Ask a Scientist: Why NOAA matters for the West

CIRES head Waleed Abdalati answers our questions.


This is the first part in an occasional series in which High Country News interviews scientists and researchers whose work is important to the American West.

On Feb. 5,  Congressional Republicans, led by Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chair of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, released a press release asserting that one study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — which found a hypothesized “hiatus” in the planet’s warming trend to be nonexistent — was incorrect. According to the press release, NOAA “retroactively altered historical climate change data (which) resulted in the elimination of a well-known climate phenomenon known as the ‘climate change hiatus.’” The press release cited an interview with former NOAA employee John Bates in the British tabloid Daily Mail.

The research done by current NOAA scientists, and published in the prestigious research journal Science in June 2015, concluded that the “hiatus” was an artifact of the source of their sea surface temperature measurements, and not an actual reflection of climate trends. The new work presented a more accurate climate change model based on a comprehensive look at available global data.

It’s not the first time the agency has gotten tied up in political wrangling. NOAA was created in 1970 when former President Richard Nixon combined several federal agencies. Its roots stretch back to the 1800s, though, when Americans began to make large scale, coordinated efforts to take the measure of their world: Their financial wellbeing—and their lives—depended on it. The young nation lacked even the most basic standardized information about its weather or coasts. Early agencies that eventually became NOAA worked to fill the gaps. These efforts have not always been well received in the halls of government.

In 1870, for example, former President Ulysses Grant created the Office of Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries — precursor to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates the nation’s commercial and recreational ocean fishing — to investigate why Eastern commercial fisheries were collapsing. Some Congressional Republicans ridiculed the idea, moving to include an investigation into the state of the nation’s grasshoppers and potato bugs.

Political drama aside, NOAA’s mission is to “understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.” High Country News recently asked Waleed Abdalati, director of the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) — a joint program with NOAA based in Boulder — to explain NOAA’s work and how it impacts Westerners. Research topics at CIRES range from the effects of climate change on Western water to the effects of hydraulic fracturing on air quality.

Abdalati, a former chief scientist for NASA, got his PhD from the University of Colorado in 1996 for work on the Greenland ice sheet. Today, his graduate students continue those studies, trying to understand how its melt contributes to rising sea levels.

Waleed Abdalati, director of CIRES, uses satellites and remote sensing to how melting glaciers and sea ice are changing sea levels.

High Country News: What kinds of things does NOAA do out West?

Waleed Abdalati: We say NOAA’s “from the surface of the sun to bottom of the ocean and everything in between.”

We have a global monitoring division here that basically monitors what’s in our air and where it came from — things like ozone, methane released from fracking, trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

We’re also developing systems that improve weather forecasts and systems, and help us understand how our climate is changing and why, and the implications for water resources out West.

An aspect of NOAA’s work that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the Space Weather Prediction Center. A lot of people don’t realize the sun has weather! Our satellite systems, our navigation systems – a lot of the electronics that we rely on – are vulnerable to major events from solar activity. So there’s a whole enterprise here that’s working to understand what the sun is doing.

Another area that NOAA works in is called the National Centers for Environmental Information, which are the stewards of environmental information.

HCN: As a person who researches something—the Earth's ice loss—that can feel far away geographically, how do you help people in the West feel connected to some of the things you work with?

Abdalati: The Earth is a system. What happens anywhere on Earth matters anywhere on Earth.

One thing I tell people is that the climate we’ve grown up under has always been built around the fact that there’s sea ice in the Arctic. There’s a blanket of frozen Arctic Ocean that caps the Arctic Ocean. When it does that, it’s trapping energy in the Arctic Ocean. This has set up weather systems and the climate that we as humans have evolved with. Humans have never known an ice-free Arctic. And we are on our way to that. It could be a few years, it could be a couple decades, but we’re on our way to that.

The ice that blankets the Arctic Ocean traps heat. If you remove it, all this heat is released. That disrupts the weather patterns in ways in that we don’t really know yet. We have some ideas—strengthening the jet stream, warmer warms, colder colds, potential for very rapid climate changes as we’ve seen in our past—but, I guess what I tell people is, it matters.

The other thing I tell people in coastal regions is that as those far off ice sheets—the Arctic glaciers, Greenland ice sheet, in Antarctica—lose ice, oceans go up. And the implication is on the order of a trillion dollars and close to 150 million people displaced or adversely affected by a one meter rise in sea level, which is not that unreasonable to expect in the coming 50 to 100 years. Some people think it will be much worse. It may be less.

These are the kinds of things NOAA is working to understand.

HCN: How did you get interested in doing climate research?

Abdalati: I was studying aerospace engineering. As I was working on getting my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, somewhere along the line I got more interested in what the satellites were seeing and could reveal about the Earth rather than in the actual engineering behind them. My PhD project was about using satellites to track melt on the Greenland ice sheet. Anyone who likes camping and hiking and seeing natural beauty can’t go to a place like that and not be just taken in by it, and not be stirred to want to understand what’s happening there and why. When I went to Greenland the first time, the ice under my feet was hundreds of thousands of years old. It’s so remote and it’s so beautiful. It is unlike any other place on Earth.

Waleed Abdalati collecting field data in Greenland in 2004.
Konrad Steffen

HCN: Anything else people should know about NOAA?

Abdalati: Anyone entrusted with the wellbeing of the nation should want to know what the environmental opportunities are, and what the environmental risks are.

When you run a business you want to know the opportunities, the threats and the risks, so that your business can meet the challenges it faces and capitalize on the opportunities that are available. The same is true with our national wellbeing. We need to know what the environmental opportunities and risks are so that policy can be made in an informed way.

I think it’s unfortunate how a lot of people equate the knowledge and understanding with an outcome: “Well that’s going to lead to a regulation, that’s going to lead to the shutting down of this.” That’s policy, and I rely on policy experts to make the tradeoffs, right?

Some environmentally smart moves may have significant economic consequences. Well, policy people need to weigh those against one another. But everybody, I would think, would agree on the value of knowing, the value of understanding. And that is what our research investments, including NOAA, produce.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News.

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