Sandy reminds us science plays a role in safety too

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst As noted in a previous EcoTone post, science plays an important role in hurricane monitoring efforts. The collaborative work of the US Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) help to monitor water levels in our nation’s waterways, landscape changes and warn local communities of impending natural disasters. As Hurricane Sandy, the most recent violent weather event to hit the nation highlighted, the livelihoods of millions of Americans are dependent upon these agencies to function quickly and effectively. This rapid response capability would severely be jeopardized by impending discretionary spending cuts set to take effect in January. The White House recently released a report outlining the likely impact these cuts would have on these programs. Overall, critical non-defense discretionary programs would receive an across-the-board 8.2 percent cut. USGS funding would be cut by an estimated $88 million. These cuts would severely hamper the agency’s ability to monitor land and water changes before and after an extreme weather event. Prior to Sandy’s landfall, USGS deployed over 150 storm-surge sensors along the mid-Atlantic coast that measure water elevation at 30 second intervals. The information gathered from these sensors will help the agency assess storm damage and forecast future coastal change. Just this week, the agency issued a landslide alert for parts of DC, Maryland, Southern Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia. For NOAA the cuts could mean a $182 million reduction for its weather satellite programs, which could exacerbate the potential for serious gaps in weather collection data. According to a recent report spearheaded by the Wilderness Society, the cuts would also lead to reductions in NOAA’s coastal management program, resulting in layoffs for coastal management practitioners and scientists, which would impede habitat restoration efforts for our nation’s coasts and wetlands.  Data collected by NOAA’s National Weather Service help inform disaster response efforts, coordinated at the national level by FEMA. We sometimes overlook the fact that many non-defense environmental science agencies like NOAA and USGS also play critical roles in protecting Americans. Photo credit: David...

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Near record-breaking droughts, wildfires could advance climate change dialogue

This post contributed by Terence Houston, Science Policy Analyst New reports continue to suggest that rising temperatures are coinciding with near record-breaking numbers of droughts and wildfires across the United States. Taken collectively, the evidence lends to the notion that climate change is having serious impacts on human society. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the leader in providing US weather forecasting data, recently noted that the globally-averaged temperature for June 2012 was the fourth warmest June since 1880. According to NOAA, “It also marks the 36th consecutive June and 328th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.” The agency reports that global land surface temperature for June was 1.07°C (1.93°F) above the 20th century average of 13.3°C (55.9°F), the warmest June on record and the second month in a row where global land temperature broke a record for warmth. The world’s ocean temperatures for June marked the 10th warmest temperatures on record. NOAA reports that more than 55 percent of the continental United States was experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions in June. The last time drought conditions were worse was December of 1956, when 58 percent of the country was experiencing moderate to extreme drought. According to the agency, June farmer reports of pasture and row crop conditions have recently deteriorated to their poorest conditions for that month since 1988. The agency identified the hardest hit areas as the Southern to Central Rockies, the Central Plains and the Ohio Valley for having the least precipitation and smallest percent of normal precipitation between March and June 2012. For many areas, including the Rockies, the dry conditions have been coupled with an increase in wildfires. According to NOAA, the 1.36 million acres that burned nationwide during June amounted to the second most burned acreage on record for the month, despite the fact that there were fewer individual outbreaks. Since 2010, the number of acres burned per fire in June has surpassed all years from the previous decade with the exception of 2005 and in the past three years, has nearly doubled the average of the past decade. National fire management efforts are coordinate through the National Interagency Fire Center, a collaboration of organizations and government agencies including the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the federal level, discussion of climate change policy has become polarized to an unprecedented level. At the same time, though it might appear hypocritical to some, there remains an interest across political parties and ideologies on the impacts changes are having on local communities, be they...

