The new International Research Institute (IRI) for seasonal-to-interannual climate prediction will distribute climate predictions several months to a year in advance to a global network of agencies and policymakers. It offers farmers, fishermen, relief workers, transportation experts, water resource and utilities managers and other officials a chance to avoid or reduce the human and economic devastation caused by extreme weather.
The new institute combines the scientists and resources of two of the world's leading climate research centers -- Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. The IRI will have facilities on Scripps' campus in La Jolla, Calif., and in a new 30,000-square-foot climate research center to be built on Lamont-Doherty's campus in Palisades, N.Y. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will provide $18 million over three years in a cooperative agreement to establish the institute. The funds cover research and program expenses, but not construction costs.
"Our goal is to provide the public with the means to act upon our knowledge that next year's weather may be significantly different from this year's," said D. James Baker, administrator of NOAA and undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce. "For the first time in human history, we are on the threshold of getting advance warnings of potential climatic catastrophes -- and the chance to allay the devastation they bring."
"Armed with climate predictions, policymakers around the world and in the United States will have opportunities to curtail crop failures, famine, epidemics, storm and flood damage, ecological destruction and mass migrations," said Antonio Divino Moura, newly named director of the IRI. "They will be able to manage food, water and energy more efficiently -- sparing lives, saving millions of dollars in economic and relief aid, and averting political instabilities often caused by climate-related devastation."
Dr. Moura most recently has been director of meteorology at the Brazilian Institute for Space Research, where he has conducted research since 1970. He has been a member of numerous scientific steering groups that have designed and guided research programs for studying the tropical ocean and its interactions with global climate, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Joint Scientific Committee for the World Climate Research Program, and the Intergovernmental Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere (TOGA) Board. He also has been director general of the Meteorological Service of Brazil, science director for the Brazilian Meteorological Society and Brazil?s permanent representative to the World Meteorological Organization.
The idea for the new institute was prompted by advances in ocean observation systems and rapidly emerging capabilities in computer models that can reliably predict the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO is second only to the seasons themselves in driving worldwide weather patterns and has impacts on climate from the Far East, Australia and southern Africa to South America and the United States.
ENSO is a natural global climate cycle that occurs irregularly over several years. It shifts oceanic conditions in the tropical Pacific and dramatically rearranges global wind and rainfall patterns, taking expected rain from some regions and dropping it in others.
During the El Nino phase of the cycle, trade winds in the tropical Pacific Ocean slacken and reverse directions. A pool of very warm surface waters shifts from one end of the equatorial Pacific to the other, accompanied by a great center of tropical rainfall.
ENSO affects the onset and intensity of Indian and African monsoons; the frequency, severity and paths of storms in the Pacific; the location of anchovy, tuna, shrimp and other commercial fish populations; and the occurrence of regional droughts, forest fires, floods, mudslides, and hurricanes in many parts of the world. It creates conditions linked to the emergence and spread of diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever.
ENSO also shifts the jet stream across the continental U.S., which indirectly -- but still dramatically -- affects U.S. weather. The 1993 flooding in the Midwest, the destructive California rains in 1994-95 and even snowfall and temperatures during recent winters in the Northeast all have links to ENSO, said NOAA officials. Research at the institute will advance understanding of ENSO's more circuitous effects on the United States and should improve longer-range predictions in the U.S.
"Our models cannot predict that it is going to rain the day after Christmas next year, but they can predict whether it will rain more than usual next December," said Nicholas Graham, a climatologist at Scripps.
"We will not be able to say there will be a drought, but rather that there is a good probability of a drought occurring in a specific region in the world," said Mark Cane, a Lamont-Doherty scientist. "That scientific information, translated into timely governmental and institutional policies, can be enormously valuable to society."
As recently as 1982, the most intense El Nino of the century was not predicted and was not even recognized by scientists during its early stages. It caused thousands of deaths and more than $13 billion in damage worldwide.
