Date: March 27, 2003 Contacts: Barbara J. Rice, Deputy Director Andrea Durham, Media Relations Assistant Office of News and Public Information (202) 334-2138; e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>
For Immediate Release
Major Progress in Weather, Climate Prediction Can Be Made By Putting Research Results Into Practice More Quickly
As much as $4 trillion of the nation's $10 trillion economy is affected by weather and climate events each year. The ability to observe and predict activity in the atmosphere, oceans, and related Earth systems is invaluable in helping society prepare for and adapt to variability and extremes in weather and climate. If forecasting is accurate, people and property can be better protected. Businesses can anticipate inventory shortfalls caused by weather that disrupts the flow of parts and products. Utility companies can ensure adequate energy supplies during summer and winter months. These factors, along with a growing awareness of the impact of climate variability, such as El Nino and La Nina, have fueled a demand for improved climate data and forecasts.
With their ability to observe the Earth's entire surface and atmosphere, satellites have played a prominent role in collecting data necessary for weather predictions since 1960. Researchers continue to test new predictive models and devices for improving data collection that could contribute to a fuller understanding of the Earth's system. However, new technologies and models and methods for analysis often are slow to be adopted by, or may never reach, those who could use them. The historic gap in transferring research results into everyday operations is caused by many factors, including insufficient long-term planning, cultural and organizational issues, lack of scientific understanding, and inadequate resources. Given the cost of research satellites and weather and climate services -- as well as the increasing role of space-based sensors -- greater attention should be paid to accelerating the rate of return on research investments, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council.
For example, space-based sensors can detect all forms of lightning activity over land and sea, 24 hours a day -- a capability that could greatly improve early warning of the development of severe storms. This technology has been tested aboard research satellites since 1995, and has proved effective, but it still remains experimental because no pathway exists for moving these sensors from research satellites to weather satellites. In comparison, today's network of ground-based sensors can detect only 25 percent of total lightning activity.
The study committee's recommendations are directed primarily to two government agencies: NASA, which is largely responsible for developing satellites to observe Earth systems, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for operating meteorological satellites and disseminating information gained from them. The partnership of these two agencies has led to major improvements in weather forecasting and climate monitoring, but not always in a timely fashion. A joint office should be established to plan, coordinate, and support the transitioning of NASA research to NOAA operations. This office should evaluate each Earth science research mission to assess its potential benefits, and develop a flexible strategic plan for transferring the mission's research results to operations. As a starting point, the report contains a sample of 10 historical case studies of research missions and lessons learned from them.
The lack of financial and human resources has been a major obstacle to transferring new technologies from research to practical use, the committee said. The nature and amount of resources required to do so effectively would vary from mission to mission, but greater investments would pay large dividends by increasing the intrinsic value of research missions, improving forecasting technologies already in use, and creating new ones.
The transition process should be based on a balance between operational needs and research capabilities, the report adds. Scientists, weather forecasters, and other users of environmental satellite data should be involved early in planning research missions, and NOAA should continuously evaluate and define user needs and communicate them to NASA on a regular basis. Data from research missions should be tested in operational settings, and the impact assessed. Conversely, the collection, processing, and archiving of operational data should be done in ways that are useful to the research community, and include, for example, processes to validate and assure that the data are of sufficient quality for research purposes. Also, each mission should have an education and training component, such as a scientist exchange program, which will help develop a more skilled work force.
Not all NASA research activities should be driven by operational needs or requirements, the committee emphasized. An essential part of NASA's mission is to increase fundamental understanding of the Earth and the universe, regardless of foreseeable opportunities for operational applications. However, many NASA missions have both a fundamental research component and the potential for applications that will benefit society. This report focuses on these types of missions.
The study was funded by NOAA on behalf of both NOAA and NASA. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.