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ESA Policy News: March 9

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. BUDGET: SCIENCE COMMITTEE REVIEWS ADMINISTRATION PRIORITIES The House Science, Space and Technology committee recently convened hearings that examined the science and research investments outlined in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget proposal. During a Feb. 17 hearing that focused on research and development, there was a consensus among committee leaders on certain investments while views differed sharply on where the administration’s priorities should lie. “I continue to believe that while it is true that prudent investments in science and technology, including STEM education, will almost certainly yield future economic gains and help create new jobs of the future, it is also true that these gains can be hindered by poor decision-making,” said Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX). Hall expressed his concern for increases in programs he views as “duplicative and wasteful” as well as increases for climate change related research. Hall also expressed concern for the National Aeronautical and Space Administration’s (NASA) request, which would cut funding by $59 million. Committee Democrats were overall supportive of the budget, mindful of the current political climate that has members of both parties urging some manner of fiscal restraint. “Investments in research and development and STEM education are critical to fostering innovation and maintaining our nation’s competitive edge.  But these are also fiscally challenging times,” stated Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). “We will have some concerns and disagreements, but let me be clear.  This is a good budget for research, innovation, and education under the circumstances,” she added. With regard to the administration’s budget request for the National Science Foundation (NSF), austerity concerns from the majority were somewhat more tepid. “While a nearly five percent increase for NSF in FY 13 shows stronger fiscal constraint than the FY 2012 request at 13 percent, I remain concerned that our federal agencies still are not doing enough to encourage austerity and properly prioritize scarcer federal funds,” stated Research and Education Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL). “NSF has a long and proven track record, one in which we are all proud, and I have every reason to believe NSF will continue this good work with whatever budgets are forthcoming from Congress,” he concluded. View the R&D hearing here. View the NSF hearing here. BUDGET: EPA ADMINISTRATOR CRITICIZED OVER REGULATORY EFFORTS The week of February 27 brought Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson to Capitol Hill for congressional hearings concerning the agency’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request. Funding for EPA under the president’s budget request would be cut by one percent for a total of...

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Agency scientific data pivotal in hurricane monitoring efforts

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst When a hurricane strikes, United States federal agency scientists and engineers are among the first on the scene. Such was the case recently, when Hurricane Irene made its way through the East Coast of the United States. For most residents of the Washington, DC region, the impact was little different than that of a severe thunderstorm. Patios and parking lots were scattered with branches and leaves. A few less sturdy trees fell, all from the pressure of the heavy winds. Hundreds of thousands were left without power in the DC area as were millions more along the east coast. The first pre-emptive warning signs of a hurricane are detected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service’s hydrology program, which monitors water levels in our nation’s waterways and issues forecasts and warnings to alert surrounding communities of incoming natural disasters. A major component of the hydrology program is a network of 13 River Forecast Centers around the country. These centers provide hydrologic information to meteorologists, policy-makers and water resource managers to inform response efforts in their local communities. These disaster response efforts are coordinated at the federal level by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In advance of Hurricane Irene, United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientists deployed sensors along the eastern seaboard to detect “storm surges,” increases in ocean water levels generated at sea by extreme storms that can have devastating coastal impacts. In total, over 260 emergency sensors that measure storm surge were installed in critical areas from North Carolina to Maine. The data that the sensors produce will help define the depth and duration of overland storm-surge, as well as the time of its arrival and retreat. The storm surge sensors were installed on bridges, piers and other structures likely to weather the impact of a hurricane. Data collected by the sensors will ultimately be used to assess storm damage from winds and flooding, develop better land use and building codes, improve computer modeling used to forecast floods as well as improve public safety protocols. USGS scientists are also assessing landslide potential for areas where Hurricane Irene dumped significant rain. While much media attention focuses on impacts to coastal areas, inland flooding from rivers and streams has taken a major toll, particularly in parts of Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey. According to NOAA, more than 60 percent of U.S. hurricane deaths from 1970-1999 occurred inland, with more than half of tropical hurricane deaths related to freshwater flooding. Information on flood management activities within USGS can be found in a recent EcoTone post. The...

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