Executive Summary

Important opportunities to decrease the risks to the nation from hazardous weather and global climate change and to create economic advantages through better understanding and prediction will be available to the administration that takes office in January 1989. In contrast to Mark Twain's observation that “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” today there is much that is being done, and even more that must be done. The atmospheric sciences community is prepared to help carry out the needed actions.

There are two areas in which action should be taken: protecting life and property, and assessing and preparing for coming dramatic changes in climate. This report recommends specific actions and programs. It has been prepared jointly by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), a nonprofit scientific society of 10,000 members, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a consortium of 57 universities.

Protecting Life and Property. Tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, blizzards, and severe thunderstorms accompanied by hail and microbursts are collectively more frequent in, and pose a greater threat to, the United States than any other nation. No part of the country is immune. Significantly improved warnings of these threatening, sometimes catastrophic events are now within reach.

Weather on a regional scale also has significant and pervasive effects on the nation's agriculture, water resources, transportation, industry, and economy. Improved weather prediction, which could provide guidance a week and longer in advance, would provide substantial economic benefits to the nation.

A key to mitigating the effects of severe weather and flood events is an improved warning system that will provide the public and industry with the weather information they need, when they need it. This can be achieved by combining new observational and information processing systems with a research program focused on understanding the development of severe storms. The nation is already moving forward with new weather satellites, advanced surface radars, and new wind profiling systems and with information systems to collect and use the vast amounts of new data. Plans have been developed for acquiring supercomputers to prepare forecasts and carry out complementary research to realize the full benefits from the investment in the new systems and to restore the United States to leadership in weather prediction.

One of the two top-priority actions recommended by the AMS and UCAR is to complete the implementation of the existing national program to improve warnings, and to expand our capabilities in weather prediction by the acquisition of supercomputers and enhancement of a severe storms research program.

The total costs of this national program are small compared to the actual and potential losses of life and property from severe weather and flooding that occur in the United States. They are also small compared to the potential savings to the nation from more accurate and longer-range weather predictions.

Anticipating the Consequences of Climate Change. The world is increasingly aware that the global climate is changing as a result of human activities that are altering concentrations of trace gases in the atmosphere and characteristics of the earth's surface. In the next few decades, we can expect a significant global warming, an increase in sea level, and marked changes in regional and local climate. These can dramatically change agricultural productivity and human habitability in many regions of the world. The release of chlorofluorocarbons has reduced the amount of ozone in the stratosphere, with potentially disastrous effects on life on the planet, if left unchecked. Even with the vigorous effort that we must make to slow the emissions of heat-trapping gases, major climate changes are already unavoidable.

Therefore, the second top-priority action recommended by the AMS and UCAR is that the United States and other nations combine efforts to develop the observational data base, the computer models, and the understanding needed to anticipate the course of climate-related events, to estimate their impacts, and to prepare for future changes.

The United States must play a leadership role in this endeavor that is fundamental to the well-being of all peoples of the world and therefore inherently international. The investment, while substantial, is essential to ensure that the international actions to limit and adapt to the changes in climate are taken on a sound basis.

Setting Firm Priorities. The United States' effort in atmospheric sciences is executed by unique partnerships of federal agencies, universities, and private sector firms. Climate change is global in nature, and therefore coordinated international action is also needed. A top priority of the new Administration must be a responsible fiscal policy that diminishes federal deficits. Hence, the recommendations made here are constrained to the two highest-priority targets—taking essential actions to strengthen programs in climate and severe weather.

As with many investments made to realize the full potential of earlier investments, those described here will be repaid many times over in reduction of damage, in increased economic efficiency and productivity, and in the foresight that may allow us to cope wisely with the impacts of climate change on this nation. Letting Mark Twain's aphorism, that “nobody does anything about it,” be our national policy in the face of the threat of global change could be the origin of a national and international disaster early in the next century.

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Footnotes

* This paper was prepared and approved by the AMS Council and the UCAR Board of Trustees. Its purpose is to provide this nation's policy makers with information on the importance of the atmospheric sciences and services and on the overall problem areas that should be emphasized during the 1990s.