But in 1986, Dr. Cane and Lamont-Doherty colleague Stephen Zebiak developed the first computer model that successfully predicted El Nino. It was based on physical laws that simulate the complex interactions between ocean and atmosphere in the tropical Pacific. Given current conditions, such as winds and sea surface temperatures, the model can predict future conditions.
About the same time, Dr. Graham and fellow Scripps scientist Tim Barnett developed a novel method that linked El Nino in the tropical Pacific to the global climate system -- a breakthrough that allowed them to use information about tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures to predict precipitation, temperatures and other climate conditions to other parts of the tropics and to extra-tropical regions of the earth.
"We recognized an enormous potential to benefit society by translating our scientific discoveries into practical social and economic strategies," Dr. Barnett said.
"Life depends on rainfall, and the ENSO cycle continually creates periods of excess or absence," Dr. Zebiak said. "But if people had a year's notice, they could adapt and lessen the impact of ENSO-related conditions."
In 1994, Dr. Cane and colleagues showed that information about El Nino can also predict corn harvests a year in advance and halfway around the globe in southern Africa, where the region's worst drought in a century affected nearly 100 million people in 1991-92. Expensive, large-scale relief efforts by local governments and the international community, including some $800 million by the U.S., were needed to avert widespread famine. The drought could have been predicted with a high degree of confidence using computer models, Dr. Cane said.
"The IRI's goals are not only to advance basic research in understanding and predicting short-term climate cycles," said J. Michael Hall, director of NOAA's Office of Global Programs, "but to produce information that can be expeditiously transferred and put into practice by farmers, water resource managers and myriad of other potential users who know little or nothing about meteorology."
Scientists at the institute will participate actively in developing a global climate observation system to collect and analyze atmospheric and oceanic data. Using these same data they will improve models to predict global ENSO and combine them with sophisticated atmospheric general circulation models to create global climate predictions.
The IRI will gather a diverse group of scientists -- climatologists, oceanographers, social scientists, economists, epidemiologists, agronomists, ecologists, hydrologists, foresters and others -- to translate climatological research into beneficial socio-economic strategies.
These strategies will be disseminated to a multinational network of regional research centers in areas vulnerable to ENSO-related changes. Local research centers will fine-tune global predictions to their particular areas and transmit back data from myriad regions in a continual effort to improve global models.
"The United States is leading an initiative to work with partner nations -- training foreign scientists and giving them access and tools to scientific knowledge that will help save lives and money," Dr. Hall said. The climate predictions will give local policymakers the necessary time and information to store or export grain; adjust fertilizers, planting schedules or crop types to avoid crop failures and improve yields; conserve water or divert rivers; adjust cattle herds to avoid overgrazing, alert fishing fleets; sandbag vulnerable hillsides; prepare health and emergency plans and otherwise implement policies to lessen the damage caused by climate fluctuations.
Following the 1982-83 El Nino, for example, the Peruvian agricultural production dropped markedly amid abundant rainfall. But forewarned of the 1986-87 El Nino, Peruvian farmers avoided crop losses by taking steps such as planting rice, which grows well with more water, instead of cotton, which does not.
In 1993, NOAA launched a pilot project to demonstrate the operating concepts for the IRI. Under the direction of Guillermo Berri, a climatologist from the University of Buenos Aires and the National Research Council of Argentina, the project has trained 76 climatologists and scientists in agriculture and water resources from around the world. They received training, mostly at Lamont, in the latest climate models and learned of their potential for practical applications. The scientists came from 26 countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Panama, Peru, South Africa, the U.S. Pacific Islands, Uruguay, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. They are expected to be trailblazers who will help launch regional research centers in their home countries and promote awareness of the value of climate prediction models. Supercomputers from Cray Research, the supercomputing subsidiary of Silicon Graphics, Inc., will play an integral role in the project. Scripps has received one of the first commercially available CRAY J916 supercomputers, which will be used in the simulation of climate and oceanic models. Silicon Graphics systems will also be used in manipulating and visualizing model-simulation data.