D. James Baker
Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Thank you for inviting me to speak to the forum today. It's a formidable task to try to develop a set of science and technology goals that can help across the board and be relevant to all the different areas of the country. One of the things that impressed me when I took my job in May of 1993 as head of NOAA was the existence of so many reports that laid out goals for the agency. The Academy, the Carnegie Commission, and others had done a very nice job of laying out a series of recommendations about what the new Administration should do, how it should do it, and how we should be organized. We've made some significant progress there, but not as much as we all would like.
The subtitle of this forum, "What Have We Learned in the Last 25 Years, and Where Do We Go from Here?" is particularly apt for NOAA which was formed in 1970. Bob White, who is here and just retired as president of the National Academy of Engineering, created NOAA from a few disparate agencies into a whole new organization. Not many people have had the opportunity to start from scratch and start a whole new agency. It is a tribute to Bob that NOAA has remained intact and become a powerful force for environmental stewardship for the United States.
Today, I'm going to talk about what NOAA is trying to do, how we are trying to follow through with goals and objectives, and how we measure our success. NOAA was formed in 1970, but I think one must look back a bit further to find the foundation for the things that we do. The year 1960 was very important because that was when we launched the first weather satellite. Weather satellites have been a key element for NOAA. Looking back to the 1950s, we have the development of other important elements: the transistor, and then in the 1960s, the development of integrated circuits. Microelectronics has been a key to developing
our current capabilities in computing, telecommunications, satellites, and all kinds of automatic and unattended instrumentation. I didn't realize when I started out as a post-doc in oceanography that I would spend considerable time using microelectronics to develop low-powered instruments for unattended long-term observations in the ocean. This new technology has allowed us to learn much more about nature.
As we look to the future, we're looking toward a world where this new information allows us to connect societal decisions and environmental decisions. We would like to see a world where economic growth is coupled with the sustainable use of natural resources. We recognize that these must go hand-in-hand if we want to provide an increasing standard of living for everyone in both the developing and the developed world. We all know that it's very important to have a healthy economy. At the same time, we know that a healthy economy depends on having a healthy environment. Probably the best contrary example of that link now is the situation in Russia, where there was an attempt to have massive development without worrying about the environment. And now they are paying the price.
In NOAA, our mission is to describe and forecast changes in the environment and to manage and conserve natural resources. Our goal is to make those measurements and then provide decision-makers with that information. We've had many important technical advances in the last 25 years, which have allowed us to do a much better job of forecasting and understanding the problems. Let me just give you a few examples. First, we are responsible for providing information on the natural changes in the atmosphere on short time scales, otherwise known as weather forecasting. This activity requires about half of NOAA's budget, if we include both weather forecasting and the cost of operating weather satellites. Short-term weather events can have huge impacts. About 85% of the presidentially declared disasters every year are weather related. Hurricanes, tornados, and flash floods are major issues. We see the economic impacts of these events through insurance companies, which are increasingly having to pay more because of the vulnerability of growing populations in regions where natural disaster are likely to occur.
The second major issue for us is to sustain marine fisheries. Marine fisheries are a major source of protein to the world today. And yet in the last couple of years we have seen the total fish catch in the world start to decline. We haven't seen this before. In past years, when particular fish species were depleted, we could always move to another species. But now we've seen the total fish catch start to decline. Even in the United States about half of our fisheries resources are currently overfished. So we have a real challenge if we are to maintain those fishery populations and have both a healthy fishery and a healthy fishery industry.
In terms of longer-term forecasts we have been very successful in the last few years in predicting El Niñ o, the tropical warming that occurs in the Pacific Ocean and has global impacts. The warming is associated with weakening of the
western Pacific trade winds and with global changes in the atmosphere. In the past few years, we have begun to understand the physics of what happens between the ocean and the atmosphere during an El Niñ o so that we can provide significantly improved forecasts. This is a new and exciting forecasting ability, which has been based on a better understanding of how the Earth system works.
