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Colleton NancyDuring the debates of the recent presidential race, both candidates avoided the polarizing issue of climate change, although there was certainly some mention during both campaigns. Now that the Obama administration will continue, many are asking what steps will be taken, particularly in light of the historic east coast storms. Sensors & Systems (S&S) editor Matt Ball recently spoke with Nancy Colleton, president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and co-founder of the Alliance for Earth Observations, about a recent column that she wrote on the next administration’s priorities and the need to foster Earth observation’s connection between the economy and the environment.

Colleton NancyDuring the debates of the recent presidential race, both candidates avoided the polarizing issue of climate change, although there was certainly some mention during both campaigns. Now that the Obama administration will continue, many are asking what steps will be taken, particularly in light of the historic east coast storms. Sensors & Systems (S&S) editor Matt Ball recently spoke with Nancy Colleton, president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and co-founder of the Alliance for Earth Observations, about a recent column that she wrote on the next administration’s priorities and the need to foster Earth observation’s connection between the economy and the environment.

S&S: The Alliance for Earth Observations has provided a nice platform for policy discussion in Washington. How will the Alliance contribute in the future?

Colleton: One of the things that the Alliance can do is to help provide the connection between industry and the federal government. If you’re a private sector company and you have a new idea, or a different way of doing things, I think it’s really hard to understand where those entry points might be. There are some barriers of course on the federal side that prohibit engagement with a number of companies in some ways. We’re hoping that we can provide a solution to that, become a conduit for new ideas, and connect those ideas to federal agencies. 

S&S: Your recent column, discusses the Earth observation gaps that we face. It’s coming to a head isn’t it?

Colleton: There was a piece recently in Federal Computer Week where they were talking with David Powner [director of IT management issues for the Government Accountability Office (GAO)], who has done many studies on satellite weather coverage, and he’s quoted as saying that there will probably be a 17-month gap. NOAA issued a request for public comment this week seeking ideas on “contingency options” in the event of a gap. So, all signs seem to point to the very unfortunate predicament of a gap in our weather satellite coverage. 

S&S: What about our analytical capabilities? Is the U.S. falling behind?

Colleton: There have been several pieces published in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and other leading publications that talk about how European weather forecasts of Hurricane Sandy came out earlier than the forecast. 

The editorial in the Wall Street Journal was by Kerry Emmanuel, professor of atmospheric science at MIT, who talks about why America is falling behind in weather forecasting, identifying the fact that the European model came out first. The U.S. forecast was right on target; it’s just wasn’t produced as quickly. When you look at this across the whole of U.S. Earth observations, it’s really scary, because weather is our most sophisticated area when it comes to observing and producing forecasts. So, if this is where we are with our weather capability as a nation, what does that say about other areas like ocean observation, climate, terrestrial monitoring, and water availability?  How will we ever move towards integrated information that produces environmental intelligence?

S&S: Is there a lack of leadership or is the science community just not being paid attention to?

Colleton: I do believe there is a lack of leadership. You have these capabilities spread through a number of federal agencies. The U.S. Geological Survey is responsible for the Landsat program; NASA is doing research satellites; NOAA is responsible for the operational weather satellites; the National Science Foundation is funding research, and then you have cubesats, uavs, aircraft, ocean buoys, balloons, stream gauges, and on and on. When you consider our Earth observation capabilities and the number of agencies involved, there’s really no one responsible at a high level to look at all these capabilities and to make sure that the United States has a vision and a road map for achieving it. What is different is that we need to find a better way to tie this information to economic security.

If there is one thing the Obama Administration could do over the next four years to really make a difference, it would be to make environmental information a priority, find ways to infuse greater innovation and efficiency, engage the private sector both as users and providers of information, and establish a long-term plan.

I think we desperately need to focus on taking that government investment and leveraging it to grow the U.S. economy. That happens two ways: first, with all this environmental intelligence that is produced that helps us to better manage risk. The second way is in building up the capacity and private enterprise around the government investment. You see that with weather: at the Weather Channel for example. They don’t have their own satellite; they use satellite data from NOAA.

S&S: What are some of the strong economic impacts?

Colleton: If you just look at it from a natural disaster standpoint the numbers are staggering. Equicat estimates that Hurricane Sandy is resulting in $20 billion in insured losses, and $50 billion in economic losses. Those numbers are likely to rise though, because the power is not back on, some stores are still not open, and there are still transportation issues and structural issues around New York. Crop losses from the drought are estimated at $25 billion. The drought also has caused low water levels on the Mississippi, which have led to commerce and transportation impacts. The New York Times recently reported that $7 billion in products could be stalled in the December-January timeframe if water levels don’t increase.

S&S: It’s something that was forecast, in terms of long-term warnings, that this level of damage might be possible with a major storm, just like Hurricane Katrina was one of the top ten possible disasters and then it occurred. When is there some liability for not reacting to these long-term forecasts and building in some resilience and adaptability?

Colleton: I think that’s a really important question. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak on a satellite colloquium at a law firm. They were asking about some of the legal and regulatory issues coming up. The complexion of our forecasting sources is changing, and with climate change becoming ever more present, there are people that may ask why didn’t we better prepare? At some point I think there is going to be some liability somewhere. I’m not sure it will happen any time soon, but I suspect it will happen.

