-term predictions of phenomena such as El Nino and to provide projections on the time scales of decades to a century. Whether it is the strawberry farmer in California, U.S. utilities achieving lower costs by beating competitors in world energy markets, or the U.S. Navy determining whether we need fleet capability in a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean, the demand for advanced knowledge about climate is growing.

Unfortunately, the U.S. research engine is not prepared for the heavy demand of producing a wide variety of products for the breadth and diversity of decision-makers who are utilizing climate information. This problem is brought to high relief when we examine the U.S. role in various assessments such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts. U.S. efforts are a foundation of the intellectual exercise but we play a much smaller role in providing the long-term ensemble of simulations that are used to assess potential impacts. Every sign suggests that the demand for specialized or for computer intensive products is growing. These concerns have led the National Research Council to focus on the capacity of U.S. modeling to support climate assessment activities (1998) and on improving the effectiveness of the U.S. climate modeling (2001). Similarly, the U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts (2000) includes this topic as a major issue under future research requirements.

The findings are of particular importance. The increased demands for operational climate products that benefit society have placed heavy demands on the research community. When comparing U.S. and European high-end modeling, the U.S. modeling community is lagging behind in producing accurate high-resolution model simulations. These simulations are in greater demand because they enable a stronger linkage between climate and regional problem solving. The U.S. community is being hindered by our inability to purchase the best computer architectures available. In fact, many view the U.S. community as being forced to purchase architectures that are ill-suited to the problems at hand because of the lack of openness of the current market for computer hardware. The U.S. also needs a common modeling infrastructure to promote greater efficiencies within the U.S. research community. We are also acutely feeling the strain on human resources, particularly in competing with private industry and overseas enterprises for skilled computer scientists.

There are four immediate needs:

(A) We need an investment in facilities that are specifically charged to satisfy the increased demand for operational modeling products. This investment must address both short-term predictive capabilities on the time scale of months to years and longer term variability and change on time scales of decades to a century. These facilities require sufficient computational and staff resources to provide high-resolution model predictions and projections that are competitive internationally. These facilities must have the resources to develop, test, and integrate new developments, perform long-term model runs and ensembles of simulations, create permanent model and model output archives, promote strong links with researchers through active visitor programs, and facilitate access to model results. A strong connection to decision-makers is essential.

(B) The U.S. community needs open access to the best available computational resources.

(C) The U.S. needs to work toward a common modeling infrastructure that promotes interaction and links the strong research communities in the nation in an effort to facilitate the transition from research to useful operational products.

(D) The federally supported modeling endeavors must recognize and be able to address the issue of competitiveness in hiring the scientific and computational staff needed to staff U.S. modeling centers.

(3) a strong link to the needs of the decision-makers

The value of a robust observing system and a strong modeling capability is not realized unless it is driven by societal needs. This requires climate services that produce timely and useful climate information to decision-makers (NRC, 1999b). A successful climate service must be user-centric and it must be supported by active research. The growing demand for climate products indicates that this service should include the observations themselves as well as predictive capability at a variety of space and time scales, from seasons to a century and from global scales to regions or states. Active stewardship is critical to maintain this knowledge base.

NOAA efforts are evolving into a climate services framework through the valuable efforts of the National Climate Data Center, the results of the National Climate Program Act of 1978 that created a network of regional climate centers, and a fledgling climate service enterprise. In addition, some states, notably Okalahoma with its “Oklahoma Mesonet” have created enterprises that develop and promote powerful and useful climate and weather products that serve a variety of public and private needs within the state.

The demand for climate services is growing and we must anticipate that these services will expand into a variety of climate-related areas including human health, water availability and quality, air quality, agricultural forecasting, and the stewardship of ecosystems. For this reason, our nation should enhance its efforts to provide climate services and to realize the full potential generated by the U.S. research community. Logically, this enhancement of the climate service function should build upon existing enterprises. Insights into the first steps toward a greater emphasis on climate services stems from NRC reports that promote the transition from research to operations (NRC, 2000) and public debate on the role of climate services. The first steps might include the following elements:

(A) A truly useful service function depends on having mechanisms within agencies that promotes and addresses the needs of the users. Agencies like NOAA need to have clearly defined offices with this task as a primary goal and the resources to implement this mission.

