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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Tom Still: Philippines typhoon shows need for better storm prediction science


By Tom Still
WASHINGTON – Two days after Typhoon Haiyan left a trail of death and destruction in the Philippines, some of the nation's leading climate scientists gathered at a higher education conference to talk about how to better predict the next mega-storm.

Their conclusion: Whether or not people and policymakers buy into the notion of man-made climate change, the science of forecasting the strength, target and frequency of such storms must qualitatively improve.

Accurate short- and long-term storm predictability is not just a priority for people who live near seacoasts, they noted, but for those who live, work and farm thousands of miles inland in places such as the American Midwest, where such storms can disrupt other weather patterns and affect freshwater systems such as the Great Lakes.

"Even if everyone in the world agreed climate change is a problem, and that humans are behind it, they wouldn't necessarily agree on how to fix it," said Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. But they can fall back on "shared values" about saving lives, reducing economic damage and employing scientific inquiry to improve predictive technologies and response systems.

Robert Detrick, a top administrator in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, agreed there is a need for improvement in U.S. storm prediction, especially in an era when hurricanes and typhoons (the Pacific Rim equivalent) may be getting more severe. In fact, he told an audience at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities conference, some European models for predicting the severity of Hurricane Sandy were better than American models.

Nancy Targett, head of the Delaware Sea Grant program and dean of the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, said a growing area of study is "coastal resiliency." That includes storm prediction but also a review of how storms affect ports, trade, tourism, flood mitigation, the health of fisheries and even saltwater intrusion into groundwater and farmland.

"We certainly have seen the need for this kind of information in the agricultural Midwest, as well," she said, because coastal weather patterns can affect the Great Lakes and widespread drought.

An emerging concern is how to better protect coastlines when more and more people insist on living as close as possible to them. Geography, meteorology, poverty, shoddy construction, a booming population and, to a much lesser degree, climate change combine to make the Philippines the nation most vulnerable to killer typhoons, according to several studies.

However, the problem isn't confined to the Philippines, as people who lived through Sandy and Katrina can attest. It can take place anywhere where vast expanses of warm water act as fuel for storms and where there are few pieces of land to slow them down.

Part of the global effort to predict storm behavior is being conducted through the UW-Madison Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. With support from NOAA, university scientists will work with data from NOAA satellites, current and future. The team will collaborate to improve satellite-based products that monitor weather and climate while enhancing sensors planned for future spacecraft.

With better data comes better decisions, explained Bogdan, who gave the example of the atmospheric "ozone hole." Scientists reached a consensus in the 1980s that the hole in the radiation-protection shield was due to release of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. An international agreement banned their use over time and today, he said, "the ozone hole is well on its way to recovering."

Policy action was taken quickly to close the ozone hole, he said, because solid data helped drive political consensus. The same can happen around storm behavior, he said, "because the value of scientific inquiry is widely understood" and the goal of protecting people and property should be universal.

Even if you don't believe humans are contributing much to climate change, it's possible to agree that humans can and should figure out better ways to manage its impact.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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