The Obama administration announced plans yesterday to create a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Service.
The proposed entity would provide "user-friendly" information to help governments and businesses adapt to climate change, creating a central federal source of information on everything from projections of sea level rise to maps of the nation's best sites for wind and solar power.
"Even with our best efforts, we know that some degree of climate change is inevitable," said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose department includes NOAA. "American citizens, businesses and governments -- from local to federal -- must be able to rise to the challenges that lie ahead. And that's where NOAA's climate service will prove absolutely invaluable."
Just as NOAA's National Weather Service provides information on short-range environmental conditions, the proposed climate service will provide long-term projections of how climate will change, he added.
And just as a private weather industry -- including companies like the Weather Channel -- has sprung up around the National Weather Service, Locke said he hopes creating the climate service will spur a new private climate information sector.
"If you own a ski resort, you're might be wondering, do you expand or not expand? What's the impact of climate change on weather patterns at a certain elevation where your ski resort is?" he said. "Some people will take this information to the private sector and focus just on ski resorts."
While attention on Capitol Hill has focused on efforts to mitigate global warming by slashing greenhouse gas emissions, state and local governments and the private sector have been asking the federal government for help understanding how the shifting climate will affect their operations.
Adaptation queries expected to explode
Lubchenco said her agency already receives millions of requests each year for the type of information the proposed climate service would provide, "and we fully expect requests for information to grow explosively."
"There is no question about the critical need for this service," she said. "Climate change is real. It's happening now in our own backyards and around the globe, and it's beginning to touch nearly every aspect of our lives."
The NOAA chief said climate change is already raising sea levels, lengthening growing seasons, prompting earlier spring snowmelts and shifts in river flows, causing more intense drought and increasing the incidence of extreme weather.
Under the plan unveiled yesterday, the new NOAA Climate Service would incorporate some of the agency's existing laboratories and research programs, including the National Climatic Data Center, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and the National Weather Service's Historical Climate Network (see NOAA's proposed organization chart).
NCDC head Thomas Karl will serve as the climate service's transitional director. NOAA also plans to create new positions for six regional climate service directors.
Administration officials said they hope to have the climate service up and running by Oct. 1, the start of the 2011 fiscal year. But meeting that deadline will require negotiating with Congress, employee groups and the Office of Management and Budget to hammer out details.
No formal legislation required
"This does not require formal legislation," Locke said. "We do need to have the concurrence of the House and Senate appropriators, since ultimately it will require movement of funds that go to various agencies within NOAA to the new climate service office."
The agency won't ask for an increase to the $5.554 billion it received in President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget request, he said.
Climate legislation now pending in Congress, including the House-passed H.R. 5424 and S. 1733 last fall, includes language to establish a climate service.
NOAA briefing materials distributed yesterday note that the agency believes the National Climate Program Act of 1978 allows it to create a climate service, although "updated authorization that reflects the latest science and service approaches would ultimately be helpful."
The agency also released a lengthy list of testimonials supporting the climate service, including notes from President George W. Bush's NOAA administrator, the president and CEO of Duke Energy, the head of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.
The employee group had initially lobbied to create a climate service within the National Weather Service (E&ENews PM, May 5, 2009).
Meanwhile, as plans for the new climate service shape up, NOAA launched a new Web site yesterday, climate.gov, designed to provide access to a wide range of climate information, from links to federal reports to a "dashboard" that allows visitors to examine climatic conditions for any year between 1880 and 2009.