I recently attended a briefing called NOAA 101, which was an introduction to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. My sense was that the session was intended to educate new Congressional staffers, but the cynic in me recognized that it was held just as budget season was about to start. Still, it was very well done, and since it was presented in a room in the Capitol Visitors Center, it was convenient for staffers from both sides of the Hill to attend. As usual, the Fellows were well-represented.
I have come to realize that prior to my fellowship, my awareness of various government agencies came down to a black-and-white analysis of, “Oh, they do science, so they’re cool!” vs. “They don’t do science, so I’m not that interested.” My experiences haven’t really changed that initial analysis, but I’m learning much more about exactly what kind of science is done at each of the cool agencies.
NOAA states the scope of its mission as “from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor.” There’s obviously room for quite a bit of science there, but it was fascinating to learn just how many ways NOAA contributes to science, service, and stewardship.
The National Weather Service is one of NOAA’s missions, and their data underpins ALL private weather information. Regardless of whether the forecast is coming from the local paper, the television station, or weather.com, they are all interpreting data supplied by the National Weather Service. That information encompasses both weather and climate. As the speaker explained, “What do I wear today?” is about weather and the conditions on any particular day. All the clothes in your closet are about climate, the long term average and extreme conditions that you are most likely to encounter in your location.
NOAA and NASA often work jointly when dealing with satellites. In addition to the weather satellites, NOAA also monitors the activity of the sun through its space weather prediction center. The ACE satellite is between the sun and the Earth, and it functions as a weather buoy. Sunspots will affect the Earth’s magnetic field like ringing a bell, and that extra resonance is enough to bring down the power grid. The satellite provides a 15 minute warning to grid managers to take action to prevent the grid from going down.
Hurricane Sandy provided an excellent case study of the responsibilities that NOAA integrates as part of its mission. Their first contribution was obviously the forecast of the storm’s path, since that influenced what areas prepared for action and what areas did not need to. The relatively tight forecast cone meant that the Carolinas did spend effort on preparing for a storm that was in no danger of approaching their area. Historically, nearly all storms like Sandy turn right and head out to sea, so I think NOAA was justifiably proud to have accurately predicted Sandy’s unusual left turn, which resulted in the widespread impacts on the mainland.
Forecasting Sandy’s impact did not just require weather satellites. NOAA employed hurricane hunter airplanes to fly into the storm to collect data, and their national ocean models were used to predict storm surge and ocean inundation. That information was used to determine where first responders could be pre-positioned most effectively close to where they would be needed, but not directly threatened for needing a rescue themselves. National Hurricane personnel from NOAA are always embedded with FEMA during storm preparations, and an additional 15 NOAA emergency meteorologists were distributed at the county level to be resources during planning and response.
After a storm, the sediment in a port or river may move significantly. The Coast Guard is responsible for positioning channel buoys, but NOAA does the survey to determine water depth and either locate or ensure that a channel is safe for ships. Immediately after Sandy, NOAA surveyed about 65% of the storm-affected waters to re-establish shipping as rapidly as possible. Planes carrying LIDAR, sometimes known as laser-radar, are used extensively in geography and meteorology for mapping, and in the case of Sandy, coastlines that had been previously mapped using LIDAR could be rapidly resurveyed after the storm to obtain swift damage assessments. The old fashioned method required someone to go out and look, which is obviously much more time and personnel intensive.
Another theme in NOAA’s activities is resilient ecosystems, communities, and economies. They provide information so that resources can be managed effectively. For example, by working with fishermen, they can determine the most effective strategy for managing threatened fisheries so that fishermen can still make a living safely but the fishery can regain its health. Florida and Texas receive forecasts for coastal blooms of algae every two weeks in the summer. NOAA also works with social scientists to explore how people perceive risk and how we respond to it. Those understandings are obviously extremely important in understanding why some people choose not to evacuate in the path of a storm.
I was also impressed that NOAA is extremely collaborative. Their philosophy is to “measure once, use many times,” since it is the collection of data that is generally the most expensive part of an endeavor. Thus weather data are obtained from a combination of regular weather satellites, Department of Defense weather satellites, and European weather satellites to get more complete coverage of the Earth. Likewise, NOAA outfits commercial ships with instruments to collect ocean and weather data in the Arctic since the ships will be making the trip anyway.
I often fall into the habit of focusing on government agencies as being all about bureaucracies, but the briefing gave me a great appreciation for how much NOAA is involved in using science to improve my daily life as well as to help deal with managing resources. As the speaker explained their strategy, “Real people, real information, real decisions, and real world.”