(B) Our ability to assess the potential demand by users is limited. We need to empower NOAA to perform user-oriented experiments designed to promote and assess the needs of decision-makers.

(C) We have a number of real success stories in terms of promoting a strong interface with the public and private sector, such as the Oklahoma Mesonet. In many ways, such state enterprises have enormous potential to link local weather and climate to local and state needs. However, as a group of independent entities, state efforts will only exacerbate the problems associated with having an observing system that is dependent on so many different agencies. We need to provide incentives to repeat the success of the Oklahoma effort but in exchange for open and free access to information and for following the primary guidelines required to ensure that observations are useful for climate studies (described earlier as the “10 commandments” of climate observations).

(D) We can not provide the best service to the nation without creating functions within the agencies with the direct responsibility of translating research accomplishment into new observation and predictive capabilities. Ideally, this function should be defined at the outset of new observation systems and as an integral part of the modeling and prediction enterprises described above.

In addition, it should be emphasized that a climate services function is dependent on several elements that have already been discussed earlier, including creating an inventory of existing observing systems in an effort to promote efficiency, eliminating gaps and weaknesses in our current strategy, promoting greater interagency cooperation in developing a robust observing system, enhancing our ability to provide short-term and long term climate predictions and projections, and providing the computational resources to serve the needs of decision-makers.

(4) A Vision For The Future – The Equivalent Of An “Environmental Intel Center”

A continuing theme of this testimony is science in service to society. As stated earlier, the nature of the environmental issues facing our nation demand a capability that allows us to enhance economic vitality, maintain environmental quality, limit threats to life and property, as well as strengthen fundamental understanding of the Earth. These societal needs lead to a vision that uses a regional framework as a stepping-stone to a comprehensive national or global capability. The development of a comprehensive regional framework can be developed by creating a series of “natural laboratories.” Initially, the nation could proceed with a series of pilot studies. To be successful, these regional laboratories must have five key elements:

(1) An integrated regional web of sensors, including physical, chemical, biological, and socioeconomic factors, that link existing observations into a coherent framework and enable new observations to be developed within an overall structure;

(2) An integrated and comprehensive regional information system, accessible to a wide variety of researchers, operational systems, and stakeholders;

(3) Directed process studies designed to examine specific phenomena through field study to address deficiencies in understanding; and

(4) A regional modeling foundation for constructing increasingly complex coupled system models at the spatial and temporal scales appropriate for the examination of specific and integrated biologic, hydrologic and socioeconomic systems.

(5) A strong user-centric function.

These five steps mirror the requirements described above for a viable and useful climate research program for the nation. It is different in two ways. First, it anticipates that the needs of the nation expand beyond climate into the broader context of environmental prediction. Second, if focuses on regional capabilities as a stepping stone to a national capability.

The above structure is inherently a hybrid between research and operational functions. Both benefit from the level of integration of observations and information, the targeted process studies, and the model development capability. An emphasis on a region-specific predictive capability will drive the development of new understanding and new suites of comprehensive interactive high-resolution models that focus on addressing societal needs. A key objective is to bring a demanding level of discipline to “forecasting” in a broad arena of environmental issues. Common objectives and an integrated framework will also engender new modes and avenues of research and catalyze the development of useful operational products. With demonstrated success, the concepts of integrated regional observation and information networks, combined with comprehensive models, will grow into a national capability that far exceeds current capabilities. Such a capability is designed to address a broad range of current and future, regional and global environmental issues. The justification for this vision follows:

The Nature of the Problem: The driving forces that alter environmental quality and integrity are widely recognized, involving primarily weather and climate, patterns of land use and land cover, and resource use with its associated waste products. But a key feature of most regions is that more than one driving force is changing simultaneously. Consequently, most locations are characterized by multiple stresses. The effect of a combination of environmental stresses is seldom simply additive. Rather, they often produce amplified or damped responses, unexpected responses, or threshold responses in environmental systems. Multiple, cumulative, and interactive stresses are clearly the most difficult to understand and hence the most difficult to manage. The lack of an ability to assess the response of the system to multiple stresses limits our ability to assess the impacts of specific human perturbations, to assess advantages and risks, and to enhance economic and societal well being in the context of global, national and regional stewardship.

Finally, many of the current environmental issues are expected to become more acute as we attempt to meet the needs of an increasingly complex and much larger, although stabilizing, population.