Already there have been shareholders of companies that have been wondering, if the company is damaging the environment (specifically thinking about climate), what’s their liability as board members and shareholders? Turning it around, if you have more companies in the weather enterprise that are issuing forecasts, and there are major business losses related to those forecasts if they are not accurate, what’s the liability related to that?

S&S: The models have been very predictive, where the lay of the land in New York City amplifies a storm surge. Why aren’t we planning and designing around those eventualities?

Colleton: Exactly, and I come back to all of this as environmental intelligence. What can these products tell us about improving our infrastructure as a nation? We put so much money into the economic stimulus, but were we taking climate change into account while we were building those new roads and bridges? 

If you look at states like North Carolina where there have been moves, even proposed legislation not to recognize climate change, one has to ask whether those policy makers putting their citizens at risk? I always argue that whether you believe in climate change or not, you have to agree with the need for long-term forecasting. We have to improve the capabilities that allow us to look at events like storms and drought in the context of trends.

S&S: It’s disconcerting how much climate change has been politicized.

Colleton: What I try to do is to talk about all of this as environmental intelligence. I look at it in the light of why we need long-term forecasting. If we’re going to have 80 or 90 mile per hour winds as the new norm, we need to build our houses differently.

The Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) is putting out new standards for how we build based on these trends. At the last Forum on Earth Observations, Carl Hedde, who is head of risk accumulation at Munich Reinsurance, showed video of two houses built identically, and that have been put in a huge wind tunnel. One of the houses has brackets to hold the roof down, the door opens outward rather than inward, and it has fortified windows and siding. Both houses were built to modern standards, with just $3,000 invested for the fortifications. They did an experiment with Category 3 hurricane winds. The house without the added elements was destroyed. It looked like the Big Bad Wolf had blown it down! []

Home builders want to be building good homes, so you do see movement in this sector to better prepare homeowners so that they can withstand more severe weather events. And the companies that insure those homes are providing their customers with reduced rates if houses meet new, safer standards.

S&S: The recent column that you wrote points to the economic impact. Have you had good response to that?

Colleton: I have had very good feedback, and people have been very appreciative that I made the link with the economic argument. Investment in these systems, and the entire supply chain of environmental information, is directly relevant to our economy. In fact, I did a short piece on The Weather Channel as well. 

Earlier this summer we were looking at insured crop losses of $20 billion and now $25 billion. We saw the impact of that globally with the rise in food costs. When you look at the ideas for what the administration could do, there is an effort underway for adopting what is called Open Environmental Information Services (OpenEIS). This came out of a report produced by the Environmental Information Services Working Group that I co-chair with Walt Dabberdt of Viasala for the NOAA science advisory board. The OpenEIS concept provides the non-federal sector more access to all of the information that the government has and it also recommends better and earlier engagement with the private sector in algorithm development and other technology areas

NOAA regularly releases its forecasting and data, but there’s a lot of other data that doesn’t get released that may be helpful to a particular sector. The OpenEIS concept challenges the federal government to look at ways that we can bring the private sector inside the walls of these data centers with better access to the incredible amount of existing data.

S&S: The computing power, coupled with cloud storage, is really extending the needed tools to the average citizen.

Colleton: That’s true, but if you don’t know someone within the community, how do you get access to understand what we really have? What the OpenEIS does is provide the mechanism for wider access to government-collected Earth observations. There are all kinds of data where it is still difficult to get access.

S&S: There seems to be a bit of backlash for the fact that climate change wasn’t mentioned at all during the recent presidential debates. There is a lot of hope now that it will become a focus area.

Colleton: Hopefully, we can rise above the political division in this country and address the significant topic of climate change because it is related to so many other important topics such as water availability, the health of our coastal regions, agriculture and more.

S&S: I really appreciate your approach, and this idea of the E-Q-Tel project that would team the government with industry to put the United States back into a leadership role in terms of both Earth observation capacity as well as analysis.

Colleton: You know all of our issues aren’t technical or financial. A lot of them are process-oriented, and I think we need a new way of doing business that gives the country the ability to develop these technologies on a faster track. That’s what the In-Q-Tel model does for the intelligence sector and the E-Q-Tel model could do for our civil environmental information sector. We don’t have this on the civil side, and we need it.

S&S: There is so much on the military side that gets classified and hidden behind walls. Is there any hope that some of those barriers will come down, specifically for historical data that could be so helpful for understanding change?

Colleton: I have absolutely no experience working on the defense side. However, I have learned a great deal from my colleagues in the aerospace field that serve both civil and defense programs. And, one of the key lessons is that data alone will not solve our problems, but analytical tools certainly lead to better intelligence for decision-making, whether on a battlefield or a boardroom. Look at New York right now: policy makers need that same integrated battle space capability to understand what’s happening there, to respond, and to reconstruct. So in addition to data, we should be sharing best practices and new technologies.

There has to be a way to bring some of those risk management capabilities to the civil side, and it’s not just data.

S&S: Are you optimistic about the next four years?

Colleton: I am optimistic and certainly energized to keep working to improve our U.S. environmental information capabilities. There has been attention, even prior to Hurricane Sandy, on our weather forecasting capabilities. However, we also need more support for climate, ocean, land, and more atmospheric observations. Space weather is also an important area we should not ignore. Environmental intelligence extends beyond weather and I hope that our national approach includes giving responsibility to someone at a high level to manage these important capabilities in the future.

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