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Designing the climate observing system of the future
Monica Allen

Designing the climate observing system of the future

A targeted expansion of climate observing systems could help scientists answer knotty questions about climate while delivering trillions of dollars in benefits, according to a new paper published today in the online journal Earth’s Future. Better observations would provide decision makers information they need to protect public health and the economy in the coming decades, the scientists say.

Venkatachalam Ramaswamy, director of NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, said that improving our ability to predict and plan for droughts, floods, extreme heat events, famine, sea level rise and changes in freshwater availability is likely to  yield significant savings  each year.

“Unless we deliver answers to the critical science questions, our capability to plan for and respond to some of the most important aspects of climate variations and change, like extreme events and water availability, will be significantly limited,” said Ramaswamy, a co-author on the paper, Designing the Climate Observing System of the Future.

Tackling the grand challenges to improve decision making

Grand Challenges

Grand Challenges

This chart shows seven "grand challenges" facing climate scientists today, and a proposal for how to structure future research to improve climate predictions.

Ramaswamy and a team that included three other NOAA laboratory directors and many prominent climate scientists urge that investments focus on tackling seven “grand challenges,” such as predicting extreme weather and climate shifts, the role of clouds and circulation in governing climate sensitivity, the regional sea level change and coastal impacts, understanding the consequences of melting ice, and feedback loops involving carbon cycling in the atmosphere and oceans.

“Improving our understanding of climate not only offers large societal benefits but also significant economic returns,“ said lead author Elizabeth Weatherhead, a CIRES scientist working at NOAA. “We’re not specifying which systems to target, we’re simply saying it’s a smart investment.”

Data generated by the current assemblage of observing systems, such as NOAA’s satellite and ground-based observing systems, have yielded significant insights into important climate questions. However, coordinated development and expansion of climate observing systems is required to advance weather and climate prediction to address the scale of risks likely in the future. 

For instance, the current observing system cannot monitor precipitation extremes throughout much of the world, and cannot forecast the likelihood of continued extreme flooding well enough to sufficiently guide rebuilding efforts.

In each category, observations are needed to build long-term datasets against which to evaluate changing conditions, to inform process studies and ultimately improve modeling and forecasting capabilities to better predict weather and extreme events, water availability, and energy demand. 

Independent testing called for to validate effectiveness

Objective evaluations of proposed observing systems, including satellites, ground-based or in-situ observations as well as new, currently unidentified observational approaches, will be needed to prioritize investments and maximize societal benefits, the authors propose.  

Not all new observing strategies would necessarily require expensive new systems like satellites, they add. For example, after a devastating flood hit Fort Collins, Colorado. in 1998, the state climatologist developed a network of trained volunteers to supplement official National Weather Service precipitation measurements using low-cost measuring tools and a dedicated web portal. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow now counts thousands of volunteers across the country who provide the data directly to the National Weather Service.

The authors say such an approach – developing observation systems focused on the major scientific questions with a rigorous evaluation process – will more than pay off in the long run.

“We need to take a critical look at what’s needed to address the most important climate questions,” said NASA co-author Bruce Wielicki.

Please go online to the journal Earth's Future to read Designing the Climate Observing System of  the Future.

For more information, contact Theo Stein, NOAA Communications, at


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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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