Monitoring Climate Change: Operational Plan Needed Now


All of the research in the world will be unable to mitigate the potentially devastating impact of climate change without a plan that brings measurements into a coordinated operational system. That system must enable accurate change forecasts, must monitor compliance with emission restrictions, and must verify that emission restrictions fulfill their purpose.

While the Unites States and other nations have taken initial steps towards taking Global Climate Monitoring (GCM) into the operational realm, much additional progress is needed to avoid the economic and social disruption that climate change could cause.

Potential effects include sea rise and more severe storms that would impact populated coastal areas and island nations, drought in areas that supply much of the Earth’s food, greater rainfall in flood-sensitive areas, as well as a spread in the habitat range of disease-carrying insects. More storm damages, increased cost of food, and mass, climate-induced population migrations might be some of the consequences.

Much scientific research is being done to better understand the following important effects: increases in the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases; changes in sea temperature and acidity conditions; shifts in land hydrology and biota conditions; rates of loss of global ice mass. Space, air, sea, and land-based observational assets are applied to collect climate data to support the research. In parallel there are numerous efforts to development sophisticated climate models. The current goal is to provide a basis for better understanding climate change and to determine to what degree climate change is driven by human activity rather than natural cyclical phenomena.

Most of the climate change research efforts to date have been pursued as a scientific enterprise. Specific issues or paths of inquiry are identified by researchers, and resources to sponsor applicable investigations and sensor platforms are competed. The result is many one-of-a-kind studies, each of finite duration that each help to address scientific questions along a specific paths of inquiry. Furthermore, the collected data is often not made widely available, and is stored in a variety of formats that are not mutually compatible.

The challenge now is not just to understand the causes of climate change, but to track its primary drivers to enable prediction, adaptation, and possibly mitigation. This will require continuous measurement, over many decades, of a variety of specific parameters. It will require sharing and cross-comparison of resulting large databases to account for the integrated meaning of all the observations. It will also require sustained means for calibrating all observations despite the likelihood of significant changes in observed conditions and observational technologies over the decades. To be successful at this, GCM must now be addressed as an operational endeavor.

An operational GCM enterprise will require organization to enable integrated planning across all involved disciplines. It will demand uninterrupted measurement of many different classes of measurements made from all relevant operational environments (space, air, sea, and land). Also, just as importantly, it will require that climate researchers fully coordinate their individual efforts and share their resulting data.

Two necessary precursors to an operational GCM enterprise now exist. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration recently started a National Climate Service (NCS). A mission of the NCS, akin to the National Weather Service, is to process coordinated climate data to enable forecast of climate effects. Also, an inter-governmental forum called the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) was established to coordinate data formats and data exchange across international boundaries. However, these are only two small steps toward achieving operational GCM. A plan has yet to be put into place for coordinating planning, development, and implementation of operational GCM platforms. Means to collect and sustain ancillary measurements that enable operational GCM data calibration have not yet been addressed.

As the world ponders the scope and effects of climate change, there is much pressure to implement mitigation strategies, including restrictions on human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. An operational GCM system will be needed to both determine compliance with any implemented emission-restriction protocols and their effectiveness. The economic cost of climate-change-mitigation protocols may be much less than the effects of unchecked climate change. Yet that would only be true if the compliance with mitigation protocols can be assured, and the effectiveness of those protocols can be verified. An operational GCM system is a necessary means to obtain the data to address those issues. It will provide the insight needed to properly anticipate and adapt to irreversible climate change effects, as well as to adjust implemented mitigation strategies toward maximum beneficial effect.

Dr. Philip D. Hattis holds the title of Laboratory Technical Staff of Draper Laboratory. Follow @

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