ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Winter 2011

Director's Corner

What is the Role of NOAA’s Research Laboratories?

Alexander MacDonald

Last week I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society. In the last 30 years I have only missed one of these meetings, so it is a chance to renew longtime friendships and to catch up on the progress of our profession. The Seattle meeting did not disappoint and the contributions of ESRL were much in evidence. Our work included interesting papers on understanding the climate system, the exciting results we are getting in model assimilation, and the leading edge of global and regional models. I went to a talk by Stan Benjamin on the High Resolution Rapid Refresh, and the excitement about this new model slated for operations was palpable.

The dinner for the retiring Director of the Pacific Marine Environment Laboratory (PMEL), Dr. Eddie N. Bernard, was a particularly enjoyable celebration. The speakers, each with their own interesting stories, recounted the amazing accomplishments of PMEL during Eddie’s tenure. The equatorial array of moored buoys, starting with the TAO array in the Pacific, and now fully extending into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, have been the foundation of improvements in our understanding of the ocean’s role in the global climate system. This array was made possible by the buoy-building prowess of PMEL, and by the ability of the lab to implement and sustain major infrastructure. A similar story was told of the leadership of Dr. Bernard in the fielding of revolutionary new technology to detect tsunamis. Other accomplishments of PMEL cover the gamut from discovery of undersea volcanoes and thermal vents to the rapidly changing Arctic. Every story told during dinner reinforced the reasons-to-be for NOAA’s research labs – which foster a combination of professionals and unique infrastructure related to NOAA’s core mission.

As I attended the AMS sessions, I thought about the equivalent infrastructure and people that ESRL brings to NOAA’s mission. The Chemical Sciences Division has shown how a combination of scientists and other technical people can use assets such as NOAA’s P3 airplanes to understand the immensely complex chemistry of the atmosphere. The latest demonstration of these capabilities was the role that this group played in understanding the air chemistry over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Global Monitoring Division’s global network of people and infrastructure was rightly recognized at the Mauna Loa 50th celebration as a global treasure.

This year’s Revelle Medal given to Pieter Tans by the American Geophysical Union is a testimony to the important science that he has done, but I’m sure Pieter would agree that it was due to the far flung observational assets as well as the advanced laboratories that a NOAA lab can command. The Global Systems Division’s leadership in computing has made possible a 20 percent improvement in tropical cyclone track accuracy, a result that was expected to take five years. Furthermore, the next generation of computing, use of Graphic Processor Units for geophysical models, has GSD at the forefront.

The Physical Sciences Division has ESRL’s most diverse set of infrastructure, including its boundary layers and aircraft observing tools, its role in the network of Arctic observatories, and its important role in the operational test beds. PSD has played a leading role in the use of data to better understand weather and climate, and in the new role that NOAA will be playing in providing climate services.

The above examples illustrate the role that
NOAA’s research laboratories fill. NOAA’s mission is significantly different from any other U.S. organization, public or private. If NOAA needs to understand the chemistry of some remote area, e.g., the stratosphere over the Antarctic, it must have the infrastructure to observe it, and the scientific and engineering talent to analyze and understand the story the data tell. In another of many possible examples, advancements in the complexities of a full spectrum of real-time atmospheric and oceanic data handling are unique to our discipline. NOAA’s research laboratories, each with a critical mass of scientists, engineers, and technical people who spend decades working with the unique infrastructure associated with a particular component of its mission, are the foundation of NOAA’s recognized leadership in oceanic and atmospheric science. At the AMS meeting, I was reminded of this often as I watched our science on display.

Alexander MacDonald