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Prominent researchers advocate creation of national climate service

It's time for the United States to have a national climate service – an interagency partnership led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and charged with understanding climate dynamics, forecasts and impacts – say six members of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group. Their views appear online this week in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Unlike the National Weather Service, which forecasts weather up to a week in advance and sometimes two weeks in advance, a national climate service ideally would help with forecasts of climate fluctuations that might be expected anywhere from three months to a year. Forecasts from a National Climate Service could give months of advance warnings to water and power managers, private industries and those charged with human safety when the probabilities for such things as flooding and drought appear to be changing from what is typical.

In addition, scenarios of climate change could be projected for specific regions up to a hundred years out.

Such a service would be concerned both with "climate variability," the natural seasonal to decades-long variations in climate, and the effects of "climate change," the changes brought about by increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, largely because of human activities.

"Nature is prodding us to do this," says Ed Miles, a UW professor of marine affairs and lead author of "An approach to designing a national climate service."

Since 1980 the United States has had 66 extreme weather and climate events each costing at least $1 billion. Climate forecasts create opportunities for society to prepare, potentially reducing the costs of climate-related events, the authors write. The forecast of an El Niño in 1997-98, for example, prompted California to prepare for increased risks for flooding, steps credited for reducing El Niño-related losses.

"Despite the increasing predictability of climate, information on predicted climate and climate impacts is not typically used well," the authors write.

The UW Climate Impacts Group has a decade of experience helping Pacific Northwest agencies, businesses and citizens understand and respond to climate variability. Funded by NOAA's Climate Program Office, the UW group was the pilot for the nation's eight other regional climate impacts groups that have since been established.

From that experience, Miles says he believes an effective climate service, among other things, needs to be a Congressionally-authorized interagency partnership, must have a cohesive system for monitoring climate and must be able to deliver advice at the regional level.

Congressional resolve and oversight is crucial, Miles says. Talk of a climate service first surfaced in the 1980s, but stumbling blocks have included organizational inertia, very low funding from Congress and competition for programs, budget and turf. NOAA's Climate Program Office has the breadth of vision needed for creating such a service, he says, but it could take several hundred million dollars to fund such a service.

Monitoring climate could be improved with an observational system that first pulls together all the bits and pieces of climate monitoring now done by groups such as NOAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the authors say.

Existing efforts to improve monitoring and forecasting are already under way by groups such as the National Integrated Drought Information System and the Integrated Ocean Observing System. Still, the current fragmentation leads to gaps in monitoring and a national climate service would have the task of upgrading, expanding and optimizing observational networks. The equatorial Pacific Ocean, for example, has a string of U.S. buoys able to detect when El Niño events are developing but the North Pacific – equally important to monitor because of a climate cycle called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation – has no such observing system.

Unlike the National Weather Service, a climate service needs to perform basic and applied research on climate dynamics and what different climate cycles mean for natural resources and human activities.

The suggestions from such research – which are best delivered at the regional level – wouldn't necessarily cause major changes in the way industries operate or water resources are managed, Miles says. There are relatively subtle but potentially important things that could be done. Rather than have one inflexible set of rules of operation, managers might want to come up with a few different sets – different rules for El Niño years and La Niña years, for example. They would be based on scientific knowledge and historical records of how things have played out in the past.

"The true strength of a national climate service is the regional focus of the service," the authors write. "Experience has shown that connections between climate scientists and stakeholders are most effective at the local, regional, statewide and multistate scales at which stakeholders operate."

Co-authors are research scientist Amy Snover, outreach specialist Lara Whitely Binder, professor Ed Sarachik, assistant professor Philip Mote and research associate professor Nathan Mantua. The Web site for the Climate Impacts Group is at

Sandra Hines | EurekAlert!
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