ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Spring 2009

Alexander E. MacDonald, Director ESRL

Director’s Corner

How Does ESRL Science Serve Society?

NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco has called for “a new social contract for science” stating that this contract “represents a commitment on the part of all scientists to devote their energies and talents to the most pressing problems of the day . . .” (Lubchenco, 1998). How do we in ESRL see the results of our scientific efforts applied to the pressing problems of the day? Can our science affect the future, without putting us in a position of being advocates of specific policies? As Dan Albritton used to emphasize, we must assure that our policy relevant science is presented from the position of being honest brokers of scientific information.

The foundation of our research is taking observations, and using those observations to develop understanding of the natural world. In this issue there are several articles that illustrate this process, from the pole to pole observing in the HIAPER aircraft, to the Wyoming winter surface ozone and its causes. The use of this knowledge to protect and improve life on earth is the issue that Dr. Lubchenco raised, and that I believe we need to explicitly address.

One very important way we affect policy is by well written papers that describe what we have discovered about nature. Susan Solomon’s headline paper in this ESRL Quarterly points out that carbon dioxide’s effects operate on two time scales, one of which is very long—thousands of years, for reasons related to ocean chemistry. Another part of Susan’s work draws on large, organized climate modeling efforts that were summarized in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, projecting profound changes in temperature and precipitation. Susan has subsequently testified in Congress on irreversibility and other global change issues, a very direct way of informing our policymakers.

We also affect the future with assessments such as the IPCC and the Climate Change Science Program. These consolidated results of our science have been very effective in bringing governments to grips with the effect of humans on the planet, and in neutralizing the tendency of policymakers to make decisions based on scientific viewpoints that are widely divergent from those dominant in the refereed literature. The IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for clearly summarizing the results of the world community of researchers, a source of great pride for the important role that NOAA and ESRL have played.

There is another important avenue for scientific advances to affect the public and policymakers—through the systems we help to build. In ESRL, we have “systems” as our middle name; our strength is the formidable array of talent and experience we bring to the global earth system analysis problem. The importance of CarbonTracker, developed in the Global Monitoring Division, is an excellent example. It is clear that CarbonTracker is a start on the kind of analysis systems that will be very important in an era when carbon sources and sinks are closely monitored. Another example, featured on the next page, is the fascinating and important work by the Physical Sciences Division to use limited data and the Ensemble Kalman Filter to analyze the full global atmosphere. The ability to start with very few surface observations and recreate the global field with high fidelity has implications for our earth system analysis plans. These techniques can be extended to, for example, greatly improve analysis of global chemistry. Earth system analysis, led in the climate program by ESRL’s Randy Dole, will bring together information on the entire earth system—atmosphere, ocean, ice, chemistry, biology, etc. Also, within our Global Systems Division are some of the world’s best data, computing and numerical modeling people, and systems. ESRL thus combines the scientists trying to understand the earth system, and the scientific and technical expertise to put improved understanding into analysis and prediction models of weather and climate.

There are many other ways that our science and technology can be policy relevant and make a difference on the “problems of the day.” I believe that ESRL is unique in the breadth of its science and technology, going from better understanding to the full earth system models on which much policy will be based. ESRL thus directly addresses the great issue for the future: How will the earth system respond as anthropogenic drivers increase in scope and intensity?

—Alexander MacDonald