Societal Impacts

Understanding the weather: An investment that pays off

Thomas Bogdan • October 4, 2012 | You never know what the weather is about to deliver. Who would have expected the unusual events of the last few months: the warmest spring on record, early-season tornado outbreaks across much of the nation’s midsection, the intense thunderstorms that knocked out power to millions in the Washington, D.C., area, the summer drought that sucked moisture from our croplands, and the disruption brought by a hurricane to a major political convention? Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin.) The United States faces more varied weather risks than most nations on Earth, but we also have uniquely strong capabilities to confront these risks. Thanks to decades of research conducted by government agencies, universities, and the private weather industry, we have become increasingly expert at forecasting major weather threats as much as several days in advance. But it remains highly challenging to predict longer-term trends, and we need to continue to support research to better understand those atmospheric events that affect so many facets of our lives and the economy. According to NOAA, weather disasters in the United States wreaked an estimated toll of $52 billion last year, including 14 events that each cost more than $1 billion. While storms such as hurricanes and tornadoes may grab the headlines, it is often the more slow-moving atmospheric events, such as growing heat and dryness, that prove especially damaging. Even everyday weather, both favorable and damaging, is estimated to affect our economy by $485 billion yearly. And many weather impacts may be aggravated in a changing climate. The good news is that research universities, working with private firms and national labs, are making headway in this important area. Over the last several decades, improvements in computer modeling—many of them conceived by university-based scientists—have made five-day forecasts as accurate as three-day forecasts used to be. Now researchers, while continuing to fine-tune those forecasts, are working on ways to improve projections over time periods of several weeks to several months. As covered in AtmosNews earlier this year, a major field study of the Madden-Julian Oscillation, which affects weather in many parts of the globe, could yield insights that improve seasonal prediction (see Between weather and climate). What kind of benefits might we expect from such work? Thanks to better understanding of far-flung atmospheric patterns and the interconnections between oceans and air, our farmers will eventually get firmer projections on what the weather will be like in the coming growing season. Truckers will be able to anticipate, with far more detail than today, what the coming fall and winter will herald in terms of the likelihood of winter storms and snowpacked roads. Emergency managers look to a day when they can begin preparations weeks in advance if it appears that conditions are right for a weather disaster. Snowstorms can paralyze entire regions for days on end. (©UCAR. Photo by Bob Henson.) Such longer-term predictions will be critical to the continued vitality of the U.S. economy. When utility crews, snowplow drivers, and other emergency responders are able to mobilize far in advance, they greatly mitigate the effects of even a devastating storm on the smooth functioning of our society. What if the June 29 derecho—the powerful thunderstorm complex and its damaging winds that swept from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic in a matter of hours—could have been anticipated several days ahead of time?  Could such advance notice have helped teams of emergency workers avert the worst impacts of the storms on power lines and cellular networks? In order to achieve such a goal, we need to maintain our investment in our nation’s weather research. In the vanguard are researchers at universities and federal labs who work with the $2 billion private weather service industry. The services by private companies, and the forecasts generated by the National Weather Service, are eagerly consumed by Americans who now use more than 300 billion state-of-the-art forecasts annually that are transmitted to our TVs, smartphones, laptops, and radios. We will never fully weatherproof our society. Our atmosphere is far too chaotic for that. But just as researchers at our universities and federal laboratories have made it possible to chart the likely path of a hurricane several days in advance or alert vulnerable residents precious minutes before a tornado strikes, they are now working toward a new generation of outlooks that will help us prepare for disruptive weather patterns even further ahead. The public and private dollars invested in this endeavor have been, and will continue to be, repaid many times over.  

