Tuesday, July 13, 2021

As extreme weather intensifies, a growing need for private-sector engagement in government

Hurricane Dorian near peak intensity in August 2019.
From WP by Timothy Gallaudet
As extreme weather intensifies, a growing need for private-sector engagement in government
The importance of weather and climate prediction for saving lives and protecting property has never been greater

Late on the morning of Aug. 30, 2005, I stood with my wife and 5-year-old daughter in the driveway of our property in South Diamondhead, Miss., struggling to accept what we were seeing.

In the place where our nicely furnished, three-story home stood 36 hours earlier, there was only the concrete slab of our foundation.
Every structure in our neighborhood was missing, swept northwest in the 28-foot storm surge from Hurricane Katrina and deposited in a massive, miles-long mound of debris along the south side of Interstate 10.
This event demonstrated the importance of quality weather information on a deep, personal level.
The day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, Tim Gallaudet, along with his wife and daughter, began to make their way through the ruins of their neighborhood in South Diamondhead, Miss. (Tim Gallaudet)

Fast-forward to 2020, when I served as the deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:
There were 22 billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events across the United States, breaking the previous annual record of 16 events that occurred in 2017 and 2011.
The total cost over the past five years exceeded $600 billion, a record since NOAA began compiling such data in 1980.
This increase is due to a combination of factors, including increased exposure, vulnerability and climate change.
spirit of Munch in weather forecasts
The importance of weather and climate prediction for saving lives and protecting property has never been greater, and we realized at NOAA that an “all hands on deck” approach was needed.
Therefore, we increased our participation in public-private partnerships to fill gaps in data, models and tools.

Time series of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters. (NOAA)
Today, as Tropical Storm Elsa roars up the East Coast and the West roasts amid its third punishing heat wave of the summer, the need for private-sector engagement in government weather services has only become more imperative.

Historically, government agencies and departments have taken the lead in protecting the public from extreme weather, but over the past few years, we have seen a “second bold era” in American innovation emerge.
In the first, after World War II, the U.S. government led the major programs that maintained American leadership in science and technology — e.g., NASA in space exploration, the Defense Department in satellites, and the Atomic Energy Commission in nuclear power. Today, that leadership is increasingly evident in the private sector.

This motivated Congress to establish NOAA’s Commercial Weather Data Program in 2016, with the intent to leverage the growing spaced-based commercial weather data enterprise.
As the acting NOAA administrator, I received an earful during a congressional hearing in 2018 from lawmakers who expressed frustration over our slow start.
But by 2020, we awarded our first contracts for radio occultation data, as well as an artificial intelligence (AI) agreement to advance data assimilation, and a truly transformational public-private partnership to revolutionize NOAA’s weather and ocean modeling capabilities.

NOAA also recognized the power of the private sector in ocean data collection, leading us to form innovative partnerships with organizations such as Caladan Oceanic, Ocean Infinity, iXblue, Saildrone, Fugro, Viking Cruise Lines and Maersk.
So we should ask ourselves, “How has this helped?”

For comparison, let’s go back to my experience with Katrina in 2005. The official three-day track error by the National Hurricane Center for Katrina was 174 nautical miles, at which point the forecast track shifted dramaticallyto the west.
My home switched from being on the less-vulnerable left location relative to the storm to the most dangerous right-front quadrant.
We also did not receive an indication that the storm surge would exceed 20 feet until 24 hours before landfall — after we evacuated.

I am exceedingly grateful for the warnings issued by the fine professionals at the Hurricane Center. They did the best they could with the tools they had, and they saved our lives.
But because we did not have more time and forewarning of the magnitude of the impacts, we didn’t take most of our belongings with us.
Apart from our cars and bags packed for a weekend away, we lost everything we owned.

What about now?
Thankfully, we have seen some stunning successes in the Hurricane Center’s tropical cyclone forecast track accuracy.
Brilliant examples include Hurricane Florence in 2018, Hurricane Dorian in 2019 and Hurricane Laura in 2020.
The track forecast for Tropical Storm Elsa this year has also been exceptional.

But we still have much room for improvement.
Let’s look at Hurricane Dorian again.
Despite the forecast accuracy for landfall in North Carolina, the situation was much different as the storm entered the Caribbean. Fortunately for the Greater Antilles, the track error worked in their favor.
Selected model track forecasts for Dorian on Aug. 26, 2019, indicated by different color lines.
The actual is given by the solid white line with positions marked with a cyclone symbol at six-hour intervals.

The biggest challenge with Dorian was intensity prediction.
Dorian resulted in the largest error since 2003, when the Hurricane Center began issuing five-day intensity forecasts.
The outcome was an average bust of 100 knots on the five-day intensity forecast, with none of the models even showing it as a major hurricane.
Selected intensity model forecasts for Dorian on Aug. 27, 2019, indicated by different colored lines.
The actual intensity is given by the solid white line, with intensity values marked with a cyclone symbol at six-hour intervals. (NHC)
Even though Atlantic Basin hurricane track errors have decreased from 250 miles three days before landfall 20 years ago to 100 miles today, hurricane intensity forecasts have shown barely any improvement in 30 years.
Rapid intensification before landfall catches communities off-guard by creating a much stronger and more dangerous storm than anticipated.

NOAA’s new partnerships with industry are only just beginning to take hold, and the opportunities for more impactful collaborations are expanding rapidly.
A particularly innovative company is tomorrow.io (formerly ClimaCell), which intends to deploy the first constellation of 32 radar-equipped satellites in low Earth orbit by 2024.

Sofar Ocean is also a rising star in the commercial data world, with plans to add 1,500 of its Spotter metocean buoyst o its global network this year.
It also delivers services using data, models and tools, and its Wayfinder app is particularly notable.
It is used by shipping companies for dynamic route optimization using its Spotter network.
The app calculates fuel and cost savings, as well as reductions in carbon emissions.

Charting the correct course in a changing climate can only be achieved by reliable prediction. Improving the accuracy and reducing the uncertainty in warnings, forecasts and projections ensures effective preparation, adaptation and mitigation.
Industry is delivering the data, models and tools today to navigate this future safely and successfully. It will be best for governments to get on board.

Gallaudet is a retired Navy rear admiral, former deputy administrator at NOAA and assistant secretary of commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.Before NOAA, he served for 32 years in the Navy, completing his career as the Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy and director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change.

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