We are also responsible for coastal zone management. In the United States today, we have a relatively slow-growing population, but it is migrating toward the coasts; about half of our population lives near the coast. It is important to ensure that as development occurs, states protect fishery habitats and maintain clean beaches. The Coastal Zone Management Act is a voluntary program between the federal government and the states. We set federal standards that must be incorporated in state plans. It has been a very successful activity.
NOAA is also responsible for all of the mapping and charting of the ocean bottom in U.S. coastal waters and for producing aeronautical charts for aviation. The Coast and Geodetic Survey, the oldest part of NOAA, was established in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson. We continue to maintain our mapping and charting activities, including all those brass plaques that you see around the country. We are now augmenting all those plaques with a satellite-referenced global positioning system. I just visited an office of the National Geodetic Survey in Long Beach last week. They demonstrated how they monitor the ground level as they pump oil from the ground. They try to compensate for the extraction of oil by pumping water into the ground, but there's never an exact balance. They monitor the change in reference to a small brass plaque on the end of a pier near San Pedro. But while the oil pumping changes the ground level locally, on a much larger scale the North Pacific tectonic plate is uplifting and moving north. And all of these changes are about the same order of magnitude. It's wonderful to hear these surveyors discuss the movement and uplift of the North Atlantic plate and the brass plaques and the transition to a satellite-based system. The science and technology come together very nicely.
Let me speak next about goals. There is an old Chinese saying: "Without a long-range plan one is in immediate danger." When I became administrator of NOAA, the first thing I was asked to do was to give a priority ranking to a list of about 150 budget items from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—and to do it in two days! We realized that we didn't have a good planning context and we decided to develop a agency-wide strategic plan. We put together a set of strategic planning teams to look across the agency at our different goals. Our strategic plan was developed and is now widely distributed, including on Internet. The NOAA home page shows our seven strategic planning themes: warnings and forecasts for the short-term; seasonal-to-interannual forecasts (El Niñ o); long-term global change (including ozone depletion and changes in climate, caused by increased radiative gasses); navigation and positioning; rebuilding fisheries; recovering protected species and fulfilling our responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act; and coastal
ecosystems health. We have a number of national capabilities that undergird these goals: weather satellites, our fleet of ships, environmental data centers, and high-speed computing and communications.
We found that it was a very valuable thing to have this set of seven strategic themes. From these themes we have developed objectives. And then from each of our objectives, we developed measures of performance. Without measures of performance, we really can't say how well we are doing in accomplishing our objectives 10, 15, or 25 years from now. This was a very important and new step. Performance measures allow the government to operate more like a business. We now have the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which provides the context for developing these measures of performance.
I'd like to discuss just three areas of our strategic plan in which we are trying to measure our success. We started with our seven themes and developed our budget based on these themes. As an aside, I might note that there was an initial reaction against this by those who were used to working with the budget based on line and program offices rather than on strategic planning themes. Others thought that this budget format made a lot of sense and that we should reorganize the whole agency around our strategic planning themes. Well, we haven't gone that far. But at least the strategic plan provides a good framework for focusing our activities.
Let me use short-term warnings and forecasts as the first of the three points that I wanted to make. On Palm Sunday in 1994, a tornado struck a church in Alabama and killed a number of people. This event reminded us of the difficulty of disseminating warnings. Tornados, like other explosive storms, are very hard to forecast. We have some new observing systems—Doppler radar systems—which are very good at giving initial indications, and we have already seen improvements in forecasting. Floods are another weather-related problem. The Mississippi River flood of 1993 caused extensive damage and dislocation. There is a major flood in some part of the country every week. We're doing a much better job of forecasting floods these days, but how do we quantify the improvements?
We've spent a lot of time developing specific measures of performance. We asked each of our strategic planning teams questions like, Given that we have a lead time of 15 minutes for a flash flood today, what do you think you can do in 10 years? What do you think you can do in two years, three years, or four years? Given our scientific knowledge and expected improvements from our observational and computer modeling systems, we think that we could improve the lead time for flash floods to 40 minutes in 10 years. For tornados, the average lead time today is 13 minutes. We think we can eventually provide 25-minute lead times. That would be good, since tornados can grow from nothing to full magnitude in about 30 minutes. We're also improving lead times for predicting severe storms, temperatures, and snowfalls, and for issuing aviation forecasts. These numbers give an indication of the incremental improvements that we think we
can deliver for the public and for policy-makers as they make decisions. Insurance companies are very interested in this as they develop their actuarial tables. They want to know how much better our forecasts can be.
