2010 Physical Sciences Review > Themes

ESRL Physical Sciences Research Review Themes

Theme #1: Climate, Weather, and Water Physics

Arctic ice.

Supporting NOAA's mission to provide better projections of future climate as well as short term forecasts of extreme events, requires improved understanding of physical processes in the Earth system. These include:

  1. quantifying air-sea interactions, particularly those associated with high-wind situations;
  2. quantifying the land-atmosphere-cloud processes that control energy budgets in the rapidly changing Arctic;
  3. improving the representation of boundary layer processes, which mediate the exchange of carbon dioxide with the surface and influence air quality;
  4. quantifying the roles of key physical processes in modulating the water vapor budget, including transport and precipitation;
  5. examining global teleconnections, particularly from tropical regions that influence regional climate; and
  6. assessing mechanisms that govern the regional and global transport of atmospheric chemical species and black carbon, which affect regional air quality, precipitation processes, and climate.

Theme #2: Modeling, Data Assimilation, and Advanced Computing

Supercomputers at ESRL.

Linking observations and physical processes through data assimilation is the foundation for numerical modeling. NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) produces global and regional modeling and data assimilation systems coupling atmospheric, ocean, chemistry, land-use, and other earth system components of the NOAA operational suite running at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction and at Weather Forecast Offices. These models support NOAA’s broad weather warning and forecast mission as well as other federal, state, and local agencies for such applications as fire weather, the nation’s space program, and defense tactical operations. ESRL also develops advanced, high-performance computer architectures as the means for handling the enormous computational demands of global-scale environmental models. This modeling, assimilation, and advanced computing research are critical for NOAA’s role in environmental monitoring and for producing forecast guidance from minutes to millennia.

Theme #3: Climate, Weather, and Water Services

Satellite image of atmospheric river.

Bridging the gaps between science and decision-making is critical for an informed society to anticipate and respond to weather and climate extremes and their impacts. Successful climate, weather, and water services must fully utilize the capacity of the nation’s physical science research enterprise to meet the environmental challenges posed by climate variability and change, particularly with respect to extreme events. Observations, process studies and applications-research are combined at ESRL to advance the delivery of climate, weather and water information by NOAA to support policy and decision making. This is aided by ESRL’s hosting of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) program office and the Western Water Assessment (WWA), which allows close interaction of ESRL scientists with their staff who are addressing the immediate needs of decision makers. ESRL’s investments in attribution research helps inform society on how to invest in critical infrastructure in risk-prone areas, and puts current climate extremes in the context of long-term change. Many of ESRL’s efforts focus at the watershed scale, where the impact on people and the economy are the greatest. In supporting these efforts, ESRL has created a delivery system of research products that utilizes and adds value to routine reanalysis data and develops new methods to improve predictions, such as Reforecasting, applying Ensemble Kalman Filter methods to historic data and operating the Hydrometeorology Testbed (HMT) program to deliver information at watershed scales.

Theme #4: Technology Transfer and Outreach


Research and development advances are essential to enhancing more sophisticated and informed services. ESRL’s mission includes the transfer of research developments to operations and applications in order to fill the gaps identified by the stakeholders and decision makers using NOAA's weather and water products and services. The formalized transition of validated models, verification and information systems, data analysis tools, information products, and observing systems into operational use by public and private sector forecasters and decision makers for the protection of life and property is at the heart of ESRL science and technology activities. ESRL develops sophisticated tools for improving the weather forecast process, operates and participates in research testbeds for providing the infrastructural and testing bridge between research and operations, develops and improves specific services for high impact weather decision support (such as to the aviation community), and conducts outreach and education programs employing their technologies (such as Science On a Sphere and Virtual Worlds) to provide the public with a better understanding of NOAA’s scientific research.

Theme #5: Earth System Observation and Analysis

UAS flying over hurricane cloud.

At the heart of better understanding the Earth system are reliable observations of critical processes from watershed to global scales and from minutes to years. ESRL’s observational efforts seek to improve the characterization of physical processes in its coupled modeling systems and provide improved statistical and conceptual models of the Earth system. To this end, ESRL supports an array of ground- and ship-based observing systems deployed in polar regions, at sea, and across the U.S. In addition ESRL maintains a climate diagnostics capability that produces a suite of products used by the climate research community and has led to the development of a new historical reanalysis using only surface pressure observations. The ability of individual observing systems and analyses to improve our understanding and modeling of the earth system must be evaluated within the context of currently available observations. ESRL develops, tests, and evaluates newly emerging observing systems such as piloted and unmanned airborne systems. ESRL examines the relative impact of existing data systems using Observing System Experiments (OSEs) and conducts Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSEs) to estimate the potential impact of proposed new observing systems.

Contact Sara Summers for questions regarding the review.