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Don Paul: Climate and the weather-sensitive U.S. economy

While there have been disturbing signs of major cuts in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/NOAA and NASA’s budget in vital climate science, it appears NOAA’s National Weather Service will not be suffering an identical fate and philosophy of neglect. Congress has sent a 97-page bill to President Trump which will actually invest $1 billion in National Weather Service forecasting tasks.

None of that diminishes the consequences of the proposed 16 percent NOAA budget cut and the NASA cuts in researching climate change and mitigation of its negative impacts. Those impacts are already occurring. Some people assume because it’s so difficult to gauge the impact of a warming climate on individual storms, there may not be a relationship. That assumption is actually a logical fallacy. There are some areas in which the relationship between warming and an impact are readily apparent. We are certain rising sea levels are directly connected to a warming climate. Rising seas are due to freshwater glacier and ice cap melt-off, and the expansion which occurs when water gets warmer. We are less certain Superstorm Sandy’s very rare behavior was clearly tied to warming, although the northwest Atlantic at the time was much warmer than average. Weather and climate are inextricably tied together. It is simply not good science to assume the tie-in is easily measurable for every short-lived weather event. But the difficulty in measurement does not negate the link.

Most people are unaware of just how weather-sensitive our economy is. The insurance industry has some of the numbers. According to the Reinsurance Association of America, an insurance trade association, extreme weather-related losses have gone up 350 percent since 1980. That’s $1.1 trillion in losses. In a study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, data shows U.S. businesses sustaining about $500 billion in weather-related losses annually, as of 2011. In just one example, NASA’s Langley Research Center reports the airline industry loses at least $100 million annually due to turbulence, which causes flight delays and injuries.

Weather is the root cause tied to more than half of all insurance claims, according to the industry. Those costs will inevitably continue to climb because so many are choosing to live in areas prone to more frequent extreme weather. In 2013, NOAA released a report which includes input from the U.S. Census Bureau showing 39 percent of the U.S. population lives in counties which border on the coast, with a fairly rapid increase in coastal population projected to continue for the foreseeable future. That means more people are putting themselves and their homes at risk to extreme storms such as Sandy. More people are migrating to parts of the country where water resources are inadequate, as in the arid zones in the Southwest. The Mississippi flood plain remains highly vulnerable to periodic devastating floods.

The basic point I’m making is that our weather-sensitive economy and population are going to be more and more dependent on improved weather forecasting with more lead time warning of likely extreme events. Transportation and shipping companies can avoid costly delays and losses by making use of more lead time warning. Of course, public safety is a key priority in the National Weather Service mission to protect lives and property. Energy companies attempt to estimate seasonal loads based on extended-range forecasts. Farmers can adjust crop planning with better input on drought potential or excessively wet growing seasons.

In the “weather enterprise” which is led by the National Weather Service, advances in the private sector are offering forecasting skills which can be a great adjunct to public forecast products from the National Weather Service. None of this is to suggest weather forecasting should be privatized. The National Weather Service still is the lead agency which issues critical watches and warnings to protect the public. That function is conducted with a relative uniformity across the nation to avoid a cacophony of competing private watches and warnings with differing standards and criteria, and vested interests. Businesses such as IBM’s The Weather Company are having great success in generating their own very high-resolution computer models. These models, in many cases, have been outperforming National Weather Service models quite frequently. Panasonic has also developed a powerful model which has good verification scores. However, much of the data going into those companies’ supercomputers is still generated by NOAA, its satellites, its radars, and its network of buoys and other sensors on sea, in the air, and on land. The notion that all forecasting can be privatized is an idea whose time has definitely not come.

Yet additional input from The Weather Company, Panasonic and other private concerns is already generating highly valuable customized forecasting products to paying clients, researchers and even academia. A blending of expanding private sector forecasting capacity, and university research with the work of National Weather Service centers and local forecast offices can only serve to enhance the growing forecast accuracy and extended range both in the National Weather Service forecast products as well as those in the private sector.

Coming back to the climate connection, recent efforts to reduce or remove NOAA and NASA’S climate change research are tied to a fundamental lack of scientific knowledge in some political quarters. This ignorance will only damage the weather forecasting enterprise and the public it serves. All weather models include elements of climatology and rely on a firm foundation of climate science as well as meteorology for good physics in model design and reliability in model output. To largely pull the plug on the undeniable need for more climate research is to assure poorer performance to future National Weather Service models, particularly those which deal with a longer time horizon. Overall, the best global model in the world is the European model, generated by the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting/ECMWF in Reading, England. That is a consortium supported by 34 nations. This European center’s administrators will not be so foolish as to be mired in ideologically driven denial of human activity and its relationship to ongoing mean warming. It will simply use the best science available, working with the most computer crunch power, and it will not hobble its scientists with politicization imposed by those who lack any knowledge in the field.

So, the 97-page bill now on the president’s desk is most certainly good news in and of itself. But removing most of NOAA and NASA’s climate science functions is to virtually guarantee an inferior American weather enterprise in the future, and an inferior capacity to plan for the mostly negative impacts of ongoing warming. In my mind, it’s analogous to insisting doctors, medical and pharmacological researchers deal with diseases as they arise but that they be denied the changing trends in epidemiology — the statistical studies of the incidence and distribution of those diseases — in developing treatments. It simply defies logic—and science.

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