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January 2013 Issue

Minimizing Risks in a Climate-Changed World

By Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere
and NOAA Administrator

If you ever doubted the visibility that ocean observations received during recent weather and water disasters, read Sen. Jack Reed’s (D-R.I.) statement for a U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Superstorm Sandy:

“The damage that Rhode Island sustained was significant. A major disaster was declared in four of our five counties. The south coast of Washington County ... was pounded over several tides cycles. Homes were uprooted and dunes were obliterated. Sand was driven back into coastal ponds, through homes and onto local roadways, exposing underground pipes, septic tanks, and other utilities. Off the coast of Block Island, an Army Corps Coastal and Ocean Data System buoy recorded perhaps the largest wave of the storm at 47 feet. ... In Rhode Island and elsewhere in the region, we were able to limit losses because there was time to prepare.” — November 29, 2012

Ocean observations from space and in situ helped NOAA warn residents and emergency responders of Sandy’s location and power. After winds and storm surge devastated the coasts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island, ocean observations in the form of sonar surveys provided critical information needed to reopen ports in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore and Virginia. Getting fuel and emergency supplies to devastated areas and reestablishing commerce were essential to response and early recovery. NOAA played key roles throughout: forecasts, warnings, waterway surveys and more, with ocean observations central to our efforts.

Make no mistake: We live in a world where extreme events and their economic consequences are on the rise. According to Munich Re, a leading global reinsurer, the number of weather-related natural disasters jumped nearly five-fold in North America over the past 30 years. Sandy is the latest example of a U.S. billion-dollar disaster to join the ranks of record-breaking drought, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and blizzards for 2012 and 2011. Looking ahead, increases in heat waves, heavy precipitation, droughts and sea level rise are projected for certain regions of the world by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Importance of Ocean Observations
Many people ask about connections between Sandy and climate change. This is an active area of research. We know definitively that all storms today happen in a climate-change context. Sandy’s destruction resulted partly from record-breaking storm surge exacerbated by sea level rise. Climate change is to extreme weather what steroids are to athletes. Steroids can increase chances of a baseball player hitting home runs, but we cannot say that any particular homer was due to his use of steroids. In similar fashion, climate change increases the chances of more extreme weather events. We are now witnessing many types of weather on steroids.

Ocean observations are becoming increasingly important in this climate-changed world. For example, unmanned surface vehicles, such as Hydronalix’s (Sahuarita, Arizona) EMILY, or Emergency Integrated Life Saving Lanyard, and Liquid Robotics’ (Sunnyvale, California) Wave Gliders, are being tested for their ability to collect data from the eyes of tropical cyclones.

When Sandy came barreling ashore in New Jersey, a Wave Glider successfully transmitted real-time data during the storm as did a Slocum glider and high-frequency radar operated by the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Mid-Atlantic partner. Wave Gliders, outfitted with a NOAA-developed Moored Autonomous CO2 Partial Pressure (MAPCO2) system, are monitoring ocean acidification in the Arctic and other regions. A pressure switch and improved thermistor are being added to expendable bathythermographs to enable collection of climate research quality data.

But challenges remain. Coverage remains an obvious one: For every 100 observations on land, about one observation exists at sea. Second, more reliable detection of extreme conditions is needed. For example, observation networks must be placed appropriately and hardened to withstand the physical and chemical stresses we are seeing now and expect to see in the future. Third is continuity of observations. We expect a gap in satellite polar observations in the near future. Data sharing poses another challenge. NOAA continues to work toward a shared ocean-mapping data standard and better data-exchange capabilities. Finally, data integration to construct a holistic snapshot of ecosystems is critical to understanding, mitigating and adapting to impacts of climate and other changes.

We and our partners are working hard to overcome these challenges. Establishment of distributed biological observatories in the Arctic is an example of efforts to integrate physical, chemical and biological data. The Coral Reef Early Warning System provides alerts of coral bleaching conditions in the Florida Keys and the Great Barrier Reef. Monitoring nutrients and microbiology in the open ocean, possibly aboard buoys, ships of opportunity or unmanned systems is another frontier.

These considerable scientific and technological challenges coincide with severe fiscal challenges. Productive partnerships in research and operations, and across private, academic and government sectors are critical to global ocean observation efforts. Prime examples include collaborations that led to the millionth Argo data profile, IOOS and the emerging ocean acidification network. Soon the X PRIZE challenge will open a competition to develop sensors for monitoring ocean acidification—a creative strategy for promoting innovative solutions that can make a big difference.

A Call to Action
For the ocean observation community, the prospect of more frequent or more intense extreme weather and water events is a call to action.

In addition to the need to reduce carbon emissions, enhanced attention to understanding, detecting and tracking ocean changes will help us prepare for disasters and gradual changes alike. More robust monitoring of biological and ecological changes in the ocean must complement tracking of physical and chemical changes.

Greater awareness of changes underway provides opportunities to share information and underscore the importance of observations beyond the traditional ocean observation community. Decision makers and the public would want to be aware of the potential for science to better understand vulnerability and build resilience. The ocean observation community must work together to minimize risk in our climate-changed world.

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