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6 ways NOAA scientists advanced our knowledge of the planet in 2020
Katie Valentine

6 ways NOAA scientists advanced our knowledge of the planet in 2020

NOAA scientists can get a lot done in a year. That’s one big takeaway from the 2020 NOAA Science Report, which outlines our agency’s key scientific accomplishments from 2020. 

We’ve highlighted a few of the biggest accomplishments from across our agency below. Want more? Explore the NOAA Science Report for yourself!

Measuring the ocean economy

In June 2020, NOAA and partners released initial findings showing that the U.S. marine economy contributed about $373 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2018 and grew faster than the nation’s economy as a whole. The data show that the “blue economy” — which includes tourism, recreation, commercial fishing, and more — is critical to the U.S. economy. This data will help national decision-makers plan for the future, protecting communities, economies and the environment.

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The U.S. Blue Economy includes tourism and recreation, offshore minerals, commercial fishing and aquaculture, and more.

Piecing together Earth’s climate history

Climate artifacts, or “proxies,” allow scientists to compare Earth’s current climate to the climate of the past. In April 2020, NOAA released the most comprehensive database ever assembled of these proxies, which include tree rings, ice cores, fossil pollen, ocean sediments and more. The database tells the story of Earth’s temperatures over the last 12,000 years, helping scientists understand the potential implications of our current climate change, and helping communities plan for the future.

Tracking marine heat waves

Marine heat waves are the ocean’s equivalent to heat waves on land —  unusually high water temperatures that can shake up the marine ecosystem. Successive marine heat waves — starting in 2014 with a massive heat wave called “The Blob” off the U.S West Coast — have altered ocean and coastal ecosystems, fueling harmful algal blooms and shifting habitats for economically important species. With that in mind, NOAA developed a marine heat wave tracker, a tool that’s become highly used by fishermen, ecosystem managers, and researchers. NOAA is also tracking marine heat waves’ impact on key creatures such as krill — research that informs policy on fishing seasons and limits.

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This image from September compares sea surface temperature anomolies (how much warmer or cooler the water is compared to normal levels) for September 2014, when the Blob emerged, and September 2019. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Making maps of coral reefs 

To understand how coral reefs might adapt to ocean warming and other stressors, scientists need to document how reefs are faring around the world. In 2020, NOAA used a machine-learning image analysis tool called CoralNet to accurately estimate the coral cover across 40 islands, atolls and shallow banks. This data is helping NOAA scientists revolutionize how they assess and manage coral reefs. NOAA and partners are also developing new modeling approaches and applications that provide critical population information for multiple threatened coral species. These products are used to inform management decisions that may affect coral species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Using artificial intelligence to analyze satellite data

NOAA satellites collect a lot of data. To analyze all of that information, scientists are using artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to identify trends in satellite imagery. For instance, AI can help combine physical measurements from buoys and other ocean tools with imagery seen by satellites to get a better understanding of ocean conditions. That data can then be used in models, with the potential to improve predictions of El Niño and other important weather and climate events.

Making weather and climate modeling code public

NOAA took a major leap forward in accelerating numerical weather prediction in 2020 — the backbone of life-saving weather and water forecasts in the U.S. — by sharing the first batches of computer code from National Weather Service models with the broader scientific community. These releases are part of a new approach of collaborating across the Weather Enterprise in an effort to engage the community to improve NOAA models using the Unified Forecast System. This unified system allows better collaboration between NOAA and the extramural science community, and will enable academic and industry researchers to help NOAA accelerate the transition of research innovations into operations. 

To explore the 2020 Science Report and Science Reports from previous years, visit the NOAA Science Council website.

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