Investing in NOAA Ocean and Atmospheric Research

The Washington Post reported Friday that the Trump Administration is seeking huge cuts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 2018 budget, including eliminating the Sea Grant Program and shaving 26% from the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR).

My background is in studying the physics of the ocean, and my main area of research is coastal flood risk and mitigation.  Coming from a region that is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, NYC’s largest flood in at least 300-years, I have some expertise on the return on investment of government funding under NOAA-OAR.  This funding enables research that has directly helped guide societal decisions that save money and make communities safer from extreme weather.

Among other things, OAR funds to the Climate Program Office have supported my research for the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN), under the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments program.  This funding enables our consortium of about ten lead scientists at six research institutions to study present and future risk from flooding, hurricanes, heat waves, drought, and other natural hazards.

This funding, typically below a hundred thousand dollars per year at each institution, can have huge economic benefits.  What people probably won’t realize from the headlines is that NOAA’s “climate” research, under the department of Commerce, is about both weather and climate risk, conducted arm-in-arm with governments and other stakeholders, and has a main goal of providing economic benefits.

For example, I just published a paper that quantified present-day coastal flood risk for the New York City region, a region with an annual economic output of about 1.5 trillion dollars in commerce.  Hurricane Sandy disabled this commercial capital for days and changed some people’s lives for years, with total damages at New York City alone of about $20 billion.  Nobody was adequately prepared for Sandy’s record-setting flood, which was far higher than anything in the prior century.

In the years before Sandy, CCRUN scientists were warning what could occur and how preparations and protections should be made.  During Sandy, CCRUN scientists were on blogs, television, making forecasts, helping explain what could occur, and demonstrably saving lives.

After Sandy, decisions had to be made quickly on what to do to prevent such devastation from occurring again.  But while FEMA’s work suggested a flood like Sandy’s could happen again soon, with a 10% chance of occurring within a decade, other studies suggested it was a much less likely event, with less than a 1% chance or less.  My recent published research has shown that the reality is likely in between the two results, has helped to reduce the uncertainty, and is now improving the basis on which multi-billion-dollar flood protection decisions are being made – I have met with or discussed these results many times with city planners and the director of New York City’s $20 billion flood mitigation plan.

Looking beyond present-day risks from extreme weather, climate change causing the planet and ocean to warm, and sea level is rising and accelerating.  NOAA funding sensibly enables scientists to evaluate how flood risks are growing and evaluate potential adaptation options that will save money, such as wetlands, levees or storm surge barriers.

Risk assessment builds the understanding of probabilities of damaging hazards, which enables successful decision-making.  On the heels of three straight temperature record-breaking years (2014, 2015, 2016) and three straight record-breaking decades (1980s, 1990s, 2000s), many in the Trump Administration are conceding that the planet is warming.  A sensible risk management approach will avoid severe cuts to NOAA-OAR, and enable scientists to seek to better understand the problem and help stakeholders prepare for its potential impacts.

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