Archive for the ‘Weather Forecasting’ Category

Years or Centuries?

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all heard enough predictions about the long-term consequences of global climate change to make us want to cover our ears and run screaming from the room. Most of the warnings (which are issued with depressing regularity) concern effects taking place over many decades, even centuries. In comparison to geological time, we are like mayflies – our human perception of time makes it difficult to extrapolate threats that extend beyond our own lifetimes or that of our children or grandchildren. The time lag laid out in many of the analyses of climate change in is one of the principal challenges in corralling the political will to mitigate humanity’s impact on the environment.

Last week the National Academy of Sciences issued a lengthy report on the changes which may visit us suddenly, in a matter of years. The study, sponsored in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. intelligence community, warns of large and abrupt changes in the physical climate system brought on by suddenly and unexpected  tipping points. In addition to gradual, incremental changes in the environment, the report warns against abrupt ecological or socio-economic disruption as environmental conditions accelerate unpredictably. The report notes that we don’t yet know what the thresholds for such rapid changes are, and calls for a kind of early warning system composed of more vigilant monitoring of key species and environments, including the use of satellites, data collection, model testing and improvement, and model predictions that suggest future data needs. Alluding to early maps of the America’s which carried the warning, “Here be dragons”, the report details a number of possible rapidly-escalating threats, and lays out a map of its own showing how to avoid modern day dragons.

One of the studies co-authors, Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University compared the prospect of abrupt climate change to avoiding the dangers of a drunk driver on the road. “You can’t see it coming, so you can’t prepare for it. The faster it is, the less you see it coming, the more it costs. If you see the drunk driver coming, you can get out of the way.”

The report’s good news, such as it is, is that some potential threats don’t appear to be quite as imminent as once thought, as long as you don’t think 100 years is imminent: the precipitous release of underwater or frozen methane (a potent climate-altering gas) or a shutdown in the Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns (which could plunge Europe into a mini ice age) don’t appear to be in the cards in this century.

You can read the whole report as an interactive PDF here.

Preparing for an Unwanted Guest

hurricane

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Authorities and disaster-readiness companies urge families and individuals to have a plan, be prepared, and protect themselves in inclement weather. The arrival of Hurricane Isaac (now downgraded to Tropical Storm Isaac) on the Gulf Coast precipitated a flurry of evacuations, rescues, and news photographs.  But in the background, businesses and local governments are following their own plans.  

To allow for easier distribution within Louisiana’s fuel supply systems during the hurricane, the EPA granted an emergency waiver for clean gasoline requirements in the state at the request of Governor Jindal. Meanwhile, the BSEE reports that 85% of all oil platforms in the Gulf and 66% of all rigs were evacuated in preparation for Isaac. 

While waiting for the storm to move through, we can also consider the possible consequences of inadequate preparation. Today the EPA settled with Turner Construction Co. & Tompkins Builders regarding their violations of permits regulating the discharge of stormwater from their construction sites. Violations at 17 sites accured a total of $270,000 in civil penalties. Meanwhile, the BOEM’s Environmental Studies Program will conduct research on oil spills including modeling movement of surface spills and environmental impact. Underwater spills also pose a concern, however – speculation that oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon disaster could be spread onto beaches by Hurricane Isaac might add additional envirnomental considerations for business and local government alike.

Loch NPOESS Monster: The Environmental Satellite Rarely Spotted

Image from unukorno. Some rights reserved.

On Friday, the GAO released written testimony before the Subcommittees on Oversight and Investigations and Energy and Environment, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on the topic of polar satellites. The testimony reviewed and summarized work that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been doing to develop individual environmental satellite programs that are replacing the recently disbanded joint-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The main area of concern? Whether agency slowness could lead to gaps in weather and climate data coverage.

But first, let’s step back a few years.

NPOESS was planned to be a “next generation” environment-monitoring satellite system – circling the earth once every 100 minutes – that would have replaced some clunkier existing satellite systems. The data it would have collected was considered critical for long-term weather and climate forecasting. A contract for the project was awarded in 2002.

In February of 2010, however, the President cut the plug – before the first demonstration satellite was even launched. The program had been plagued with problems. The cost estimates for NPOESSie, our proverbial beast, grew more than 100% (from $6.5B in 2002 to $13.9B at the time of its demise). The program had also suffered significant delays (the planned launch date for a the test satellite was pushed back by over 5 years), as well as technical and management “challenges,” as a White House Fact Sheet put it bluntly.

More accurately, the program was “restructured.” The joint agency project was re-worked as separate satellite programs to be established by NOAA and DOD. A few months after the restructuring was announced, GAO published an initial report assessing the agencies’ efforts, and – surprise, surprise! – found a few areas of concern relating to delays (“the two agencies are scrambling to develop plans for their respective programs”), loss of staff, and insufficient oversight of new program management. The report included recommendations for both agencies to address the key risks.

Last week’s testimony checked back in on NOAA and DOD. According to the GAO, in the year since their first report on the satellite systems, both agencies have made progress in developing their programs and implementing GAO’s recommendations, though not everything has been addressed. The key concern here is that failure to get things up and running quickly – in other words, launching new satellites before the old ones fail – could lead to gaps in satellite data. (There are several figures in both the GAO testimony and report that detail potential gaps.)

And what exactly is the problem with gaps in satellite data? The GAO testimony says it best:

 “According to NOAA, a data gap would lead to less accurate and timely weather prediction models used to support weather forecasting, and advanced warning of extreme events—such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—would be diminished. The agency reported that this could place lives, property, and critical infrastructure in danger. In addition, NOAA estimated that the time it takes to respond to emergency search and rescue beacons could double.”

Let’s hope we get a glimpse of NPOESSie (or her spawn) soon.

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