ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Summer 2009

Climate for Forecasters

ESRL researchers discuss climate with Weather Service

ESRL’s Robin Webb, left, speaks with participants in a climate workshop for weather forecasters.

ESRL’s Robin Webb, left, speaks with participants in a climate workshop for weather forecasters.

ESRL researchers spent three days with National Weather Service forecasters in April, during a workshop designed to share scientific information about climate change, its impacts, and communicating with the public about the issues. About 50 people attended the climate seminar, drawn from Weather Forecast Offices across the West.

“I look at you as the first responders, the front-line people getting bombarded on a daily basis with requests for information,” said Robin Webb, from ESRL’s Physical Sciences Division, who participated in the conference. “We are trying to support you, to produce data and information you can use and you can distribute.”

Andrea Ray, Brad Udall, Joe Barsugli, and Klaus Wolter from Physical Sciences also spoke during the workshop, as did Pieter Tans from ESRL’s Global Monitoring Division, and Susan Solomon from the Chemical Sciences Division.

Climate research and communication have become major priorities for NOAA, Ahsha Tribble, the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Climate Services Division chief, told the seminar participants. The National Weather Service has developed a plan to overhaul national and local climate web pages, Tribble said, and people across NOAA are designing other climate web portals and discussing how best to connect weather products with longer-term climate services, from seasonal outlooks to decades-out temperature projections.

Such weather-climate and operations-research connections are already being forged, said Ray, a researcher with ESRL’s Physical Sciences Division who works closely with the Western Water Assessment. “Climate outlooks are used operationally every summer in national wildfire planning,” Ray said. “And ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) forecasts are consulted routinely by decision makers in the Pacific Northwest, California, the Southwest, the Southeast…”

Andrea Bair with the NWS Western Region Headquarters presented results of a recent survey assessing the climate perceptions and knowledge of Western Region field office staff. The survey was conducted after other studies suggested that meteorologists are, in general, more skeptical about human-caused climate change than scientists.

ESRL’s Robin Webb, left, speaks with participants in a climate workshop for weather forecasters.

ESRL’s Chad McNutt, Lisa Darby, and Andrea Ray (all from the Physical Sciences Division) at a forecasters conference on climate change. Photo courtesy of Barb DeLuisi, NOAA.

More than 10 percent of Western Region forecasters surveyed said they had never heard of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Bair said. Of those that had, only one-third believed the document represented the consensus of the scientific community.

Most of those attending the NWS climate change workshop believed humans were the main cause of climate change, according to a quick raise-your-hands survey. But some attendees said Bair’s results made sense. “There are folks in my office who are passionate in denying there is climate change,” one forecaster said. “I just kind of cringe when the phone goes to them.”

Susan Solomon spoke with workshop participants about the role of science in the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to protect Earth’s ozone layer, and launched a discussion about the appropriate role of science in current discussions about climate change policy.

In the case of ozone depletion, it wasn’t just that the science was good, it was critical that the scientists were good communicators, Solomon said. “We were able to present clear, consistent information… that anyone could understand.” In the case of climate change, she continued, “there really is a huge role in communications, and nobody’s better than you, the National Weather Service, at that.”

On the last day of the workshop, Susan Buhr from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, led participants in a two-hour, research-based exercise to hone climate communication skills.

The threat of a wet spring snowstorm sent some participants to Denver International Airport half a day early. The storm ultimately took shape almost exactly as the NWS predicted, dropping more than four inches of moisture on Boulder.