The Primary Needs to Serve Society: Economic vitality and societal well-being are increasingly dependent on combining global, regional and local perspectives. A “place-based” imperative for environmental research stems from the importance of human activities on local and regional scales, the importance of multiple stresses on specific environments, and the nature of the spatial and temporal linkages between physical, biological, chemical and human systems. We find the strongest intersection between human activity, environmental stresses, earth system interactions and human decision-making in regional analysis coupled to larger spatial scales.

Addressing Societal Needs: A decade of research on greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion and deforestation has clarified the promising pathways for research on global environmental change. Much of this strategy should and must focus on critical unanswered questions. However, the last decade of effort has also revealed a number of challenges, most notably the challenge of creating integrated global (much less national) observation capabilities, the computational and scientific limitations inherent in creating a truly integrated, global, coupled system modeling capability suitable for assessing impacts, and the challenge of addressing multiple stresses in a coupled system. These limitations and the need to directly focus on societal needs argue for an additional strategy that enables the development of comprehensive regional “natural laboratories.” Five elements are key to the success of this regional framework:

(1) A Web of Integrated Sensors. The current U.S. observation strategy appears to be even more haphazard than climate observations when viewed in the overall context of environmental problems. The reason is clear. The observations are driven by very different mission needs and tend to focus on the measurement of discrete variables at a specific set of locations designed to serve the different needs of weather forecasting, pollution monitoring, hydrologic forecasting, or other objectives. The mission focus results in a diverse set of networks that are supported by a large number of different federal agencies, states, or regional governments. Increased awareness of a host of environmental issues drives demand for additional new observations. However, these new observations are frequently viewed independently of any overall structure or integrated observing strategy. Operational needs and research or long-term monitoring needs are also often independent. Importantly, regular and consistently repeated observations present added challenges in garnering sufficient financial resources. The end result is almost certainly fiscally inefficient, and undoubtedly limits our ability to integrate physical, biological, chemical and human systems.

The limitations of the current observing strategy are widely recognized and they have spurred efforts to develop Global Observing Systems for global change, climate, and oceanic and terrestrial systems in the international arena. These efforts are commendable and must be encouraged, but they are also extremely challenging because of the breadth of measurements, nations, capability and policies that are involved.

In contrast, at a regional level in the U.S. we have the potential to (a) link observing systems into a web of integrated sensors building upon existing weather and hydrologic stations and remote sensing capability, (b) create the agreements across a set of more limited agencies and federal, state and local governments needed to create a structure to the observing system, (c) provide a compelling framework that encourages or demands the integration of new observations into a broader strategy, and (d) create strong linkages between research and operational observations that result in mutual benefit. The result is likely to create new efficiencies through the development of measurement systems that are more comprehensive, rather than a suite of separately funded, disconnected systems. The result is also likely to result in greater scientific benefit to society and greater understanding due to the co-location or networking of many different measurement capabilities. The demonstration of fiscal efficiency and improved capability and resulting benefit are likely to create a significant additional impetus for developing national and global integrated observing systems.

(2) Regional Information Systems. Society has amassed an enormous amount of data about the earth. New satellite systems and other observational capabilities promise enormous increases in the availability of earth data. Fortunately, technological innovations are allowing us to capture, process and display this information in a manner that is multi-resolution, and 4-dimensional. The major challenges involve data management, the storage, indexing, referencing, and retrieving of data and the ability to combine, dissect and query information. The ability to navigate this information, seeking data that satisfies the direct needs of a variety of users, is likely to spark a new “age of information” that will promote economic benefit and engender new research directions and capabilities to integrate physical, biological, chemical and human systems.

The efforts to create comprehensive information systems increasingly reflect federal and state mandates to make data more accessible and useful to the public and to ensure that our investments in research yield maximum societal benefit. The development of a global digital database is again an enormous challenge. In contrast, a regional or state focus becomes a logical test bed, enabling the participation of universities, federal, state and local governments, and industry in the development of a regional information system that is tractable and for which immediate benefit for a state or region can be evident. Again, the demonstration of capability and resulting benefit are likely to create a significant additional impetus for developing national and global information systems.

