Like everyone, the story that has galvanized my attention during the last couple of months is the oil spill. If one could have imagined something that tested NOAA from one end of the organization to the other, its doubtful if we could have come up with anything as compelling and comprehensive as the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA has mission responsibility for prediction of the oceans and atmosphere, and for stewardship of our coasts and our fisheries. NOAA’s Office of Restoration and Response, in fact, was set up to deal with events such as the oil spill, based on the hard experience of previous situations, such as the breakup of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound. The National Weather Service is, as I write this, tracking a potential tropical storm that could enter the Gulf of Mexico in the next couple of days, and National Marine Fisheries staff are dealing with a host of issues including the moratorium on fishing in the affected areas.
Leading NOAA is one of the world’s preeminent scientists. Dr. Jane Lubchenco is a leader in the understanding of ocean life, which happens to be the primary issue we face with the Deepwater Horizon spill. I had the privilege of attending a symposium put together by NOAA to bring together scientists from academia and industry, and to ask them for their help on how to deal with the spill. It was held in Baton Rouge, LA on June 2 and 3, and a highlight was the presentation by Dr. Lubchenco of the challenges we face, and the efforts that are underway to observe and deal with the situation. The thing that was impressive to me was talking to the various scientists—I met people who had investigated previous spills such as the Ixtoc (a Mexican spill similar to Deepwater Horizon), Exxon Valdez, and numerous others. There were experts on every facet of the fate of oil and how it will affect our ocean life and beaches. The next day I rode with Dr. Lubchenco in the NOAA P3 to look at the Deepwater Horizon site and the Gulf Coast. I took the picture below of a ship plowing through deep oil near the well site.
I am particularly proud of the role that ESRL has played in responding to this national emergency. A.R. Ravishankara (Director of the Chemical Sciences Division) and the team working on CalNex volunteered to suspend their work and fly missions over the Gulf to determine the effects of the disaster on air quality, as described on the front page of this ESRL Quarterly. NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) has been using its people and research infrastructure repeatedly to provide capabilities required by the disaster. NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorologial Laboratory has supplied expertise on ocean modeling, OAR people and our affiliates have participated in cruises to observe the northern Gulf, and NOAA Sea Grant has made a big effort to work with the local communities who have been so hard hit by the impact on their environment and livelihoods. As the hurricane season approaches, the outstanding work of the ESRL scientists, notably those involved with the ensemble Kalman filter developed in our Physical Sciences Division, and the FIM (Flow-following, finite-volume Icosahedral Model) developed in the Global Systems Division, will make the forecasts needed for hurricane preparedness significantly better. Not only are these predictions showing new skill, they are being run on the newly upgraded supercomputer in this building, highlighting the role of our IT professionals who have made these model runs feasible.
As difficult as this oil spill is, it brings to the forefront the necessity of dealing with the nation’s energy future. I was privileged to testify before the House Science Committee last week, building on the excellent efforts of Melinda Marquis and other ESRL people who have been pushing the importance of NOAA’s contribution to Renewable Energy. Thus NOAA is not only the “go-to” agency to deal with the oil spill, it is also working on the ultimate solutions that the nation will need to avoid similar environmental problems.