Climate and weather funding are more critical than ever

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Across the country, people are waking up daily to a new climate reality. Just in the past year, a dangerous heatwave obliterated records in the Pacific Northwest; a crippling drought continued to deepen in the West; wildfires ravaged the West Coast and blanketed large swaths of the country in dangerous smoke; and Hurricane Ida created a double disaster — first devastating the Gulf Coast and then, later, causing historic and deadly flash flooding in the Northeast. 

We have made significant advances in recent decades in our capacity to understand and predict climate and weather phenomena and their impacts to society. However, now is not the time to be complacent. We must continue to make substantial investments in Earth system science to advance our capability to better prepare for and respond to extreme weather and climate events.    

Congress is currently debating measures that would support continued advances in weather forecasting and climate science. The funding supported by lawmakers in the House and Senate include significant and necessary funding increases to the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other federal agencies to accelerate existing initiatives and make new investments in Earth system science. This proposed funding will help protect the American economy, safeguard our national security as well as and save lives and livelihoods. 

For example, Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana in late August — 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall — wreaked havoc in and around New Orleans before traveling northeast. When the storm passed, dozens of people had lost their lives along Ida’s path. The damage, still being tallied, could be as much as $95 billion according to some estimates.

Two months later, the impacts of Ida are still being felt acutely in New Orleans. Some residents of southern Louisiana still do not have access to electricity, drinking water or hardened shelter. This devastation occurred in a city whose population numbers never fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina: In 2020, the population of New Orleans was about 85 percent of what it was before Katrina.  

The notion of climate refugees is not restricted to some far-off land. Climate refugees, like those who left New Orleans and now the bayou and river parishes of southeast Louisiana, will become more common, and the populations most affected are often those with the fewest resources. Severe weather events, exacerbated by climate change, will only serve to deepen existing inequities. Investments in climate and weather research will enable more research into how climate change is supercharging storms like Ida, what the future impacts to society will be, and how we can increase resiliency of our most vulnerable communities.

Natural disasters fueled by climate change can also have far-reaching impacts. U.S. wildfires have caused massive damage and property loss in the West — but when these regional natural disasters take place, the entire nation suffers. For example, recent research finds that smoke from western wildfires harms more people in the East than the West, causing an increase in respiratory illness.

Beyond the environmental, societal and public health impacts of weather- and climate-related disasters, these events are incredibly expensive. In 2021, there have already been 18 weather or climate events with losses exceeding $1 billion in the United States. Improving weather forecasting plays a critical role in mitigating the damage from these events by helping first responders prepare for them ahead of time and move people to safety. 

Climate change is also accelerating geopolitical tensions in many regions of strategic interest to our nation, and increasingly destructive storms, rising seas and the melting Arctic could accelerate mass migrations or create competition for newly accessible natural resources. The United States also has an incredible opportunity to lead through soft power by remaining the world’s best at understanding climate science and weather prediction, as well as sharing that knowledge with allies to help them better prepare for natural disasters.  

The return on investment in weather prediction and climate science is substantial. The real-world applications of being able to accurately predict and understand our weather has the potential to save billions of dollars every year, and most importantly, keep Americans out of harm’s way. Without this capability, our decision-makers will not have a complete picture and most up-to-date data to act on — and the resulting consequences will have real world implications. Congress must step up to the plate and support robust funding for Earth system science. The investments we make today will pay sizable dividends.

Antonio J. Busalacchi is the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of 120 colleges and universities focused on research and training in the Earth system sciences.

Tags Antonio J. Busalacchi Climate change extreme weather flooding Fossil fuels Global warming heatwave hurricane Hurricane Katrina Ida

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