(3) Framework for Process Studies. Process studies are a critical element of scientific advancement because they are designed, through focused observations and modeling, to probe uncertainties in knowledge about how the Earth system functions. In many cases, mismatch between model predictions and observations can drive targeted investigations to limit the level of error. Frequently, efforts to couple different aspects of the Earth system (e.g. the atmosphere and land-surface vegetation characteristics) prompt targeted exploration because the level of understanding is still rudimentary. The objective is to use field study to address deficiencies in our understanding. The benefit of these intensive studies is maximized when they can be coupled with a highly developed, integrated set of sensors, with readily accessible spatial and temporal data within a regional information system, and with a predictive model framework that readily enables the entrainment and testing of new information from process studies.

(4) Predictive Capability. The demand for new forecasting products, involving air quality, energy demand, water quality and quantity, ultraviolet radiation, and human health indexes is also growing rapidly, and as we demonstrate feasibility and benefit, society is likely to demand a growing number of new operational forecast products on prediction time scales of days to decades into the future. Further, we already clearly sense that environmental issues will demand an even greater capability to integrate physical, biological, chemical and human systems in order to develop the predictive capability needed to examine the response of critical regions or cases to multiple stresses.

Global weather and climate models provide the strongest physical foundation for more comprehensive environmental predictive capability. The numerical models that underpin this type of forecasts are increasingly becoming the framework for the addition of new numerical formulations designed to predict air quality, the water balance for river forecast models, and a host of other variables including the migration of forests under climate change conditions. As we attempt to produce predictions at the scale of human endeavors, mesoscale models (capable of predicting synoptic weather systems) are increasingly becoming the focal point of weather and climate studies because of their potential to make predictions on the scale of river systems, cities, agriculture and forestry.

Enormous potential exists if we can institutionalize a mesoscale numerical prediction capability that meshes with regional sensor webs and information systems. Such a capability enables a strategy and implementation capability for building tractable coupled models, initiating experimental forecasts of new variables, assessing the outcomes associated with multiple stresses, and of taking advantage of the discipline of the forecasting process to create a powerful regional prediction capability. This capability, built upon the numerical framework of weather and climate models, can be extended to air quality, water quantity and quality, ecosystem health, human health, agriculture, and a host of other areas.

It is time to bring a demanding level of discipline to the forecasting of a wide variety of environmental variables. The objective is to stimulate the interplay between improvements in observation, theory and practice needed to develop capabilities of broad value to society. The discipline of forecasting is dependent of four steps (a) collection and analysis of observations of present conditions, (b) use of subjective or quantitative methods to infer future conditions, (c) assessment of the accuracy of the prediction with observations, and (d) analysis of the results to determine how methods and models can be improved.

At a minimum, we are capable of bringing a much greater level of structure and discipline into our predictions of the future, ranging from specific forecasts to statistical ensembles that include a measure of expected accuracy, to an assessment of the range of possibilities.

(5) A strong connection to societal needs. As stated earlier, we find the strongest intersection between human activity, environmental stresses, earth system interactions and human decision-making in regional analysis coupled to larger spatial scales. A regional laboratory enables and promotes a focus on problem-solving. Many of the functions of a user-centric climate services would now have a more direct linkage to decision-makers.

The regional vision described above is designed to address a broad range of current and future environmental issues by creating a capability based on integrated observing systems, readily accessible data, and an increasingly comprehensive predictive capability. With demonstrated success over a few large-scale regions of the U.S., this strategy will very likely grow into a national capability that far exceeds current capabilities. NOAA can play a key role in creating these capabilities.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak this morning. I will be glad to answer any questions.


References supporting the above testimony:

1998. National Research Council. Global Environmental Change: Research Pathways for the Next Decade.

1998. National Research Council. Capacity of U.S. Climate Modeling to Support Climate Change Assessment Activities.

1998. National Research Council. The Atmosheric Sciences Entering the Twenty-First Century.

1999. National Research Council. Adequacy of Climate Observing Systems.

1999b. National Research Council. Making Climate Forecasts Matter.

2000. National Research Council. From Research to Operations in Weather Satellites and Numerical Weather Prediction.

2000. National Research Council. Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences.

2000. Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change. U.S. National Assessment Synthesis Team.

2001. National Research Council. Improving the Effectiveness of U.S. Climate Modeling.

2001. National Research Council. The Science of Regional and Global Change.

RSS News Feed | Subscribe to e-newsletters | Feedback | Back to Top