Forecasting lead times are one type of measure. Another type of measure is climate extremes. A major question today is what will happen with the increase of radiatively important gases in the atmosphere. What changes in climate are likely? We have models that give indications, but the models are not yet fully accurate in representing the physical interactions. We do know that the trace gases are continuing to increase. We're studying the data to see what they tell us. NOAA has developed a climate extremes index, showing extremes in the United States of temperature, droughts, and rainfall. Have climate extremes changed? Since about 1976, there is no doubt that the atmospheric circulation strength over the Pacific and North America has changed. But the increase that we've seen over the last 15 to 20 years is really not sufficient for us to say that there has been a change in climate. The greenhouse climate response index is another measure of the state of the environment. It involves looking at temperature, rainfall in cold regions, drought in warm regions, and extreme rain. These are the parameters that would be expected to change with increasing greenhouse gases. We would expect this value to be up about 10%. And since 1976, it's been up about 12%. This points toward global warming, but it is not yet statistically large enough to reject the idea that we're simply seeing a stable climate.
My third and final example of measures relates to fish. Salmon are particularly interesting as an indicator for a total ecosystem. If the salmon are healthy, the whole ecosystem is healthy, because the salmon live in the ocean and in the fresh water. Dams are a particular problem, since they make it difficult for salmon to reach their spawning grounds. The United States has decided that it is beneficial to build dams on rivers to produce clean hydropower, but newly spawned salmon find it difficult to travel past the dams. They are either crushed by the turbines or eaten by other fish. In addition, their habitat is degraded because of agriculture and logging. So we have a real problem in trying to maintain a healthy salmon population. We also have problems in maintaining fish populations in general because of the conflict between the fishermen who would like to catch as much fish as they can, and the need to maintain healthy levels of stocks.
In measuring the health of fisheries we can try to assess fish stocks. Based on these assessments, we then develop models of management. How many fish can be taken from a particular stock in a sustainable way? Can we take 1% or 5% of the fish and still maintain healthy fish stocks? Knowing how much fish we can harvest is a key to building sustainable fisheries.
Fishery management plans are a key to sustaining healthy fisheries. Today we have a successful process for involving all fisheries stakeholders through the Regional Fishery Management Councils. The councils were established in 1972 under the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act. They bring together commercial fishermen, scientists, and representatives of regional, state,
and federal governments to develop fishery management plans. NOAA then implements these fishery management plans.
We need not only scientific data, but also economic and social data. We need to know about fishermen in the fishing communities, and how they interact. We are trying to reduce the amount of bycatch—nontarget species that are caught and discarded. Unfortunately, this bycatch is not a small fraction of the total amount of fish caught. In the Gulf of Mexico, about seven pounds of fish are caught for every pound of shrimp, but only the shrimp are harvested; the other fish are discarded. Bycatch is a real problem, and we are trying to reduce it.
Returning to the broader theme of strategic planning, in the process of developing an agency plan, we are working not only within NOAA but also with a wide range of constituents. We also work very closely with Congress. NOAA has always received strong bipartisan support and continues to receive good input from Congress and the public on its products and services. Almost everything we do touches most Americans—from forecasting the weather to managing fisheries to promoting safe navigation. The strategic plan has allowed us to show the Administration, Congress, and the public that we have examined our mission and established goals and priorities. In 1996, we were pleased to be one of the few agencies for which the President proposed a budget increase. Even with all of the financial constraints, I think there is an understanding that the things we do are important. We're faced with some real challenges, as are all federal agencies. We're faced with the challenges of downsizing and of living within the budget limits. Both the Administration and the Congress have agreed to balance the federal budget, so we must learn to operate in this mode. The strategic planning process with goals, objectives, and measures of performance is the best way that we can meet the challenges. One of the things that you can do during this conference is to look even more broadly at the science and technology activities that are important to this Nation. In the end this will help us all achieve our goals.