Sustaining Ocean Observations for Climate Change: Old Problems, New Institutions
D. James Baker, consultant to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, former Administrator, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and former U.S. representative to the International Whaling Commission
Predicting climate change is a high priority for society, but has proved to be notoriously difficult. Without a better understanding of the evolution of the climate system and the human role, decision makers will not have the information they need to set the policies and build the infrastructure necessary to mitigate and adapt to new levels of greenhouse gases. Our brief record of the climate system shows that it is changeable on all time scales – from a few years out to the age of the Earth. But our predictive models, although evolving and improving, are untestable without long-term data. Such data are hard to come by. Atmospheric observations on a global scale did not occur until the end of World War II but have now expanded rapidly. Oceanic observations became marginally adequate on a global scale only in the early 1990s and remain sparse. How can we ever hope to understand climate without a globally-distributed ocean observation system in place for many decades and even centuries? The data not taken today are lost forever. It is more important than ever that we find ways to establish the necessary institutional basis and the necessary funding for long-term ocean measurements. But our infrastructure is poorly structured to deal with multi-decadal and longer time scales. Government agencies have changing interests and are not sufficiently insulated from politics. The long time scale of climate observations is a poor match to the career interests of research scientists. This is an inter-generational problem requiring a scientific-engineering-societal commitment. New kinds of institutions are required that can take a long-term perspective focused on observations and model assessments. New modes of funding, in addition to continuing and enhanced government support, are called for and will most probably involve large endowments such as those prominent in the medical research community. Can this be done? The recent report on sustaining ocean observations from the National Academies of Science addressed this issue. In this talk I’ll summarize their thoughts and others about how these challenges might be overcome.