After the storm: Interviews with coastal residents following Hurricane Ike

February 25, 2011 | A case study from NCAR looks at how coastal residents assessed their risks and made decisions leading up to Hurricane Ike, along with how they perceived a statement issued by the National Weather Service that people in some areas would face “certain death” if they didn’t evacuate. Hurricane Ike made landfall as a category 2 hurricane near Galveston, Texas, on September 13, 2008. It generated a substantial storm surge of 10–20 feet (3–6 meters) in coastal southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas, with the worst surge near Galveston. The surge inundated parts of Galveston Island and other areas, destroying structures and causing fatalities. In a series of interviews with 49 coastal Texas residents affected by Ike conducted five weeks after the storm, NCAR scientists Rebecca Morss and Mary Hayden gathered data on people’s perceptions of the hurricane’s risk, their preparation and evacuation decisions, and their opinions of the hurricane forecasts and warnings. They found that while most interviewees paid close attention to Ike as it approached and were aware that the storm was potentially dangerous, the extent of flooding surprised interviewees, as many had prepared primarily for strong winds. Although some interviewees reported that evacuation orders were very important to their decisions to stay or go, the majority also took other factors such as weather forecasts into account and used their own personal judgment. Of the interviewees who heard the NWS’s “certain death” statement, reactions were mixed. The statement helped convince several residents to evacuate, but others had strong negative opinions—describing it as “overblown” and “ridiculous,” for example—and indicated that it might decrease their sensitivity to similar warnings in the future. Morss, Rebecca E., and Mary H. Hayden, 2010: “Storm Surge and ‘Certain Death’: Interviews with Texas Coastal Residents following Hurricane Ike,” Weather, Climate and Society, doi:10.1175/2010WCAS1041.1

Population trends: Another influence on climate change

BOULDER—Changes in population growth and composition, including aging and urbanization, could significantly affect global emissions of carbon dioxide over the next 40 years, according to a new study out next week. The research, appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was conducted by an international team of scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. It was funded by a European Young Investigator’s Award, the Hewlett Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR’s sponsor. By mid-century it is estimated that global population could rise by more than three billion people, with most of that increase occurring in urban areas. The study showed that a slowing of population growth, following one of the slower growth paths considered plausible by demographers at the United Nations, could contribute to significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers found that such slow growth paths by 2050 could account for 16 to 29 percent of the emissions reductions thought necessary to keep global temperatures from causing serious impacts. The effect of slower population growth on greenhouse gas emissions would be even larger by the end of the century. “If global population growth slows down, it is not going to solve the climate problem, but it can make a contribution, especially in the long term,” says the study’s lead author, Brian O’Neill, an NCAR scientist. O’Neill’s co-author, IIASA scientist Shonali Pachauri, says that slower population growth will have different influences, depending on where it occurs.“A slowing of population growth in developing countries today will have a large impact on future global population size. However, slower population growth in developed countries will matter to emissions, too, because of higher per capita energy use,” says Pachauri. Scientists have long known that changes in population will have some effect on greenhouse gas emissions, but there has been debate on how large that effect might be.   Urbanization and aging The researchers sought to quantify how demographic changes influence emissions over time, and in which regions of the world. They also went beyond changes in population size to examine the links between aging, urbanization, and emissions. The team found that growth in urban populations could lead to as much as a 25 percent rise in projected carbon dioxide emissions in some developing countries. The increased economic growth associated with city dwellers was directly correlated with increased emissions, largely due to the higher productivity and consumption preferences of an urban labor force. In contrast, aging can reduce emissions levels by up to 20 percent in some industrialized countries. This is because older populations are associated with lower labor force participation, and the resulting lower productivity leads to lower economic growth. “Demography will matter to greenhouse gas emissions over the next 40 years,” says O’Neill. “Urbanization will be particularly important in many developing countries, especially China and India, and aging will be important in industrialized countries.” The researchers worked with projections showing that population aging will occur in all regions of the world, a result of people living longer and declines in fertility. Future scenarios of human behavior The authors developed a set of economic growth, energy use, and emissions scenarios, using a new computer model (the Population-Environment-Technology model, or PET). To capture the effects of future demographic change, they distinguished between household types, looking at age, size, and urban vs. rural location. In addition, they drew on data from national surveys covering 34 countries and representative of 61 percent of the global population to estimate key economic characteristics of household types over time, including labor supply and demand for consumer goods. “Households can affect emissions either directly, through their consumption patterns, or indirectly, through their effects on economic growth,” O’Neill explains. The authors also suggest that developers of future emissions scenarios give greater consideration to the implications of urbanization and aging, particularly in the United States, European Union, China, and India. “Further analysis of these trends would improve our understanding of the potential range of future energy demand and emissions,” says O’Neill. The researchers caution that their findings do not imply that policies affecting aging or urbanization should be implemented as a response to climate change, but rather that better understanding of these trends would help anticipate future changes. About the article Title: Global demographic trends and future carbon emissionsAuthors: Brian C. O'Neill, Michael Dalton, Regina Fuchs, Leiwen Jiang, Shonali Pachauri, Katarina ZigovaPublication: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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