- Hurricane Katrina from space.
In a gloomy room below the streets of Capitol Hill, where cellphone signals get lost in the bedrock, scientists and policy makers have gathered to discuss the Future of the Planet. It's the 2011 Forum on Earth Observations, an annual meeting of the best and brightest minds involved in the climate-change debate. We're talking NOAA honchos, military generals, insurance wonks, NASA whizzes and Bill Nye the Science Guy. So, what's going on?
4:45: The U.S. needs to open a National Weather Service for the climate, says Sharon Hays, VP of Computer Sciences Corporation. It would be "some single point of information about the climate that decision-makers can take and use in all kinds of different ways." Hays also believes the country needs to develop a way to stimulate a climate-services industry, so that the burden of dealing with this isn't all on the government.
4:35: These aquarobots are also keeping an eye out for cholera outbreaks (!). Turns out the cholera bacteria can swim through the ocean by latching onto zooplankton, causing disease thousands of miles away from the starting point. The 'bots sense the cholera levels when they get near shore and warn their human operators about the danger.
4:15: Bill Vass, CEO of Liquid Robotics, lets it fly that a steely navy of self-powered robotic platform are patrolling the world's oceans. They can stay out at sea, alone, for up to 2 years while they do their lonely work, monitoring fisheries and oil and gas structures, checking the radiation levels off Japan’s coastline, searching for good windfarm locations. Oh, they also have an unspecified “national security” application.
3:45: "I’m a bit of a geek, OK?" says David Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. He then goes on to prove it by getting uber-excited about a U.S. Geological Survey project to measure how much carbon is absorbed by different landscape types, region by region through out the U.S. (It's called biological sequestration information, if you're curious.) That info should help the U.S. and private interests make better decisions on how to develop the land, he says.
Hayes says that the old thinking that "resources are limitless" and "as managers we can manage with a light hand" is no longer applicable in the 21st century. “In the Obama administration we’re taking steps to change that,” he says. Among the things the Interior Department is concerned about: storm surges with major storm events, the sea-level rise on the 35,000 miles of U.S. coast line, invasive weeds in the Southwest causing severe fire risk, pine beetles “chewing up our forests,” Hayes says. “Climate change is clearly impacting our resources.”
3:15: More Landsat love/climate-skeptic hate coming from Marty Spitzer, director of U.S. climate policy for the World Wildlife Fund.
He says his group is tracking 19 threatened ecosystems around earth and relies on the satellite data to do so, because these are isolated places that can't be accessed by foot. "To do the best kind of conservation work, to restore these places to their former glory, requires baseline [satellite] information about the conditions, extent of resources and changes over time,” he says.
Spitzer then goes off on skeptics, focusing on those who hold office. He says he's always approached issues with a thirst for knowledge, but the "truth of the matter is that a lot of people in positions of political power really don’t want to know more, and they try to make sure that other people don’t know more because it could really harm other people’s interests." That sentiment goes down well here, predictably.
2:57: USAID's Batten is P.O.ed at people who buttonhole her and point out that it snowed a lot last year. “The environmental community made a choice to use 'global warming' to describe this phenomenon….But there are all sorts of other impacts, including local extreme snow effects, that can be attributed to a change in climate.”
2:45: Other countries need to be better about sharing their climate data, says Fernando Echavarria, a foreign-service officer at the State Department who focuses on international scientific cooperation. He thinks the model worldwide should be based on Obama's space policy, which mandates that all agencies make their environmental data available internationally.
"This is very forward looking compared to where other governments are,” Echavarria says. The European Union is “not quite there,” and that "creates friction between us when we should be more synchronized.”
Echavarria says that 167 countries have logged onto the U.S.' Landsat satellite-image database. Check out the nifty tool there that lets you compare the same location over gaps of years.
2:27: These folks seem pretty happy with Obama's support of environmental monitoring programs. Says Kit Batten, climate-change coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development: “With this administration we’ve taken it to a new level...We’re no longer making climate change the purview of a few climate-change experts in the agency." All officials in the department are now expected to be up to date on the subject, she says, because USAID views reducing emissions and other mitigation efforts as "economic growth vehicles.”
Check out what USAID is doing to monitor climate change with its three SERVIR climate-change nodes in Kenya, Nepal and Panama.
UPDATE 1:30 p.m.: Bill Nye the Science Guy is killing it as moderator at lunch. Menu: Caesar-like salad; some sort of squab with polenta and wine sauce; coffee/chocolate cheesecake; a glass of bile toward climate skeptics.
"Climate change is intrinsically connected to the weather we’ve been having," Nye says, although admitting that it's hard mathematically to connect 2011's record tornado outbreak with global warming. But it's "not rocket surgery, he says. "When you have 7 billion humans trying to drive to work you have the ability to change the climate.... We’re headed for a change, a huge change.” (Related: Is climate change becoming the new abortion debate?)
The Science Guy (real name: William) considers the skeptics the major problem in the ongoing debate. "It is much easier to tear things apart thn build them.” Then he tells a story about trying to get his parents to quit smoking. Little Nye went to Al's Magic Shop in downtown D.C. to purchase "loads," small explosives that slip into cigarettes. “They’re like a Warner Brothers cartoon, the cigarette explodes and sort of peels back," he says. "It’s fantastic.”
The wayward scientist then inserted the loads into his parents’ cigarettes before they headed to the neighbors' place for dinner. All through the evening he could hear sharp reports as the cigs blew up in their faces. Result: No allowance for a year? Actually, "they quit," he says. Nye suggests the U.S. take a similar hard stance in psychologically conditioning people to think about climate change. Start early, he says, like in elementary school.
Says Nye: "This is it, man. This is our time. If we don’t get it in the next decade or two, things are going to change a little too much.... If we can get young people interested in climate change they can, dare I say it, save the world."