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One climate service to rule them all

Posted on behalf of Roberta Kwok

The US could soon offer one-stop shopping for climate information, in the form of a central National Climate Service (see Nature story here) that would consolidate data and forecasts from multiple sources.

The idea of a National Climate Service is old, dating back to the late 1970s, but Jane Lubchenco might finally make it a reality. At her 12 February nomination hearing, Lubchenco said she would work toward creating such a service under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency she is slated to lead.

What exactly would a National Climate Service do? For starters, it would synthesize climate data that is currently fragmented across multiple NOAA programmes, the US Geological Survey, the US Department of Agriculture, and university research groups. It would also take a “user-oriented” approach, tailoring new research and data analysis toward urgent problems such as drought, flood risk, agriculture, and vector-borne disease transmission. Finally, it would attempt to improve predictions of climate-change impact at the local or regional level, where demand for information is growing.

Translating global forecast data to the community level is key, says Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers in Madison, Wisconsin. Scientists are predicting climate change and sea level rise worldwide, he says, but the question he often gets from members is: “What does that mean to me?”

Providing answers will require a better climate observing system, says Chet Koblinsky, director of NOAA’s Climate Program Office. Existing systems are ad-hoc because many of them were originally set up for other purposes, he says, and some parameters such as soil moisture are not well-monitored. Ed Sarachik, a climate scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle, warns that “without a climate observing system, you’re going to hit a wall.”

A National Climate Service might also invite a larger role from the private sector, says Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Companies could do the work of analyzing data for specific uses, the same way the Weather Channel interprets NOAA’s National Weather Service data for the public.

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